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The Great MadBum Velocity Freakout

bumgarner pitcherface

We just debuted “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. Here’s part 2 of our look at Madison Bumgarner.

On July 29, 2009, Kevin Goldstein, then of Baseball Prospectus, now of the World Champion Houston Astros front office commenced to freakout Giants fans everywhere with a single tweet.

As time dulls the memory, let’s set the stage a little. The 19-year old had posted one of the greatest minor league seasons in recent prospecting history with his incredible 2008 campaign in August, where he posted a 1.45 ERA over 141.2 IP, striking out 164 batters and walking just 21. Over the winter Bumgarner soared up prospect lists — he was the #9 prospect in all of baseball on Baseball America’s Top 100 that winter and #3 on Baseball Prospectus’ list. And as Bumgarner had breezed through the Sally throwing very little other than his fastball, reports dwelled at length on the virtues of that magical pitch:

“Fastball...electric...plus-plus velocity” Baseball Intellect.com, Dec. 9 2008

Not only is Madison Bumgarner the best southpaw pitching prospect in the minors since both Brian Matusz and David Price got called up to the majors, but Bumgarner could be the best prospect left in the minors...Fastball Velocity: 9.0/10” Bleacher Report, July 12, 2009

Indeed, just two months prior to his fateful tweet, Kevin Goldstein himself had had this to say about Bumgarner, the prospect:

Bumgarner is still just 19 years old, yet one scout who saw him over the weekend thinks that he could immediately hold his own in the big leagues. Considering where the Giants are right now, however, there’s really no need to bring him up, but it’s strange to think of a teenager who is almost wasting his time being in the minors.

In July of that year, Bumgarner was one of the most keenly anticipated prospects at the Future’s Game (he warmed up but never pitched thanks to an ill-timed and sudden rainstorm).

But then came his outing in Bowie, Maryland—the shortest and worst minor league start Bum ever had, though one of the most eventful. As it happened, I was at that game! If you clicked on the link above to the Fanpost on Kevin Goldstein’s tweet, you would have seen a pretty long description from me on the events of the game (which involved a mammoth HR, some purpose pitches from MadBum, a baseball brawl, and an ejection).

But for our purposes here today, let me just clip out one small part of that post:

Bumgarner threw very consistently 89-90 MPH. Only once on one gun did he hit 91. He had no swing throughs, threw relatively few breaking balls (about once per AB he’d throw I guess a slider, though a very slow one that functioned more as a change), and got hit hard. But the hit hard part was mostly command issues. He threw I guess a 2 seamer that bore in on RH, but tonight it was mostly boring over the middle of the plate.

I’m ready to say that his lowered K numbers this year are related to lowered velocity. Several of the scouts were talking about this, and three of them said that they’d recorded him last year working consistently in the 94-95 range.

Interestingly, the guy in front of me said he wasn’t that worried about it, because Bumgarner’s arm action was still good, his velocity was very easy, and “you could see there was a lot more in there.” He said it’s probably just a lot of innings on a young body, and once he matures physically and gets stronger it will come back. And generally, that a sudden loss of velocity isn’t as much a red flag on a 19 year old in AA as it would be on a mid 20 or 30 something year old in the majors.

Side note: apparently I don’t recognize a “sludder” when I see one!

But anyway, the important part of that post was the comments of one of the scouts sitting nearest me, who’s fundamental message was: don’t worry that much about it.

This calm suggestion was NOT happily endorsed by most Giants fans (yours truly included). or most prospecting fans. BP dropped Bumgarner all the way down to #21 on its BP 101 the following year, a fall that was driven almost entirely by the velocity drop, for which KG had numerous theories:

Other Possibilities: Dead arm, too much off-day throwing, and various other explanations were thrown out concerning Bumgarner’s issues, but nothing has explained this spring, as he’s rarely touching 90 mph.

Those spring velocities caused Grant Brisbee to write more than one post that focused on Bumgarner’s future. I think I can summarize those posts fairly succinctly using one of Grant’s own images:

Panic

Now to be fair, these posts were leavened with many rationale thoughts about what could be causing the velocity loss — what could be causing it that wasn’t panic inducing! He was 19, he’d thrown a lot of innings! 19 year olds get tired. He was still growing. Etc. Etc. All perfectly calm.

But behind the facade of rationality there always lurked the yawning terror of the dread culprit that bore no counterargument: Pitcher-itis! MadBum was a Pitcher, and Pitchers break.

Fear was palpable. Maybe, just maybe, a 5th starter outcome was still possible! Fanposts popped up wondering what Bumgarner was worth in trade, and questioning whether fans would prefer to keep Bumgarner or Jonathan Sanchez if one of the lefty prospects had to be moved in a deadline deal for a bat.

Of course, we know now how the story ended: with the 20 year old striding off a mound in Texas on Halloween night, having put the Giants within a game’s reach of their first ever championship. Bumgarner didn’t break (at least not then), and instead he got stronger and gradually regained a healthy portion of his fastball. More importantly, he added enough similar-looking repertoire around the pitch to be able to dominate opponents at his best.

Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he was throwing too many side sessions. Maybe he hadn’t quite developed the man strength to keep his cross-slinging mechanics together—and mechanical inconsistencies continued to be part of the MadBum story over the next few years. It turned out that my calm young scout was perfectly right: it was good arm action, there was more in there. In the end, it seems like the velocity readings and the K% was less important than the mere fact a 19 year old was posting a sub-2.00 ERA at the AA level, almost entirely based on the use of that sub-optimal fastball (a point that Baseball America’s long time Editor-in-Chief John Manual made on many podcast arguments at the time).

Anyway, that’s a quick look back at the Great MadBum Velocity Freakout. Thank god we’ll never have to worry about anything like that ever again!

Aw, crap!