From everything that we’ve seen from Madison Bumgarner, it’s safe to say that he’s definitely better than he’s been in the previous two years. I won’t go so far as to say that He’s Back. I remember hearing Mike Krukow saying that Tim Lincecum was back every time he had a good start, and then his next time out he’d get rocked. But for Bumgarner, there are some clear, positive signs. His velocity is up. His pitch selection seems to be working for him.
He just hasn’t had the results. His ERA after 80 innings is 4.05 and that would be the worst mark of his career. FIP and SIERA both say he should be a bit better than this. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has been great. The previous two years, Bumgarner has been outperforming his peripherals, but it has been reversed this year. He’s been a bit unlucky. His 67.5 left on base would be 11th-lowest in baseball. We can expect Bumgarner to save some runs just by that normalizing over the rest of the season. But the big stain on Bumgarner’s year is the long ball.
After giving up two home runs in last night’s game, Bumgarner has given up 12 home runs in 80 innings. Bumgarner has a 1.35 home run per nine and a 15.0 HR/FB percentage. This year, he’s giving up four-tenths of a home run more per nine innings than in his career prior to this point, and more of his fly balls are leaving the yard. With how lively the ball has been, it’s hard to say whether or not this is his fault. Everyone is giving up more home runs because the ball is traveling farther. What we want to find out is whether Bumgarner’s troubles with the long ball is bad luck or bad pitching.
The first thing I looked at was Statcast’s simply named meatball percentage. That’s the percentage of pitches thrown middle-middle. Bumgarner’s meatball percentage this year is 8.0 percent which is just about normal. So, he’s not making a ton more mistakes than normal. Maybe one extra pitch per 200 pitches will be middle-middle. That’s hardly worth getting concerned over.
The next thing I looked at was if he was just getting away with fewer mistakes. Often, when we talk about a pitcher who does well aside from giving up a homer, we’ll say something like, “He made one mistake, and he paid for it,” but that’s not really true. That’s hyperbole. Even great pitchers make tons of mistakes in a start. They just get away with it, so we don’t notice them.
Looking at the location of pitches that hitters have taken deep, we’re not seeing that hitters have hit a disproportionate amount of mistakes over the fence. Most of the pitches that hitters have homered on have been up, but they’ve also been to one edge of the plate. On one of these, Yasiel Puig hit a home run on a pitch six inches off the inside part of the plate.
Bumgarner isn’t grooving the ball, but he might be missing his spots more than usual. If you go through and watch each of the home runs on Baseball Savant, you’ll see Buster Posey or Stephen Vogt set up on one side of the plate and Bumgarner will throw it to the other. Maybe his command has been less refined, but maybe his mistakes have also been the kind that he should get away with more often.
I wouldn’t expect Bumgarner’s ERA to remain over 4.00 for much longer. The problems with the long ball seem to be a bit of bad luck mixed with worse command, but if he keeps throwing strikes like he has and his left-on-base normalizes, his ERA will come down.