The Ace That Worked

There’s nothing more overrated in the postseason than an ace starting pitcher. Just ask the Dodgers. Or, if you feel like it, you could ask the Cardinals. Or the Nationals, or the Royals, kind of, or the Athletics. Or the Tigers. An ace starting pitcher is just one guy, one member of a way bigger team, and baseball’s about a lot more than the first guy on the mound. There’s nothing more underrated in the postseason than an ace starting pitcher. Just ask the team that just won the postseason.

The Giants didn’t win the World Series because of Madison Bumgarner, but to the extent that one player can be mostly responsible for a championship, Bumgarner’s way up there on the list. It isn’t just that he dominated; it’s that he dominated while throwing literally a third of all the Giants’ playoff innings. Bumgarner was No. 1 on the innings-pitched leaderboard, and he finished with more than No. 2 and No. 3 combined. He also allowed fewer playoff runs than the Pirates. The worst thing Bumgarner threw all month long was a ball that Wilson Ramos bunted. Over the course of October, Pablo Sandoval hit .366 and Hunter Pence had an .875 OPS, and people aren’t really talking about them, because Bumgarner’s almost the whole story.

He mastered the Royals, of course, in Game 1 of the Series. He was somehow even more effective in Game 5. And in Game 7, Bumgarner got to work in relief, but in a starter’s kind of relief, where Bumgarner wasn’t coming out until he got tired, and he didn’t admit to fatigue until a post-dogpile interview. After all of the conversation and hype, Bumgarner turned in an iconic five-inning appearance, an appearance that will overshadow all others, and it was an unusual appearance for Bumgarner in two ways. One, he came out of the bullpen. And two, he just didn’t let the Royals hit strikes. Bumgarner saved a season extreme for a season extreme.

I don’t know where to begin. I guess here: Bumgarner threw 68 pitches, and 50 for strikes. That’s a rate of 74%, and previously in the playoffs, he’d been at 70%. In the regular season, he came in at 68%. What’s implied is that Bumgarner came right after the Royals aggressively in relief, maybe not wanting to waste his bullets. From the sounds of things, Bumgarner was all over the strike zone.

And that’s totally true, except for the part where it’s a complete and utter lie. This is where things get really interesting. Let’s use the Brooks Baseball version of zone rate. Entering Wednesday, combining the regular season and the playoffs, Bumgarner threw 42% of his pitches in the zone. Out of the bullpen in Game 7, Bumgarner threw 29% of his pitches in the zone. That was, for him, a season low. So Bumgarner finished with one of his better strike rates while also finishing with one of his lower zone rates.

There was a generous call or two. I’m not saying Bumgarner didn’t get help. And hell, when Nori Aoki lined out in the fifth, we came worse positioning away from a tie game. But the main story of Bumgarner’s appearance was this: he didn’t throw strikes in the zone because the Royals didn’t make him. And he’s hard enough to hit when he throws strikes in the zone.

Bumgarner folded in the high fastball by the truckload. It was the iconic pitch of the iconic appearance, with high fastballs accounting for 43% of Bumgarner’s pitches. Previously in the playoffs, the rate was 22%. During the regular season, the rate was 23%. Bumgarner established a new career high for average fastball pitch height, and while that’s not exactly a sexy kind of sentence to read, it goes right along with what people who were watching would’ve observed. Bumgarner faced 17 batters. Of those plate appearances, 11 ended with an elevated fastball.

Screenshots of a few of ’em. Lorenzo Cain:


Alex Gordon:


Alcides Escobar:


Lorenzo Cain again:


Eric Hosmer’s torso:


And finally, conclusively, there was Bumgarner vs. Salvador Perez:


That’s not enough. This is enough:


Buster Posey set a high target, and he never deviated. Madison Bumgarner set a high target, and he never deviated. Salvador Perez didn’t intend to set a high target, but sometimes he can’t help himself, God bless him, and he at least laid off a couple of those. While he made an out, so did everybody else, and if Sergio Romo’s fastball was the pitch of the last Giants World Series, the one this time is Bumgarner’s fastball up. The last at-bat was a caricature of Bumgarner’s five innings, but then Bumgarner’s October performance was a caricature of an ace starting pitcher. He went silly as long as he needed to.

Cleverly, Bumgarner worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning with one fastball out of nine pitches. To some extent that probably set the remainder up. All he needed was the threat of the other stuff, and the fastball success could follow. There were high fastballs, then there was an interlude, then there were high fastballs again, dangerous again because of the possibility the pitches would be something else out of the hand. At this point I’m overthinking it. The baseball game’s over. There are no more baseball games. When the last game is finished, few people care for an analysis, but moving on from this game means moving on to no games, and I don’t feel ready for that.

Here’s something we know: against the Royals, Madison Bumgarner was absolutely fantastic. Here’s something else we know: if this had happened in June or July, people would say, justifiably, he was great, but then, Royals. Here’s something else we know: Bumgarner was also tremendous before the Royals, and he just wrapped up arguably the greatest postseason performance of all time. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to figure out whether this was truly No. 1 — there are too many variables, too many changing conditions. Bumgarner threw more playoff innings than anyone before, but the playoffs are also different than they were before, and I think it should be enough to say Bumgarner did something historic. It’s not important exactly how historic. What’s important is that what Bumgarner did won’t soon be forgotten. We’ll be talking about this month in 30 years, provided baseball isn’t dead by then.

I honestly don’t know how much to make of what Bumgarner did in particular in Game 7. I don’t know what we’re supposed to expect from pitchers pitching under those conditions. The usage had precedent. Josh Beckett did something similar in 2003. But at the same time it’s been extraordinarily rare, which wouldn’t be the case if this were some easy and natural thing. Bumgarner did something few people have done, something he’d never done, and it’s just such an emphatic way to wrap up his streak. Bumgarner didn’t need to be more dominant to have a postseason for the ages. But he deserved to throw the Giants’ final pitch, after having thrown so many of the previous ones.

During the playoffs, the Giants’ three other starters combined to allow 30 runs in 48.1 innings. Knowing only that, it would appear to require a miracle for that team to end up as the World Series champion. In reality it required something like that. The Giants’ miracle has a name and a Carolina accent.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Most of those high fastballs would not have been called strikes in my view. Baseball is all about adjustments, the Royals didn’t adjust and couldn’t lay off that pitch.

8 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlockertwo

Thanks captain obvious

8 years ago
Reply to  srpst23


8 years ago
Reply to  TheChaosPath

Kinda tough on ol’ Tim there, aintcha? This one is a lot more Reynoldsian; ol’ Tim more specialized in dressing up the irrelevant and arcane in analyzerish clothing.

Cole Hamels
8 years ago
Reply to  TheChaosPath

Derek Lowe could be a good baseball analyst, providing some color commentary as he was a pitcher and can provide some insight in the more abstract facets of the game. After all, he has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Duke.

Cole Hamels
8 years ago
Reply to  TheChaosPath

It is shame Derek Lowe now only talks about drugs and molecules.

8 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.