Madison Bumgarner: Elite Fastball Pitcher by Jeff Sullivan October 17, 2014 Not long ago, a prominent national baseball writer declared that Madison Bumgarner is the one pitcher you’d want starting a must-win game for your team in the playoffs. The statement’s certainly debatable, but at the same time the feeling is understandable — Bumgarner’s tough as nails, and he’s been on a hell of a run. He’s been on the radar for years, having spent plenty of time pitching in the postseason, and there’s something that comes to mind when you think about Bumgarner: his signature cutter. Or slider. Whichever. No matter the name, they describe the same weapon, and it’s something Bumgarner has thrown before almost 40% of the time. Madison Bumgarner? Awesome cutter. Yeah. The association’s automatic. Regarding that, I want to show you a table. You know our pitch values? You know our pitch values. Positive numbers are good. Bigger positive numbers are more good. Here are Bumgarner’s year-to-year pitch values, from his player page: Season Fastball Cutter Curve Changeup 2009 -0.8 1.5 0.0 0.3 2010 -5.8 -0.3 2.4 5.0 2011 2.2 17.7 -5.4 -2.3 2012 -0.2 16.0 -1.4 0.4 2013 13.6 15.1 2.1 3.6 2014 16.5 1.5 -6.0 -0.9 Based on that, a year ago, Bumgarner really improved his fastball. And this year, his cutter wasn’t much of a weapon. Let’s do more! Here are 2014 season splits: Split Fastball Cutter Curve Changeup 1st Half 0.1 0.5 -3.0 -1.2 2nd Half 16.4 1.0 -3.0 0.3 All that fastball value came in the second half. As a matter of fact, after the All-Star break, Madison Bumgarner’s fastball was the most valuable pitch in baseball. The cutter? It was fine, and it’s still fine, but it’s not what it has been. And Bumgarner doesn’t seem to mind. Despite the cutter association, the Madison Bumgarner we’ve been seeing for months is, more than anything else, an elite fastball pitcher. This is a story that’s a little bit jumbled, with a lot of different elements combining to lead us to the present day. It’s going to be helpful to re-read Eno’s Bumgarner breakdown from a couple weeks ago. Of note: in this season’s first half, Bumgarner allowed a .307 wOBA. His ERA was three and a half, and he was looking to make some adjustments. He made one immediately, and we might as well start there. Bumgarner shifted his position on the mound, to be more on the third-base side of the rubber. He explained to Eno that the idea was to get more inside against righties, and the effect, of course, is that Bumgarner wound up with a different release point. He’s also subsequently raised his arm angle a little bit, and in this screenshot from Thursday’s NLCS Game 5, you see Bumgarner’s fastball release, and a point approximating his old 2014 fastball release: Using information from Brooks Baseball, you can see what this has done to Bumgarner’s location. It didn’t happen immediately, but over time, Bumgarner started adjusting his strategy. He realized he could pitch to the sides differently, so to start with, here are his cutter locations against righties before and after the end of August: I’m realizing now I forgot to label these, but before, against righties, Bumgarner would commonly pitch to the inner half. He’s since shifted to different spots, and with more cutters ending up away, that goes along with Bumgarner also using his fastball differently against righties. The same kind of unlabeled .gif: Bumgarner’s fastball has stayed up, but over time he’s come more inside with it, instead of living up and away. With the shift on the mound, Bumgarner has been able to use his fastball inside more effectively against righties, and then that means he’s had a reverse of the old approach: instead of cutters in and fastballs away, he’s had fastballs in and cutters more away. Bumgarner’s inside fastball tails toward the zone. His cutter away hangs around the edge. So, all right, there’s still more. Bumgarner has moved on the mound, and he’s also used his fastball and his cutter differently. But his pitch mix, additionally, is dramatically different from his recent track record. Eno talked about this at the end of September, and the trend has continued into the playoffs. Bumgarner’s pitch frequencies, from 2012 on: It’s sudden, that change toward the end. Instead of almost evenly mixing fastballs and cutters, recent Bumgarner has been fastball-first. Out of all his starts since 2012, his eight starts with the highest fastball rates have all come since August 21. Through August 20 this year, Bumgarner threw 40% fastballs and 37% cutters. Since August 21, he’s checked in at 57% and 25%. Batters have slugged .247 against the fastball, and .487 against the cutter. On Thursday, Bumgarner threw exactly 57% fastballs, keeping up his recent pattern. And there’s one more thing. Bumgarner made an adjustment seemingly to improve his fastball. He’s pitched with his fastball with more confidence. And he’s also recently pitched with his fastball with more force. You might remember that, in the 2012 playoffs, Bumgarner was inconsistent and his velocity was down. This year’s been the opposite of the story. Here’s a comparison of fastball velocity trends: Month 2012 2014 August 92.4 92.9 September 91.4 93.1 October 90.4 93.8 In 2012, Bumgarner lost a tick in September, and he lost another in October. It might well have been fatigue. This year, he’s gained a tick since August, such that, between the Augusts, 2014 Bumgarner threw harder by half of one mile per hour. Between the Octobers, 2014 Bumgarner has thrown harder by three and a half miles per hour. On Thursday, Bumgarner’s fastball averaged 94. In the wild-card game against the Pirates, Bumgarner’s fastball also averaged 94. Those are his highest average fastball game velocities over the past three years. A few years ago in the playoffs, Bumgarner wore down, physically and presumably mechanically. This year he’s only gotten stronger, showing absolutely no signs of fatigue despite a career-high in regular-season innings. Maybe it’s adrenaline, or maybe it’s better preparation from having more experience. The important thing is that this October’s Bumgarner looks little like the 2012 October version. That is, in terms of velocity, and in terms of approach. Also, in terms of results: 2012 October Bumgarner allowed an .835 OPS. 2014 October Bumgarner has allowed a .444 OPS. 2012 Bumgarner showed signs of already wearing down in September. This past September, Bumgarner raised no such concerns. This is something Bumgarner told Eno in September: I’m big on doing whatever’s working at the time. What that implies is that Bumgarner’s style has bounced around, and he might change things up again soon if he senses there’s greater success to be had. But something about this recent pattern feels more significant, and less temporary: Bumgarner has dramatically shifted away from his cutter, more in favor of his fastball. His fastball’s been outstanding, he’s located it differently, and if anything it’s picking up steam. Thursday he threw his average fastball as hard as Danny Duffy. Madison Bumgarner’s got a good cutter, and he throws it a lot. He’s able to manipulate just how much it moves, and just how fast it comes off the fingers. But make no mistake about it — this version of Bumgarner we’re seeing is fastball-first, and he’s among the very best fastball pitchers in baseball. Sometimes, I suppose, you have to change to stay awesome. Not every awesome player could pull that off.