For a former top-10 prospect on the defending World Series champions, Madison Bumgarner pitches in relative obscurity. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and international man of mystery Brian Wilson get the attention on San Francisco's staff, and LA's Clayton Kershaw is the precocious NL West lefty that pundits swoon over. Yet, the soon-to-be 22 year-old Bumgarner has quietly ranked among the NL's best while boosting his strikeout rate.
Bumgarner's K rate has climbed from about seven batters per nine innings in 2010 to 7.9 per nine in 2011. And that uptick hasn't simply been the result of facing more hitters per inning: Bumgarner has struck out 21.1 percent of the batters that he has faced this year, compared to 18.2 percent last season. That 2011 K/PA total puts Bumgarner in the same rarified air as Dan Haren, Ricky Romero and CC Sabathia.
How has Bumgarner racked up the Ks? By gaining a tick on his fastball (from 91 MPH to 92 MPH) and shifting his location of the pitch.
In 2010, Bumgarner often threw his fastball middle and middle-away to left-handed hitters:
Lefties made lots of contact against Bumgarner's fastball: his 14 percent miss rate with this pitch was well below the 17-18 percent league average for lefty fastballs versus lefty hitters.
In 2011, Bumgarner seems to be employing a high-low approach with his fastball against same-handed batters. While his 2010 fastball was at the same height in the zone most of the time, his '11 heater complements those higher offerings with more low-and-away fastballs:
That shift in pitch location is paying dividends: lefty hitters have missed Bumgarner's fastball 24.8 percent of the time this year. Most of those misses have come on fastballs high in the zone. Maybe hitters are taking weaker cuts at those high pitches because they're also trying to cover the lower portion of the zone.
Versus righties, Bumgarner pretty much threw his fastball right down the pike last year:
Righty batters missed Bumgarner's fastball 11.8 percent of the time that they swung, south of the 15 percent league average.
This year, he's throwing more outside fastballs:
Right-handers have missed Bumgarner's fastball 19.4 percent of the time in 2011, with the highest percentage of those empty swings coming on outside fastballs.
As a guy possessing four major league-quality pitches, Bumgarner already gave opponents much to think about when they stepped into the box. But now, they not only have to contend with an upper-80s slider, a high-70s curve and a mid-80s change, but also a fastball that goes high-low against lefties or middle-away versus righties. That's enough to give a hitter a headache.