Bumgarner rebounds by going old school

May 16th, 2021

First three starts of 2021? 11.20 ERA.

Five starts since? 0.90 ERA.

The pitcher's response? “I’m glad to be pitching better.”

Makes sense. The D-backs are glad, too. seems to have figured out what was plaguing his performance since he signed with Arizona prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. After his most recent start on May 11, in which he threw seven scoreless innings against the Marlins at Chase Field, Stathead/Baseball Reference reported that Bumgarner became the first pitcher in MLB history with a sub-1.00 ERA, sub-0.47 WHIP and at least 30 strikeouts over a five-start span.

What in the world happened?

It may be as simple as, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Until the last month or so, Bumgarner certainly looked broken after leaving San Francisco, where he became a postseason legend. But his recent resurgence may be the result of simply decluttering his mind of spin rate, horizontal break and other metrics.

Two days before Bumgarner’s incredible run began, D-backs pitching coach Matt Herges said the 2014 World Series MVP needed to shift his focus back to executing pitches, rather than analytics.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Bum,” Herges said. “You’re Madison Bumgarner. You literally took a whole city on your shoulders and won a World Series. Like, this is who you are. And that’s really good. So, ultimately, it’s just reminding him who he is. … Sometimes we all need a reminder.”

Bumgarner’s turnaround is about as flip-of-the-switch as it gets -- over his first three starts, the average velocity on his cut fastball was 84.8 mph, and it’s been averaging 87.1 mph since. Virtually overnight, the same thing happened with his entire arsenal. His average four-seamer velocity has ticked up from 89.9 mph to 91.4 mph, and his average curveball velo has gone from 78.1 mph to 79.3 mph.

“Just in terms of how he works and his bullpen [sessions], we’re going back to … how do I say that … not that we’re ignoring analytics and TrackMan and things like that, but the premise is, he’s getting back to execution,” Herges said. “I think we got into the habit, a little bit, of pitch design, when I really don’t think that’s the issue. I think his pitches are his pitches. They’re no different than they’ve always been.”

With the increase in velocity has come an increase in the spin rate and movement of Bumgarner’s pitches, particularly his bread and butter, the cutter. Over his first three starts of 2021, the spin rate on the cutter was averaging 2,484 RPM. In the last five, it averaged 2,624.

The average horizontal break of his cutter, which moves away from left-handed hitters and buries in on the hands of righties, was 0.48 inches over the first three starts. Over the last five, it’s averaged 4.6 inches -- in other words, the break on his cutter has increased by a factor of nearly 10.

As shown below, this has enabled Bumgarner to locate his cutter better -- over his first three starts of the season, his location was spotty, but in the last five, it’s been concentrated away from lefties and in on righties.

All of this will do wonders in weakening the quality of contact against a pitcher. Over his first three starts, the expected batting average against Bumgarner’s cutter was .389. Since then, it’s .142.

“What I’m doing now kind of frees me up and I can definitely tell,” Bumgarner said after his last outing. “There’s a lot more conviction in my pitches, I know that for sure.”

Was worrying about spin rates suppressing Bumgarner’s spin rates? Was fretting over the break -- or lack thereof -- on his cutter just making things worse? Each pitcher is different with respect to absorbing data and implementing changes, and Bumgarner has always been a tinkerer with his mechanics. Perhaps it just spun out of control for him.

“Maybe someone will say, why haven’t you [focused more on executing your pitches] the whole time?” Herges said. “Well, there’s been a lot of that, but Madison is always looking to get better. … Right now, we’re going to put the analytics aside and focus on execution. We’ll handle the scouting reports, how your pitches are behaving -- but you, Bum, you’re gonna focus on executing your pitches.”

How long it’s taken Bumgarner to figure things out may well be because, unlike most pitchers, he hadn’t really experienced what Herges called “rock bottom” before now. But Bumgarner, who surely prompted some observers to wonder whether his best days were far behind him, looks much more like the pitcher the D-backs thought they signed in 2019.

“I went back to doing what was familiar,” he said. “ … It definitely feels different.”