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October 31, 2014

Raising Aces

Bum Deal

by Doug Thorburn

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Madison Bumgarner made quite a name for himself over the past 24 hours month of playoff dominance. His five innings of shutout baseball in Game Seven sealed his place in history, putting an exclamation point on one of the greatest postseason performances of all-time.

Bumgarner's final tally for the 2014 postseason included 52 2/3 innings of a 1.03 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 45-to-6 and just 36 base runners allowed. He permitted just two players to reach base while recording 15 outs in Game Seven, a total that exceeds the combined output of Games Six and Seven starters Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Bumgarner also further lowered his World Series-record ERA to 0.25 across 36 innings.

The extended stint on two days rest went beyond expectations, stretching to 68 pitches and 15 outs to clinch the trophy. His playoff innings-count set a new record for postseason longevity and brought his combined season total to an even 270 frames, a workload which raises concerns about the long-term cost of the Giants' quest for a third ring in five years.

There were also questions that were raised as to his potential effectiveness as the teams entered Game Seven. There are a number of things that could potentially throw Mad Bum off his rhythm in a relief role, from the abbreviated rest to the altered warm-up routine, the fatigue of the longest season of his career, or the stress associated with the most important throw day of his professional life. With live MLB games going into hibernation, let's kick off a long winter of analysis with a dive into Bumgarner's historic performance.

5th Inning

Bumgarner started behind the first three hitters that he faced, including 2-0 counts to Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. Omar Infante led off with a single and Escobar was just trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but the first couple of Bum offerings were far off the mark.

Escobar eventually got the bunt down, which was the first successful sacrifice by the buntastic Royals in this series. Bumgarner's pitch command was off-target for much of the inning, and there was an intriguing plate appearance by Lorenzo Cain with two outs and the runner on second. It started with a slutter that earned a strike call despite finishing far off the strike zone, followed by a series of elevated fastballs that each generated action from the anxious Cain.

By the time it was over, Cain was left to take the slow walk back to the dugout despite seeing five pitches that all missed the strike zone. Credit goes to both Bumgarner and Buster Posey in this case, as the Giants catcher was calling for high heat with a half-crouch behind the dish and Bum was keeping his four-seamer above the zone.

The rocky entries have been an issue for Bumgarner this season, as his walk rate, ERA, and opponent batting numbers were at their worst in the first inning of ball games. Throw in the altered conditions that surround his coming out of the 'pen, and one can understand the relative lack of command that was on display in the bottom of the fifth.

6th Inning

Bumgarner was getting a bit more comfortable in his second frame and his stuff was sharp, but his command of the arsenal was still a bit off-kilter. The southpaw had no trouble getting strikes but he wasn't quite hitting his spots, such as the fastball to Alex Gordon that caught too much plate despite Posey's setting up far outside the zone, a pitch which ended up in Gregor Blanco's glove to end the inning.

7th Inning

At this point, it was on. Bumgarner found his release point in his third inning of work, registering strikes on all nine of his pitches and nailing targets on the edges of the strike zone. His punch-out of Omar Infante involved a completely different approach than the Cain at-bat one inning prior as Bum put the fastball in his pocket and went with the secondaries on three consecutive pitches. Infante was finished by a deep-diving curve that had the movement to invoke the whiff on a hitter who wasn't fooled by the change of speed.

8th Inning

Bumgarner had set down nine consecutive Royals at this point in the game, and it looked like he was hitting his stride. The lefty had thrown 28 pitches thus far, sparking the question of how much was left in the tank and elevating the levels of Twitter snicker over the Giants' decision to let him complete the shutout in Game Five.

He started behind in the count against each of the next three batters, only to come back with a pair of strikes and jump ahead in every at bat. Posey continued to work the high fastball into his pitch-calling, a strategy that claimed Escobar as its next victim to lead off the inning.

9th Inning

All of the Game Five talk went out the window once the ninth inning started. The frame began with Bumgarner on the mound, an empty bullpen, a one-run lead, and his pitch count at 52. The meaty part of the order was coming up for the Royals, setting the stage with three outs to go and history to be made. Eric Hosmer started with a 2-0 advantage to start the inning, but once again Bumgarner was able to come back over the top to put a batter all in, only to finish him with a high fastball on the river.

Alex Gordon came to the plate with two outs, as the final barrier that stood between Bumgarner and history, and the drama dials were cranked up to 11 when the Royals’ left fielder lunged at a low cutter and raced around the bags as his soft liner skipped by Gregor Blanco. Gordon was 90 feet away from a tie ball game, and though Sal Perez worked a six-pitch at-bat, the KC backstop was eventually vanquished and Bumgarner's name was permanently etched into the history books.

Summary

Mad Bum showed no ill effects in his extended relief appearance, neither from the extended workload nor the short rest, and he was the same dominant force that steamrolled through the entire playoffs. His average velocity of 93.0 mph was off a tick from his October peak, but it was higher than the southpaw was throwing midseason and within spitting distance of his velo from Game Five. He also maintained his velocity for the full 68 pitches, which paired well with the strategy of going upstairs with the fastball to generate eight of his twelve whiffs on the evening.

Thorburn Report Card

Balance

70

Momentum

45

Torque

65

Posture

80

Repetition

70

Overall

A

Bumgarner had his usual A-grade motion working for him in Game Seven. The repetition was shaky for the first ten pitches or so, but he was a machine once he got settled in. I submitted the above TRC prior to the 2014 season, and his delivery from Game Seven was a near-perfect match for the preseason assessment; his repetition score might get dinged 5 points, but one look at his release-point data reveals his excellent consistency. His mechanics might appear unconventional, but his level of efficiency and consistency put him on the short list for best deliveries in the game. He takes an old school approach to his motion that sparks memories of a left-handed Walter Johnson, with a simple delivery that is well-balanced and which Bummer can repeat extremely well.

It has been said that Chris Sale is the closest thing that we have to a modern-day Randy Johnson, a comparison that is augmented by the lankiness that binds the two left-handers, but I posit that Bumgarner is also in the running for that comp. Sale lacks the elite balance of a Johnson or Bummer, and they all share low release points from the south side. In this sense, it's poetic justice that Bum's reign over the 2014 World Series would extend to the bullpen of Game Seven, running parallel to Randy's performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 Series, which culminated in his relief appearance to finish the final game.

The big question now is whether Bumgarner will prove to have the long-term stamina of Johnson, or whether his warrior-like heroics of 2014 will compromise future seasons. For his part, Bumgarner has all of the mechanical baselines to inspire optimism.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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