Madison Bumgarner Versus The League

Madison Bumgarner was only a dinked double away from a perfect game last night. A few aspects of his standout game reveal trends in his personal approach — and those trends match up fairly well with league trends. Even the major difference between Tuesday night’s start and his season reveals something about the way the league adjusts and adjusts again.

If you watched the game, you might have been impressed with Bumgarner’s dedication to the first pitch strike, staying within the zone, and throwing high heat. 24 of 28 first pitches were strikes. 80 of his 103 pitches (so close to a Maddux) were strikes. 72 of his 103 pitches were fastballs. And this is where his fastballs went:

chart (21)

The first is easy. We’ve known for a while that first-pitch strikes are on the rise. Though there is plenty of evidence that batters are being more selective and that their production on the first pitch hasn’t changed much, it’s a fact that we’re seeing more first pitch strikes than ever before.


This year, though, it looks like we might be facing a tipping point where batters are becoming too selective on the pitch. Seven of the 28 batters swung at first pitch strikes Tuesday night. The league has a 25.8% first pitch swing rate right now. A near perfect match, and it didn’t favor the hitters Tuesday night, just as it doesn’t seem to be favoring them in general this year.

While zone percentage is flat or even down from earlier this century, called strikes are on the rise around the league. The result is that walks are down across the league.


With a flat zone percentage himself (52.2% this year, 53% career), Bumgarner is showing the best walk rate of his career (5.1% this year, 6.0% career). He can partially thank the fact that his percentage of called strikes on pitches taken within the zone is at a career high (89%, career average 85%). Once again, by filling the zone and getting called strikes, Bumgarner played along with league tendencies Tuesday night.

The high fastballs, though. They bucked a few trends. For the most part, Bumgarner has mostly played along with league trends this year. His fastball usage is down — 40.4% this year, 45.7% career — and so is fastball usage around the league.


But not Tuesday night. Almost three of four pitches was a fastball, and high. Despite the efforts of Chris Young (and maybe Sean Doolittle), high fastballs are no more popular in the league this year than they were in 2007.

Bumgarner himself, though, has very recently begun throwing more fastballs (54% for August). And they’ve been high fastballs compared to his previous work. Check out the last month’s heat map for pitches to righties (left) compared to 2012’s heat map for pitches to righties (right).


No league-wide narrative works on the game level, but for the most part, Madison Bumgarner’s one hitter Tuesday night embodied many of the trends baseball is seeing. A great game full of first pitch strikes, first pitch takes, called strikes, and few walks fit what’s going on right now.

And even where Bumgarner strayed from his own tendencies, and from the league’s tendencies as a whole — when he threw all those high fastballs — he touched on a current issue in baseball. Perhaps now, with league-wide power at a twenty-year low, it makes sense to challenge the league’s low-ball hitters with fastballs high in the zone. Particularly a lineup missing Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Wilin Rosario and Corey Dickerson.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Jim S.
Jim S.

Nice analysis, Eno. You went from micro to macro very smoothly.