Something appears to have happened to Madison Bumgarner. Specifically, his four-seam fastball has gone missing. Depending on which data source you use, it figuratively and literally disappeared. Regardless of data source used, Bumgarner’s fastball isn’t performing.
Two leading data sources disagree on what has happened to Bumgarner’s fastball. Because of this, I chose to look at both sources independently: Pitch Info (through Brooks Baseball) and Statcast (through Baseball Savant). This analysis spans four seasons, 2015 through 2018, encompassing Bumgarner’s two best and two worst complete seasons.
According to Pitch Info, Bumgarner threw four-seamers in 2018 at a career-low frequency — 34.5% of the time in 2018, down from 48.2% in 2016 and 49.6% in 2015. It has been losing effectiveness since its peak in 2014. Using Pitch Info’s runs above average metric, we see Bumgarner’s four-seamer peaked in quality at 1.25 runs above average per 100 pitches in 2014 and has dropped each year since then: 0.97 in 2015, 0.39 in 2016, -0.35 in 2017, and -1.14 in 2018, a career low.
As seen in the Pitch Info Whiff Percentage charts above, Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball had its lowest whiff rate of our period of study in 2018 (seen on the left), likely leading to it’s ineffectiveness. Similarly, Bumgarner’s four-seam is measured to have had more vertical sink, independent of gravity, than it had throughout this period (seen on the right). Depending on the pitch, more movement generally increases whiff rates. A four-seam fastball moving more like a two-seamer, however, would lose swing-throughs: sinkers (two-seamers) generate more contact in the form of ground balls.
Bumgarner produced his highest ground-ball rate with his fastball since 2013 while also generating the fewest whiffs with his fastball of his career. Couple the results with the change (increased vertical movement), and it appears his fastball began to behave like a two-seam fastball.
This seems to be clear already. According to Statcast, Bumgarner threw his four-seam fastball only once in 2018, as compared to 38.6% of the time in 2016 and 41.1% of the time in 2015. He replaced them mainly with two-seam fastballs, but also with some curveballs and changeups.
When comparing Statcast to Pitch Info, I wondered if Statcast could have been misclassifying four-seam fastballs as two-seamers. Through looking at the above plots, however, it’s clear a cluster of pitches was missing in 2018. The above graphs are of every pitch Bumgarner threw, by horizontal (x-axis) and vertical (y-axis) movement, colored by Statcast pitch classifications. Even when ignoring pitch type labels, a pitch type is seen to be missing. Specifically, Bumgarner’s high-rising, fairly straight pitch was no longer thrown. On a side note, notice how inconsistent 2017’s movements were: likely because Bumgarner had to recover form a major shoulder injury and struggled.
With Statcast data, we can evaluate what happened with greater depth than through other methods. Below is a table of statistical changes in both Bumgarner’s two-seam and four-seam fastballs.
Velocity is measured in miles per hour, spin in revolutions per minute, extension is feet from the rubber, and horizontal and vertical movements are in inches from release point. Ignore 2017, as it was a very inconsistent year (as seen with the movement chart above). Both two-seam and four-seam fastballs in 2015 and 2016 had significant vertical rise due to spin. In 2018, however, Bumgarner couldn’t or wasn’t spinning his fastballs as much, resulting in less rise and more downward movement. This could be why Statcast is misclassifying his fastballs.
Why has Bumgarner lost spin on his fastballs? The data suggests two reasons why, both of which could be correlated. He’s lost velocity, and release speed correlates with spin rate. Similarly, Bumgarner has less extension on his fastballs than in 2016. His 2018 extension is similar to his 2015 extension, but because he’s lost velocity, the loss of extension could be penalizing. This loss of extension could explain the loss of spin if it’s related to grip or release.
Extension loss to home plate reduces the perceived velocity the batter anticipates, making it easier for the batter to time the pitch. Both loss of velocity and extension would, when combined, greatly benefit the batter at the expense of Bumgarner’s fastball.
What could have caused the loss of velocity and extension? Bumgarner is 29 years old, so there is a chance he’s entered his decline. The likely culprit, however, is injury: Bumgarner fell of a dirt bike in April 2017, injuring his left shoulder, and he broke his left hand on a line-drive comebacker in spring training in 2018, requiring surgery. Being left-handed, both injuries could have significantly affected his 2018.
One year away from free agency, Bumgarner likely hopes he can recover lost velocity and spin on his fastball. Whether it was an organizational change, a declining skill set, or driven by injury, his 2018 fastball difference was one to forget. His shoulder should be better healed, one year further removed from his accident, and hopefully his throwing hand does the same.