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Madison Bumgarner will be fine, probably

In the first post of our new series, “McDeep Dive”, we take a look at the very small sample size of Bumgarner’s season.

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MLB: San Francisco Giants at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks the debut of “McDeep Dive”, our new series that will spotlight one Giants player every day for a week. We’ll move backwards and forwards through time, look at on the field stuff, off the field stuff, and see if we can learn something new about them. First up: Madison Bumgarner. Because, why not?

In his first 3 starts since returning from a broken pinky finger, Bumgarner has pitched 17.1 innings, walked 5, allowed 3 home runs, and struck out 9. His average fastball velocity hangs around 91 mph, which is where it’s been since returning from his shoulder injury last season. He’s looked... okay, for the most part, showing flashes of his dominant self but also a lot of inconsistency and labored pitches mixed in, too.

But he had only two rehab starts. That’s important to remember. A broken finger isn’t a sprained pitching shoulder, sure, but rehab is rehab, and getting back into game condition is no small thing. I mention this because once Bumgarner gets back to game shape, which should be very soon, by the way, he’ll be very close to the pitcher he’s been prior to 2017.

I say this because even though his cutter and fastball velocities have diminished, the historical record shows that he’s been slow to build arm strength over the course of the season. The disconnect seems to be that Bumgarner is such a big guy and always looks like he’s in game shape that when he’s not it’s easy conclude that something’s wrong. We’re not factoring in his delivery and we’re not factoring in probably a lot of other things, but the fact is: there’s nothing he’s done in just three starts to set off any alarm bells.

He had 4 rehab starts prior to his return following the dirt bike accident last season, and in the subsequent 3 major league starts, his fastball and cutter velocities increased every game.

The cutter has been enough of a concern in his comeback this season that Eno Sarris dedicated a large chunk of an article devoted to analyzing Bumgarner’s first two starts to the idea that it’s the key to his struggles. Since it’s on The Athletic, I’ll just quote this one bit from it:

Maybe it’s because of the movement, or maybe because he doesn’t have the harder cutter, but Bumgarner is not throwing the cutter in on the hands of righties.

Indeed, we see that’s exactly the case:

That cutter velocity is the lowest it’s been since early in Bumgarner’s career, but that seems to be as much about building up his game strength as it is about manipulating the pitch’s movement. It cuts more the slower he throws it, more like a slider. But there’s still almost 2 mph difference this season versus last season, and perhaps that does indicate a physical decline.

Or it doesn’t. He might feel great, but his body conditioning for 6+ innings isn’t quite there yet. 7 of the last 13 pitches he threw in the 6th and final inning of his start Saturday night (112 pitches total) were cutters, and averaged between 83-84 mph. He struggled to get them in on righties the entire night and it looks like he was still experimenting and practicing with the pitch at the end of the game.

I predict he’ll be the Madison Bumgarner of old three starts from now. In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with a just okay Bumgarner.