Three starts into his five year, $85 million contract with the Diamondbacks, Madison Bumgarner has looked... meh! While the results of the first two starts were okay (11 innings, 5 runs allowed), he got shelled by the Astros last Tuesday to the tune of 8 runs (7 earned) allowed.
Through three starts, Bumgarner’s fastball has averaged 87.9 MPH, down 3.5 MPH from his 91.4 MPH average in 2019. Not a single pitch has touched 90. The chart below shows Bumganer’s average fastball velocity for every game he has pitched in his career. The points in the bottom right are this year; notice that not a single start in his career is lower than these three dots.
Only two other starting pitchers have lost at least 3 MPH of velocity on their fastball this year: James Paxton (8 runs allowed in 4 innings pitched this year) and Martín Pérez (decent thus far!). If Bumgarner was a flamethrower it wouldn’t be as concerning, but his “heater” velocity ranks 155th out of 162 pitchers with over 100 pitches thrown this year. Each dot in the plot below is a pitcher’s average fastball velocity; Bumgarner is the large red dot.
The velocity drop is very real and not spectacular, but we already know that. Today, we will be investigating two questions:
- Is this velocity decline just a fluke, or is it here to stay?
- If Bumgarner remains an 88 MPH pitcher, will he be able to succeed?
To explore whether the velocity decline is a fluke, I took a look at the starting pitchers with the greatest declines in velocity from 2018 to the first two weeks of 2019. The table below shows the top 10 early season drops in velocity among starting pitchers, along with their average fastball velocity for the entirety of 2019.
|Top 10 Early Season Velocity Declines, 2019|
|Name||2018 Average Velocity||2019 Early Season Velocity||Decline||2019 Average Velocity|
|Data via Baseball Savant|
There’s a lot going on in this table, so I’ll walk you through my biggest takeaways:
- Bumgarner’s velocity drop is wild. Remember, he has lost 3.5 MPH off last year’s fastball; Chris Sale lost 4 ticks of velocity in the first two weeks of 2019, while the next highest is 2.3 MPH.
- You’re probably wondering what those NA’s mean. That means that they didn’t throw enough pitches in the entirety of 2019 to show up on the leaderboard. Anderson had season-ending knee surgery, while Stripling became a bullpen arm and was occasionally injured.
- We see a mixed bag in whether pitchers returned to their normal velocity. Robbie Ray and Charlie Morton remained low, Reynaldo Lopez got back to normal, while the other 5 pitchers ended up somewhere in between.
So, is Bumgarner destined to stay in the high 80s?
It’s hard to say! Bumgarner’s velocity drop is so extreme that we don’t really have any great comps for it. The closest is Chris Sale, but the two pitch in such different styles that it feels like comparing apples to oranges. Sale got back some velocity, hovering around 93-95 MPH for the rest of 2019, before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. My guess is that Bumgarner either:
- discovers some sort of injury (important note: the team has said there are absolutely no signs of something being physically wrong)
- gets most of his velocity back and ends up hovering around 90 MPH.
But, that’s really more of a gut feeling than anything else. Your guess is as good as mine.
As for whether or not Bumgarner can be effective with a slower fastball, the answer is yes, of course he can! The table below shows the ERA and FIP in 2019 of starting pitchers with a fastball velocity under 90 MPH:
|Starting Pitchers With Fastball Velocity <= 90 MPH, 2019 Results|
|Name||Average Fastball Velocity||ERA||FIP|
Not bad! Not fantastic either. What is the likelihood that Bumgarner ends up more like Greinke, Hendricks, or Keuchel instead of Chacin?
For starters, Bumgarner appears to be making an effort to spot his fastball up in the zone. A fascinating article from Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs found that an 88 MPH fastball thrown at the top of the zone has the same swing-and-miss rate (14%) as a 98 MPH fastball in the middle of the zone and is almost equally valuable in terms of results. Here is a chart showing Bumgarner’s fastball locations this season:
Bumgarner is regularly throwing his fastballs in the top half of the zone, but he has plenty of room to do so more frequently, and to throw higher. Also, ah, too many middle-middle 88 MPH fastballs. Conventional wisdom says to throw low and get the ground ball, but Bumgarner’s results (and Zimmerman’s research) show that he doesn’t really get hurt when he throws at the top of the zone. The first chart below shows all the hits that he has allowed so far this year; he’s gotten hurt more often when he misses in the middle, not when he hits the top of the zone.
To drive the point home, here is Bumgarner’s wOBA allowed by location on 4-seam fastballs from 2017-2019:
One more time: throw the fastball high, and do it frequently to mask a slow fastball.
Perhaps we should look to low velocity pitchers who have had consistent success to gain a blueprint for Bumgarner. One such pitcher is Zack Greinke. Zack Greinke is a unicorn. I don’t really see anyone being able to emulate him. (I could be completely incorrect, of course, and perhaps that is the path to success.)
The second example is the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks has posted an ERA under 3.50 every year since 2016 while throwing a fastball with an average velocity of 87 MPH. In Zimmerman’s aforementioned article, he cites Hendricks as a prime example of a pitcher who succeeds by keeping his fastball up and having a phenomenal secondary pitch. In Hendricks’s case, this is pitch is a changeup. For Bumgarner, these pitches will have to be his cutter and/or curveball. The curveball has been solid this year. He has spotted the pitch pretty well in the bottom corner of the zone, resulting in just one base hit in 58 pitches. There are a few hangers, but hitters are yet to capitalize:
As for the cutter... eh. Mistakes are bound to happen from time to time, but he is missing in the middle and upper third of the zone with this pitch far more than he did last season. The first chart below shows his cutter locations in 2019, while the second shows locations this season.
The change in location is dramatic. His cutter was in the upper third of the zone or higher 10.5% of the time in 2019; in 2020, he has gone upstairs 39.3% of the time. He spotted the pitch down-and-inside (from the right-handed batter point of view) 51% of the time in 2019; in 2020, the percentage drops to 28.8%.
It’s a mystery as to whether Bumgarner’s velocity is going to return. Hopefully it does! But perhaps he can succeed by just commanding his pitches better. Diamondbacks pitching coach Matt Herges seems to believe so. From Nick Piecoro’s article for The Arizona Republic:
In the past, Herges said Bumgarner had been able to locate his three primary pitches in all four quadrants of the strike zone seemingly at will.
“When he needs to make a pitch, he usually makes a pitch,” Herges said. “Lately, he’s making pitches, but it’s not to the degree that he’s used to. It’s not nine out of 10. It’s more like six or seven out of 10.”
If it feels like this article has been filled with “eh, maybe?” you’re onto something! Hopefully we get a few answers in a couple hours when Bumgarner takes on the Padres.
For further reading on Bumgarner’s velocity drop, Sarah Langs just wrote an excellent piece for MLB.com on Saturday, while Zach Buchanan’s piece for The Athletic and Nick Piecoro’s article for The Arizona Republic feature several insightful quotes from Bumgarner and pitching coach Matt Herges.