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Madison Bumgarner is adapting to his lost fastball

Madison Bumgarner is becoming a different pitcher, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

If you were just looking at an ERA leaderboard and saw the 2.68 ERA next to Madison Bumgarner’s name, you would say, “Yep, just another good season from ole Madbum.” But if you’ve been watching Bumgarner’s starts, you would notice that something seems different. Maybe even a little off. Even as he threw seven shutout innings against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night, it never felt like the guy blowing snotrockets on the mound was the same Bumgarner who carried the Giants through the 2014 postseason.

The fielding independent stats aren’t as convinced that Bumgarner is the same guy. His FIP is a full run higher at 3.80. DRA is less impressed at 4.23. xFIP and SIERA are even harsher at 4.34 and 4.50. Those aren’t bad numbers per se, but they’re the not the sort you’d expect from Madison Bumgarner: Staff Ace, World Series Hero, Breaker of Chains, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr’akkas, Rider of Horses.

There are a couple obvious red flags with Bumgarner’s performance over the last two years: the increased walks and the declining velocity. These have been well documented, and just looking at the radar gun you would likely notice that he’s not hitting 93-94 like he used to. Looking at a velocity chart, it becomes even more apparent.

For the last two years, Bumgarner’s fastball hasn’t been an effective pitch for him. Going by Fangraphs’ pitch values which assigns a positive or negative run value to a pitch based on whether it’s been effective or ineffective at preventing runs. 2017 and 2018 are the only years his fastball has had a negative value since 2010. In 2018, his fastball has been worth -8 runs. In 2017, it was worth -2.5 runs. But through 2013-2016, it averaged 13.8 runs.

Bumgarner’s loss of velocity has manifested itself in a myriad of ways. Hitters are hitting it harder and they’re missing it less. He’s throwing it to roughly the same areas in the strike zone (top of the zone and away to lefties, on the hands and away to righties), but that little extra mmph is missing.

Madison Bumgarner’s Fastball

Year Velocity Avg Slugging Whiff% Zone% O-Swing% Contact%
Year Velocity Avg Slugging Whiff% Zone% O-Swing% Contact%
2018 90.9 .315 .583 4.0 54.0 20.9 90.1
Career 92.2 .249 .420 8.5 54.9 26.5 81.7

True, Bumgarner doesn’t look like the same guy, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bumgarner’s natural delivery and pitch variety means that he doesn’t have just one route to success. He can become a different pitcher without that being a euphemism for “He sucks now.”

The good news is that Bumgarner’s other pitches have still been effective according to pitch values. His plate discipline stats on the whole haven’t moved much. Bumgarner is good enough that he can get away without the fastball, hence the sub-3.00 ERA. Bumgarner likely recognizes that his fastball hasn’t been there and so he’s throwing his other pitches more often.

The thing that jumps out is the increase in curveballs. He’s throwing a greater percentage of curves and they’re mostly coming in two strike counts or when he’s ahead. While it’s not getting as many whiffs as before, it’s still an above-average swing-and-miss pitch for him. By pitch value, his curve has been the most effective it’s ever been. It’s been worth 2.42 runs per 100 bendy boys that he’s thrown. The most it had ever been was 1.72.

This might be sample size noise, but it’s something to monitor as Bumgarner *sniffs* approaches free agency. Bumgarner deserves a full Zito, but he might have to settle for a Samardzija if the curve doesn’t carry him back to being unimpeachably great.

Recently, Bumgarner has experimented with his slow curve or his eephus, whatever you want to call it. He’s thrown seven of them in 2018 according to Brooks Baseball, but that’s six more than he threw in 2017 and 2016. It’s hard to say whether it’s worked (again, he’s only thrown seven of them), but it’s at least an indication that he’s willing to experiment and approach hitters differently.

While the increased curves have helped him get through hitters, it could also be contributing to his increased walks. Bumgarner has never thrown his curve in the zone with any sort of regularity; his career zone percentage is just 34%. If Bumgarner is throwing a pitch he doesn’t throw for strikes more regularly, it figures he’ll issue more walks.

That’s not the only thing that’s contributing to the increased walks, but Bumgarner has relied on the fastball to get strikes. As he throws more offspeed and breaking pitches, he’ll need to find a way to reliably get ahead of hitters. Whether that’s the cutter or finding a way to use his fastball effectively, it’s an adjustment that would help him get through this transition.