There’s a very good chance that tonight’s matchup between the Phillies and Giants in San Francisco will result in one of the fastest games of the season. Both starters, Cliff Lee for Philadelphia and Madison Bumgarner for the Giants, rank among the top ten in baseball when it comes to the percentage of pitches that end up in the strike zone, which should help to ensure that all of us watching on the East Coast won’t have to stay up too late.
While Lee’s reputation as a dominant starter is well cemented, the just turned 22 year old Bumgarner and his success this season has been somewhat overshadowed by San Francisco’s starting rotation where the typically great Tim Lincecum, the typically very good Matt Cain and the surprisingly effective Ryan Vogelsong all reside. Throughout the year, we’ve heaped praise on another young left-handed pitcher in the National League West for maturity beyond his years, but Bumgarner is two years younger than Clayton Kerhsaw and pitching almost as well, with a lower FIP and better walk rate than the Los Angeles Dodgers ace.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bumgarner is the increased velocity he’s thrown with this year compared to last. While dramatic increases in velocity can sometimes be the effect of changes to the Pitch FX calibration at a home stadium, there’s no consistent pattern in the year to year variation to the velocity for the rest of the Giants staff.
The increased speed is most notable in Bumgarner’s slider which is being thrown more than two miles per hour faster this season on average. While it’s not quite coming in at video game speed, his 87 mph slider is still five miles per hour faster than average, making it the fastest in the National League outside of Chris Carpenter and Daniel Hudson.
But it’s not all about speed, Bumgarner’s control over his most used offspeed pitch (if you can call it that) is otherworldly. Throwing it for strikes 73% of the time has resulted in a lower whiff rate than average, but the young southpaw isn’t using his slider as a strikeout pitch as much as he’s placing it in places where batters make lousy contact with it, as the 22.3% foul ball rate will attest.
Try to put yourself in a right handed batter’s shoes as you attempt to make good contact on a pitch that’s bearing in on you low and inside at a velocity that some Major League pitchers have for their fastball.
As you might imagine, Bumgarner’s improved slider has resulted in a slight increase in his ground ball rate. Unfortunately for him, the rotting corpse of Miguel Tejada has been defending the space where right handed batters are most likely to push their contact toward for much of this season. As such. it’s not a coincidence that no other pitcher in baseball has a higher batting average for balls in play than Bumgarner.
This, in combination with having the fourth lowest strand rate in the Majors, has contributed to an ERA that even at 3.80 is much higher than it should be, as his 2.49 FIP and 3.16 xFIP will confirm.
It’s alarmingly easy to forget that Bumgarner, in his second full season in the league, is still so ridiculously young, and while we can still expect hiccups, like in his last start against Cincinnati, he’s managing to put together a season, that in spite of bad defense and poor luck, would make any veteran proud.
Here’s how the Giants’ rotation shapes up according to fWAR:
- Madison Bumgarner, 3.9
- Matt Cain, 3.7
- Tim Lincecum, 3.7
- Ryan Vogelsong, 1.5
- Jonathan Sanchez, 1.0