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Don’t forget about Bumgarner’s curveball

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He doesn’t use it often, but when he does, it’s very effective.

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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 4 of our look at Madison Bumgarner.

In a typical Madison Bumgarner start, he’ll pound the inside corner with his fastball and use his slutter to trick hitters away and break their bats or jam them. And then, about 14% of the time, he’ll spin a curveball over the outside corner or out of the strike zone down and in. We’re in awe of the slutter, but entertained by the curveball.

(source for this one:

For his career, it’s been his 4th-most valuable pitch thrown the 3rd-most out of all his pitch types, so, it’s not like this is an underrated pitch that we’ve all been missing. And it’s not the slow curveball he throws, but it’s a timing disruptor and a quality pitch overall.

The Padres have been 6th-worst this season against the curveball, too, so there’s a decent chance we’ll see Bumgarner mix in the pitch a bit more than he has since he’s returned. Those pitch rankings, by the way, are based on FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights, which attempts to measure a pitcher’s (or hitter’s) success using (or facing) a specific pitch.

As we’ve mentioned around here since his last start, Bumgarner’s velocity is down for all pitches, possibly due to decline but more likely because he’s still building up pitch strength and game stamina. He’s worked on getting more movement on that slutter by reduced velocity, and tonight seems like a good night to work the curveball some more to see if he can get different movement on the pitch to give hitters a different look.

Back in 2015, Ryan Romano wrote for Beyond the Box Score that Bumgarner’s next-level success in the regular season that year (following his historic playoff run in 2014) was attributable to a key switch in out pitch from the slutter to the curveball:

The curveball has become Bumgarner’s out pitch, replacing the cutter. Based on what Bumgarner’s achieved thus far — he’s on pace for his first-ever five-win season in both WARs — I’d deem this a worthwhile change.

Why would Bumgarner alter himself in the first place? The cutter had succeeded in the past, so messing with that could have put him at risk of falling behind. He would have shifted his approach only if he knew that the curveball could handle the heat. By several metrics, the pitch has always topped the cutter.

Rather than get lost in the woods here, allow me to pull back and point out that Madison Bumgarner might be an ornery dude on the mound, but he’s also a thinking pitcher. We learned that during his recovery he tested out pitch tracking technology to get a different look at his pitching:

Some team officials were surprised that Bumgarner, known for an old-school approach to reading a hitter’s swing during an at-bat, would want the machines set up. But he did look at the results after his bullpen session.

“I was trying it out. I was just curious about it, really,” Bumgarner said. “It tracks everything. Where the ball goes through the zone, release point, it gets your hand coming through in super slow motion. You can adjust if you need to. You’re not going to get a better look at (your pitches). It’s info to have, and that’s what I was curious about.”

He’s trying not to be predictable, but he’s also trying to master his skill set. His curveball is a good pitch. He knows it’s a good pitch. Tonight, the Padres just might find out how good it can be.