1. Madison Bumgarner started the Wild Card Game throwing fastballs. This isn’t so unusual, considering that the fastball is the pitch he throws most often, but it was the frequency that was stunning. In the first inning, he threw seven fastballs, all up. His first two sliders were to Curtis Granderson in the second, and those were the only ones he would throw until the fourth inning.
When you think of Bumgarner, you think of the slider-cutter hybrid, the Dr. Moreau abomination that explodes on the hands of right-handers and neutralizes the power of left-handers.
It wasn’t a pitch that he relied on in this particular elimination game. He threw just 13 of them, and he didn’t get a single whiff on any of them.
2. These fastballs were up in the strike zone. I was going to dive into this, but August Fagerstrom already did at FanGraphs, which allows me to be lazy and just link to that article. Go read that. The one player I was worried about was Yoenis Cespedes, who had the bat speed to spin on the slutter on the hands, even if Bumgarner got it where he wanted to.
The solution was to not throw that pitch, apparently.
3. Around the fourth inning, though, Bumgarner found the curveball. Found, rediscovered, deployed, whatever. His first one was to Jose Reyes, and it was a dud that bounced well in front of the target. He threw three to Asdrubal Cabrera, and two of them were balls. The first one was a hanger.
After five fastballs to Cespedes, though, Bumgarner threw a curve. A hanger, like the first one to Cabrera, could have been the end of the game. It was buried, though, and Cespedes barely held up. The next one was just a little higher, still way out of the strike zone. He couldn’t hold up that time.
4. The curveball became the pitch at that moment. It’s what he used to embarrass Noah Syndergaard after the Giants walked James Loney to get to him. It’s what allowed him to even the count on Reyes, and it’s what Curtis Granderson was thinking about when he took a fastball down the middle and swung through another one at that moment. It froze Eric Campbell in the eighth and allowed him to get ahead of Cabrera right after.
Here’s Bumgarner’s curveball usage since 2010, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
He threw it more often than every over the last few starts, and it was his best pitch in another postseason shutout.
5. Or maybe it was the fastball.
6. This wasn’t be the first time that Bumgarner lived up in the zone with his fastball. He did it in Game 1 of the 2014 World Series, and he did it in Game 5 and Game 7, too. When he’s thrown the fastball this year, it’s been up, usually.
The strategy to use it almost exclusively at first, then mix in the breaking stuff the second and third times through the order, though, was as obvious as it was jarring.
7. All of this scattered information brings us to the big question: Why is Madison Bumgarner so good in the postseason?
Buster Posey, for one. Not just his pitch framing, but his pitch calling. I’m not sure if Posey was planning on fastball/fastball/fastball in the first inning, or if he kept putting one finger down when he saw that Bumgarner was throwing 93. Either way, it was brilliant.
The people Posey is consulting with, for two. It’s not like he retreats to the Posey Cave and studies a dozen screens at once, all Mets games, trying to find a pattern.
Posey talked with people, smart people, Giants people whose names we wouldn’t recognize, about what the Mets did or didn’t do well.
8. Part of it is good fortune, of course. The first pitch Jay Bruce saw in the fifth was a curveball right down the middle. If he’s cheating, that’s a jackpot. The first pitch Cespedes saw in the fourth was a fastball that wasn’t up enough, and it came after an at-bat that made it clear the Giants were going to attack him up. It should have been the mistake he was looking for.
In each of Bumgarner’s postseason starts, he’s made at least a couple of mistakes. But so has every pitcher. in postseason history. So I guess we’re back at the beginning. Is it five parts skill, one part good fortune? Ten parts skill? All skill, in a way that baseball hasn’t seen before?
That last part seems unlikely, but so does Bumgarner in the first place.
9. It could be partly a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point. Bumgarner has a reputation as a video game boss, and everyone is looking for the blinking light on his chest that tells you when to fire. He has just enough different looks to mess up your timing, though.
How many times did it take you to beat Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out? A few. But the first few times, at least, he messed you up. Then you found the pattern, knew what to look for, and just squeaked through. Bumgarner in the postseason is like that.
Except all you get are those first few times.
10. He’s not always magic. The only game the Giants lost to the Nationals in 2014 was in a Bumgarner start. His start in Game 2 of the 2012 NLDS was torturous, and not in the cheeky, fun way. There’s a chance that his slutter will float over the plate six times in his next start, and they’ll get walloped all six times. Or that his feel for the curve will never quite be there, or that his fastball just doesn’t get high enough.
As of right now, though, here’s what we know: Madison Bumgarner over the last six years has been impossible to pick up, impossible to time, and impossible to predict. That’s been true for the Braves, Phillies, Rangers, Tigers, Pirates, Cardinals, Royals, and now Mets. Since allowing six runs to the Cardinals in Game 1 of the 2012 NLCS — a start that gave us Barry Zito, postseason hero — Bumgarner has allowed six runs in his last 68⅔ innings, spanning nine games. That’s an average of seven-and-a-half innings. One of those outings was in relief on two day’s rest.
And considering how much he’s using his curveball — and how much it’s improved — he might even be peaking.
There’s no reason to quantify it or explain right now. It’s been all peaks, no valleys, for the last nine appearances, and eventually there will be a hiccup. It didn’t happen on Wednesday, though. And after all that struggle, all that worrying about losing the division to the Dodgers, they’re opening on the road in the NLDS, just like the Dodgers.
Madison Bumgarner basically retook the division for the Giants in an abstract, glass-half-full sense. He did it with one start, another impossibly strong start. Maybe his most impressive start yet, considering it was a 0-0 game for the first eight innings in an elimination situation.
How does it happen? I don’t know. All I know is that it keeps happening. And it’s already made up a pile of the best sports memories that anyone could ever have. We’re so, so damned spoiled to watch this guy.