It is just a matter of time before Madison Bumgarner taps into his full potential. He has all the makings of an ace, but still has some bumps to smooth out before reaching that platform. Many pundits projected 2012 to be the year where the southpaw made his mark on baseball. For a solid fraction of the season, they were right. Then, well, the other fraction was bad enough to outweigh the better fraction.
It’s essentially a tale of two sides for Bumgarner.
Up until his final start of the all-star break, he had a 2.85 ERA entering his final outing of the first half and was heading into the all-star break riding high. Perhaps the lefty was even worthy of an all-star nomination.
With a solid outing, that might’ve been the case, but solid wouldn’t be an accurate description, as he proceeded to yield seven runs in the heat. Instead, he headed into the break with a surplus of questions regarding the second half. Still, a 3.27 ERA is nothing to pout about.
However, Bumgarner quickly forgot his outing in Washington. He pitched his best stretch of baseball immediately following the break. In eight consecutive starts, he compiled a 1.93 ERA, and brought his season ERA back below 3.00.
Everything was clicking for the young lefty. Heck, he even out dueled Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles in part of a two-game streak where he logged 17 innings and allowed just one run in the process. Not many pitchers can say that.
Then, he hit a brick wall. A massive brick wall, to be sure.
On August 25th against the Braves, Bumgarner surrendered four runs over 6.1 innings So maybe this was just the occasional little hiccup that he would bounce back from five days later. There was no way he could continue to sustain the pace he was steaming forward at. Eventually, Bumgarner was going to cool off.
Well, he cooled off alright. The Bumgarner everyone was used to seeing never bounced back until Game 2 of the World Series, as the lefty posted a 5.89 ERA over his final seven starts of the season, and struggled in an NLCS start too. Fatigue figured to play a role in his slump—his 123 pitch outing against Los Angeles— to pin-point a particular game.
Either way, he was far from reliable down the stretch. Having already clinched the West, though, San Francisco didn’t have any pressure to win over the final two weeks of the season. Therefore, Bumgarner’s performances didn’t impact their playoff status.
Now, however, the Giants will reflect and dissect Bumgarner’s late season woes heading into 2013. And what should become instantly obvious are a couple of things. First is the fact that he vaunts an exceptional slider. In fact, according to Fangraphs, his slider was one of the best sliders in baseball this past season. Yes, better than Matt Cain’s, CC Sabathia’s, and Yu Darvish’s. I would say that’s a good crop of names.
But see, a slider is basically all Bumgarner could turn to for an off-speed pitch. I wouldn’t even goes as far to deem his slider an off- speed pitch, as it’s just four miles per hour less than his regular fastball, which averages out at roughly 91 MPH. So, opposing hitters aren’t consistently seeing a change in speeds. That leads us right into the second observation—his minimal pitch repertoire.
Bumgarner’s slider is good and all, but he becomes less effective by overusing it, especially combined with a lack of speed differences. Until he develops another reliable pitch that’s he’s comfortable throwing, he will remain the same pitcher who totals a 3.30 ERA to a 3.60 ERA over 30-plus starts. That isn’t bad, per se, but Bumgarner would be wasting a boatload of potential.
Perhaps adding a curveball into his arsenal would do the trick. Well, throwing it a bit more than ten percent (2012 ratio) of the time, that is.
When Bumgarner did throw his curve in 2012, it was a very successful pitch for him. Maybe that’s due to the fact that opposing hitters didn’t expect him to throw it much. Clearly it isn’t a refined pitch, yet. Whatever the reason may be, opposing hitters did hit just .571 off the pitch this past season. So something has to give. Due to the low usage rate, though, Bumgarner didn’t get the most out of the pitch.
Maybe Cain could teach him a thing or two about developing an additional pitch.
Cain was once a two-pitch guy, heavily relying on a zipping fastball and slider to get the job done. His approach worked, as he hasn’t had a particularly bad year since breaking into the majors in 2005, and his slider is still deemed his best pitch. But like Bumgarner, he hadn’t tapped into to his full potential at that specific point in time. So what did he do? He developed a change up to combat his opposition.
Since Cain has began to throw the change up more and more, he’s become a complete pitcher. He doesn’t have to constantly rely on his fastball because he has three main pitches he turn to in order to produce outs.
Bumgarner, though, is still stuck on two pitches, throwing his slider and fastball roughly 82 percent of the time. That trend will have to change soon. His annual salary is scheduled to increase in 2014, and will steadily rise as the years go by. Meaning, the expectations will rise as well. I’d say that’s a fair exchange.
Bumgarner’s two pitch arsenal has propelled him threw his first few years in the majors in a nifty fashion. As teams start to pick up on his trend and habits, however, he will need to make some type of adjustment to continue to find success.