By now, my affections for the starting left-handed pitcher in San Francisco known as Madison Bumgarner are well-known. Put simply and with a minimum amount of exaltation, he pitches in a fashion that I admire.
Typically, he pounds the lower part of the zone early in the count to either get ahead or induce a ground ball. If the batter doesn’t ground out, Bumgarner will use his cutter low and inside or outside depending on the handedness of the batter or come up and in with his fastball.
His stuff isn’t particularly vicious in terms of velocity or movement. His fastball will normally sit around the low nineties, and his cutter comes in on average around 88 miles per hour. He also throws a sinking fastball, change up and curve ball from time to time, but not nearly as often as the other two pitches. What separates Bumgarner is his ability to locate.
Watching him perform is unlike watching almost any other pitcher in baseball, in that it’s just as interesting watching Buster Posey set up as it is Bumgarner’s delivery because his pitch reaches the exact position of his battery mate’s glove almost every time. The phenomenon is most reminiscent of vintage Cliff Lee.
Last night, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bumgarner pitched eight innings, allowing four hits and zero runs while striking out ten and walking none. He induced 15 swinging strikes, and looked rather brilliant doing so. So far this month, Bumgarner has faced 106 batters, and only 20 of them have gotten on base. His strike out to walk ratio over that time is an ungodly-for-a-starting-pitcher 10:1.
However, perhaps the best evidence of Bumgarner’s performance last night in a tight game was his success at nibbling. Typically, when we talk of pitchers nibbling, it’s a negative comment on their lack of confidence in throwing strikes, but what I believe we saw from Bumgarner last night was a sort of commanding nibble. Of the 28 batters that Bumgarner faced, nine times the pitcher got up to counts that had three balls, but of those nine counts with three balls, six were after already getting ahead with two strikes.
Even more impressive are the outcomes of the three ball counts, which all resulted in outs, including five strike outs, three ground outs and a line out. Bumgarner’s confidence with his command allowed him to use a set up pitch with two ball counts and generally avoid throwing hittable pitches in a game for which the majority of the time he spent protecting a one run lead.
This is perhaps best seen in one particular at bat in the sixth inning against Matt Kemp.
With two out, and Shane Victorino on first base, Kemp approached the plate. Bumgarner’s first pitch to the Dodgers center fielder seemed like a rare miss from the young southpaw, but if we look where Posey was setting up on the outside of the plate, it was anything but (remember the above image is from the catcher’s perspective and the below image is from the pitcher’s).
Bumgarner threw the first pitch away from the batter, and then proceeded to barrage Kemp with cutters inside.
The second pitch was swung at by Kemp, most likely as part of a hit and run, for which he missed, but Victorino advanced to second base. Then, Bumgarner threw the next one in an incredibly similar place, at which Kemp again swung and missed, this time without the built-in excuse that the hit and run provided before. Down 1-2, Kemp swung at the fourth pitch of the at bat, the closest to being in the strike zone, actually making contact this time, but fouling it off.
He then took an exaggerated version of the three previous pitches for ball two. Bumgarner went back to the same place again on 2-2, hoping that Kemp would chase, but instead the low and inside pitch allowed Victorino to swipe third base. So, at this point, there was a full count and a runner on third with two out and the Giants holding a slim lead.
With first base open, Bumgarner threw yet another pitch outside the strike zone, but not as exaggerated as the previous two pitches at which Kemp couldn’t hold himself back from swinging.
At 89.5 miles per hour, the cutter that Bumgarner threw for the seventh pitch came in faster than any of the other cutters of the at bat. It was located in an unhittable place, and it was nearly perfect. Watch as Posey slips inside on the batter just before Bumgarner delivers to make Kemp look absolutely foolish with his whiff.
In a close game with a runner on third base, Bumgarner struck out one of the best hitters in the game without throwing him a single pitch in the strike zone.
It’s doubtful that most pitchers would even risk a pitch that close to the dirt with a runner on third base, but Bumgarner embraced it, and with supreme confidence in his command, he even put a little bit of extra mustard on it, to boot. It was an incredibly gutsy pitch as part of an overall excellent and incredibly mature performance for a pitcher who just turned 23 years old at the beginning of August.
To close, here’s an arbitrary list of pitchers who are older than Bumgarner:
- Tyler Chatwood
- Randall Delgado
- Nathan Eovaldi
- Brad Hand
- Chris Archer
- Blake Beaven
- Danny Duffy
- Matt Moore
- Jarrod Parker
- Drew Pomeranz