In Madison Bumgarner’s major-league debut, Kevin Kouzmanoff hit a home run off an 86-m.p.h. fastball. Bumgarner arrived at AT&T Park with a fastball that was more Barry Zito than David Price. He was fine, everyone insisted. Just a little tired. That was in September of 2009.
Then when Bumgarner showed up to camp the next spring, nothing had changed. The fastball was still way down. San Francisco panicked. Organic vegetable stands were flipped over. Prius dealerships burned. The left-handed prospect and ostensible fifth starter was surely going through arm problems. There was no other explanation.
Then his velocity returned mid-season, and steadily increased throughout the playoffs as he became one of the Giants’ postseason heroes. Ta-daaaa!
So when Bumgarner maintained his high velocity this spring training, Giants fans exhaled. He was going to be fine!
Whoops. Maybe velocity isn’t everything after all. Bumgarner has been shelled so far this season, giving up 15 earned runs in 17-1/3 innings, allowing 10 walks and 25 hits entering tonight's game. He’s struggling something fierce. What’s going wrong? Some theories:
- The extra innings in the postseason took something out of his arm
Maybe, but the effects aren’t showing up in his velocity; if the extra work harmed him somehow, it’s his control that's different. He’s over a third of the way to his 2010 walk total, and he’s a pitcher whose control at such a young age made him pretty special.
- His increased velocity comes at the cost of decreased movement
According to FanGraphs, Bumgarner’s velocity is up, but his fastball and slider aren’t moving as much. This could explain why he’s easier to hit.
- He’s fine until he runs into one bad inning every game
This one makes some sense. Here's the distribution of base runners he's allowed in each inning:
He’ll cruise, and then he’ll run into a nightmare inning. Maybe that’s just a fluke -- the distribution of the runners he's allowing isn’t spread out as you’d expect. Maybe, but it’s not exactly convincing any time you say, "Just take away all of his bad innings, and he’s really good!"
- We’re talking about 17 innings
Bingo. Weird things can happen in 17 innings. Errors to extend innings. Ten-pitch at-bats in which an off-balance hitter refuses to put a ball in play. A hard-to-hit pitch gets hit hard. Walks that are a result of being too fine rather than being Oliver Perez.
There could be something wrong with Bumgarner. But just as no one was ready to proclaim Albert Pujols finished because of his first 60 at-bats, it’s a little silly to proclaim any pitcher to be in trouble after 17 innings.
At least, that’s what the Giants hope. With Barry Zito hurt, sixth starter Ryan Vogelsong is already in the rotation . The next in line for a start might be Shane Loux, who has an unbelievably low minor-league strikeout rate. The Giants don’t have a tremendous amount of starting pitching depth -- less than most teams, even -- so they’ll give Bumgarner a long leash. And they’ll hope his problem is just that he’s running into small-sample goblins.
The next test comes tonight in Pittsburgh.