San Francisco Giants: Is Madison Bumgarner Their Ace?


Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants new ace?

It’s an interesting question to ponder upon with Matt Cain struggling (6.59 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong struggling a bit less (5.68 ERA). Throw Tim Lincecum into that mix, and you have a hard puzzle to solve.

Lincecum has been a mystery since the beginning of last year. And at this point, the Giants have come to the realization that he is far from reclaiming his ace status and will continue to be a mystery every five days. Only the most steadfast Giants fans are stuck in the fascination that he will one day return to the 2008-09 Lincecum.

Apr 24, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning at AT

But for Cain and Vogelsong, specifically Cain, to be struggling, that’s a horse of a different of color. Now, Cain’s status as the Giants’ ace is suddenly in question, at least for the moment, and Vogelsong, who was the symbol of consistency, has lost that billing.

And in the meantime, Bumgarner is a 3-0 on the strength of a 1.87 ERA. With a run or two more runs of support, he could easily have a perfect 5-0 mark.

While the season isn’t even a month old, Bumgarner has had ace-type stuff so far in 2013. His K/9 ratio of 9.2, a career-high, can attest to that. But that’s the raw number. For Bumgarner, it’s been a few minor adjustments to his mechanics, which he started working on in the playoffs last year, and the improvement of one particular pitch: The change-up.

According to Fangraphs, Bumgarner is throwing his change-up 12.7 percent of the time this year. To put that into perspective, if a pitcher has a really nasty pitch in his arsenal, he uses it at least 18 percent of the time given that it’s incredibly effective. Bumgarner’s change-up isn’t quite on the dominant level yet, but it’s a far cry more than the 7.8 percent usage rate he had with it last year. More importantly, he’s using it more with ensuing success. Per Fangraphs, opposing hitters are hitting at a clip of just .250 against it.

Below, look at the usage rate and opponents’ batting averages against Bumgarner’s change-up:

The key numbers in that graph to focus on are the usage percentages. Technically, Bumgarner’s change-up has been better in previous years, but a small sample size skews the overall number.

Adding a change-up wasn’t a necessary move of action for Bumgarner. His slider was valued as the best slider in baseball last year (Fangraphs). However, it was definitely a wise decision to add it into the mix because his slider and fastball are two pitches with similar velocity. In other words, he didn’t have a pitch to equalize his repertoire, which, over the long run, will haunt him.

Apr 24, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants fans applaud starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) as he is taken out of the game during the eighth inning at AT

Per Fangraphs, there was only a four mile per hour differential between Bumgarner’s fastball and oft-used slider. While fatigue and mechanical issues also contributed to Bumgarner’s 2012 late season woes–had a 5.89 ERA over final seven starts–a lack of changing speeds also caused him to run into problems. Since his quirky arm angle permits him from throwing an effective curveball, the conventional change-up was the viable alternative.

If there’s one area that Bumgarner can improve upon, it’s putting away a hitter after getting ahead in the count. Per Baseball-Reference, he’s sixth in the league in pitches per plate appearance (4.14), and he has the third-highest 0-2 count percentage (44 percent) in the National League. These two numbers can tell you one thing: He nibbles at hitters after getting ahead of them.

But since Bumgarner’s style doesn’t hinge on compiling strikeouts, he also gets the quick two-pitch outs, which keeps his pitch count down.

Is he San Francisco’s ace at this very moment in time? Well, it’s hard to argue his stats, for one. Then consider that Cain hasn’t been ace-like, and Bumgarner is the Giants’ ace. The cherry on top for him will be sustaining his early season production over 30-plus starts, unlike last year.