First, one must understand Madison Bumgarner’s repertoire. In 2014, he threw five distinct pitches: four-seam fastball, cut fastball, curve, changeup, slow curve. We can basically cross out the slow curve; he threw only 19 this year, including three in the playoffs. If Bumgarner beats you on a pitch he’s thrown once every 10 innings, you tip your cap, you head back to the dugout, you stare vacantly into space for three minutes. For everything else, we build a plan.
Start by looking at how his pitch usages have changed over the course of the season. By month:
As you see, his tendencies toward the changeup and cutter dropped near season's end. The changeup was already declining, but the cutter peaked in June before falling off dramatically; Bumgarner struggled through much of the summer without it. His four-seam fastball filled the vacancy; 55 percent, as seen in August through October, is the new normal. In October he has essentially been a three-pitch pitcher: fastball, curve and cutter account for 96 percent of pitches thrown this month.
That's the repertoire. Now, we break down at-bats into the granular so we know how to approach them. One note: We'll focus on data from August through his most recent start, for the reasons outlined above. I will note where the full data differs from the numbers in the playoffs only.
We can really simplify things. Regardless of your handedness, you’re either getting a fastball or a cutter on the first pitch. Okay, Bumgarner has thrown 4 percent first-pitch curves to lefties; righties have seen 8 percent first-pitch changeups and 6 percent first-pitch curves. But in the playoffs he has yet to throw a first-pitch curve to a right-handed hitter. My recommendation: Put those out of your mind. Look fastball.
The dominant pitch here is the four-seam fastball, especially to righties—they've seen that pitch 70 percent of the time in October. Lefties have a little more homework to do, as he’s mixed his four-seamer (56 percent) and his cutter (40 percent) at comparable portions.
For righties, the pitch will be inside. It’s just as likely to be up in the zone as it is down. Here’s the first-pitch zone chart for Bumgarner, with 60 percent of his four-seamers and cutters finishing in the nine zones from the heart of the plate to off the inside edge (outlined in black below). Now, during the postseason his four-seamer has come in at nearly 94 mph while his cutter sits around 88, a pretty significant difference. The one thing I can tell you is that if the pitch is up, it’s likely to be a four-seamer, while a pitch down is more likely to be a cutter. So look up and hard, and if it comes in slower than you expected, it’s probably a cutter darting toward the low-inside corner. If you’re doing the math at home, you’ll find that for righties there’s a 57 percent chance that the first pitch will be between 88 and 94 mph and in those nine zones.
For lefties, the effect is magnified. Those same nine zones make up 83 percent of the first-pitch four-seamers or cutters Bumgarner has thrown to lefties in the postseason, meaning there’s an 80 percent chance the first you see as a lefty will be between 88 and 94 mph and in those nine zones ranging from the heart of the plate to off the outside corner. The same rule applies here: The higher the pitch, the more likely it is to be a four-seamer. My advice: Look for a high fastball, and adjust down to the cutter if the pitch comes in slower than you expect. Below is the first-pitch zone chart for lefties, with the nine zones again outlined in black:
So you took that first pitch rather than going up hacking. Understandable. It was probably a strike, because Bumgarner is among the best in baseball at throwing first-pitch strikes. That means you're quickly behind, looking for an advantage to turn the count around.
When ahead of the batter, Bumgarner goes back to being a three-pitch pitcher, with his curve making frequent appearances against both lefties and righties. Some 24 percent of the pitches a lefty will see when Bumgarner is ahead in the count will be curves*, with the other 76 percent being either four-seamers or cutters. About 20 percent of these pitches will be curves to righties*, though he does mix in the occasional change (4 percent), making it an even 76 percent fastballs to righties as well. Regardless of whether you're right-handed or not, about two-thirds of the fastballs will be four-seamers, and cutters will make up the final third—about 25 percent of pitches thrown.
As a right-handed hitter, you can look for a couple things. Bumgarner will either bury his curve in the dirt or try to backdoor you. If you get a curveball when behind, you have two things to look for. If the pitch seems to be in the zone, it’s probably a ball; if you're good enough to have identified it, let it drop out of the zone. If it looks like it’s outside, it’ll probably break back over for a backdoor strike. This is a chance to attack. Keep in mind though that only 20 percent of pitches in this situation will be a curveball, and only 35 percent of the curves Bumgarner throws to righties will be strikes. That means there’s roughly a 7 percent chance that you’ll get a hanging curve to hit:
The better bet is that you’ll get a four-seam fastball or a cutter, which makes life more difficult. As you can see below, the zone profile on those two pitches is pretty much all over the map. The one encouraging note: Less than 40 percent of the fastballs he has thrown since August in 0-1 counts have been strikes. Your best bet might be to hold off unless a pitch is definitely in the strike zone:
Left-handed batters have it a bit easier. Generally, Bumgarner follows the same approach for lefties as he does for righties with his curveball. He’ll either attempt to backdoor it (resulting in some hangers) or bury it down and out of the zone away. The recommendation here is to take if you see the big breaker coming after you’ve fallen behind.
As for the hard stuff, there’s a pretty simple rule in this situation. If you’re left-handed, Bumgarner will be working you away with the fastball and cutter. We expect that roughly 76 percent of his pitches in this situation will be fastballs of one sort or another. We also deduce, based on the chart below, that roughly two-thirds of these fastballs will be in the 10 zones that make up the outside portion of the zone for lefties:
That means there’s a 51 percent chance that you’ll see a fastball, again between 88 and 94 mph, somewhere on the outside of the zone. For what it’s worth, there’s only a 21 percent or so chance it’ll be a strike, so be prepared to lay off. Though, of course, falling down 0-2 might doom you.
Congratulations! You're in a favorable hitter’s count against Madison Bumgarner. This is most excellent news. Luckily for you, Bumgarner’s approach is very similar here to what it was on the first pitch of the at-bat. Roughly 92 percent of his pitches will be one of his two fastballs, with a bit more than 60 percent of them being four-seamers and a bit more than 30 percent cutters. This is true regardless of the batter’s handedness, so lefties and righties can prepare together for this type of count.
The one thing I can tell you is that this pitch will probably be a strike. Against right-handed hitters, 61 percent of the fastballs Bumgarner has thrown since August have been strikes. For lefties that percentage drops 10 percentage points to 53 percent, though that’s a much smaller sample size (just 43 pitches since August 1st).
What all this means is that if you’re a righty stepping into the box while ahead in the count against Bumgarner, there’s a 56 percent chance you’ll see a fastball that’s a strike. If you want that broken down further, there’s a 37 percent chance it’s a roughly 94 mph four-seamer and a 19 percent chance it’s an 88 mph cutter for a strike. Lefties can expect a four-seamer for a strike about 32 percent of the time, a cutter for a strike 16 percent of the time, adding up to a 48 percent chance it's something in the range of 88 to 94 and in the zone.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be looking to take some hacks here…
I won’t spend much time on even counts. The easiest way to think about batting against Bumgarner in an even count is that when it comes to four-seam usage, it’s halfway between being ahead and being behind. Against righties for example, Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball usage in even counts is 56 percent, just a few percentage points ahead of his usage when he’s ahead in the count (51 percent) and a few below his usage when he’s behind in the count (59 percent).
For righties this generally holds true for the other pitches as well, as his curve and changeup usage both fall between the usage rates when Bumgarner is ahead or behind. As for the cutter, it comes in at 25 percent, exactly matching the usage when Bumgarner has the advantage in the count.
Against lefties, same. The most interesting nuance here is that Bumgarner throws 34 percent cutters in even counts, more than in any situation other than first pitches. As a result, there’s a 10 percentage point difference in overall fastball usage when he's facing lefties vs. righties. Some 91 percent of his pitches against lefties will be hard, though you'll still be guessing between four-seam and cutter.
Interestingly, there’s a pretty even distribution of pitches in the strike zone regardless of handedness, as both righties and lefties see a cluster of fastballs in the top right and bottom left corners of the zone. To illustrate that point, I’ve included a chart showing the zone profile for fastballs from Bumgarner in 1-1 counts:
It’s worth noting that 45 percent of the pitches shown above are in the strike zone, meaning that there’s roughly a 38 percent chance that the pitch you see in an even count will be a fastball in the zone. This one is pretty much a toss-up, and my recommendation for your approach reflects that. I’d be looking for a fastball that’s center-cut in the zone. If the pitch is outside my comfort zone, I’m taking it, hoping that it misses off the edge for a ball. After all, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance it will be.
This is where the fun starts, as this situation shows Bumgarner's most varied pitch usage against hitters from either side of the plate. Right-handed batters can expect a roughly 50/25/25 breakdown of four-seamers, cutters, and curves, respectively. He will occasionally throw a changeup, but the likelihood is down to around 1 percent, so hardly worth noting going into an at-bat. More noteworthy: He has traded some four-seamers and cutters for curves in the postseason, tweaking those percentages to 48-16-36.
Left-handed hitters can expect something similar, with a 48/28/25 percent breakdown of those three pitches with two strikes. He has traded a few four-seamers for curves in the postseason, but not enough to change our expectations.
I will give hitters from both sides of the plate some good news. If you can spot it, you can pretty much ignore the curveball here. Why? Well, the zone profile chart looks something like this:
There’s one minor caveat: Those curves out of the zone to the right came entirely from plate appearances against right-handed hitters, which could mean that Bumgarner is trying to backdoor that curve with two strikes. Don’t give up on the curve completely, but don't be tempted to swing at one down in the zone. He might be able to catch the bottom of the zone–tip cap, stare vacantly into space–but the more likely result is he'll bury it. You'll look like a fool if you swing. You'll look like this:
No, the common refrain here is that it’s all about the fastball. And don’t worry, Bumgarner will get plenty of strikeouts on the fastball, as you can see here. Now, two-strike counts are where Bumgarner throws fastballs least often, but when he does he throws to a fairly consistent location. Below are the zone profiles for his two fastballs, for lefties (on the left of course) and righties. Click to make bigger:
If you’re a lefty, look to the outside portion of the zone for any fastballs Bumgarner might throw. The lower the pitch, the more likely it’s going to be the 88-mph cutting model.
On the right-handed hitting side of things, the majority of pitches will be up in the zone, especially on the outside portion of the plate. Just 37 percent of these fastballs are in the strike zone, which makes sense, as Bumgarner tries to get opposing hitters to expand the zone. In fact, more than a third of the fastballs Bumgarner will throw here are out of the zone up, with the vast majority being up and away, as you can clearly see above.
If you’re not careful, these fastballs will make you look silly:
Bumgarner isn’t bashful throwing his fastball in any count, and that’s what you’ll need to beat if you want to win. Knowing when it’s coming and where it’s going is half the battle for opposing hitters. That’s the half that we can help with. Squaring the pitch up, even when you know it’s coming—that’s a whole different challenge altogether.
*Includes traditional curves and slow curves, which make up no more than 3 percent of pitches in any given count.
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