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Did Madison Bumgarner Ditch the Slider Too?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 17:  Madison Bumgarner #40 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies at AT&T Park on April 17, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 17: Madison Bumgarner #40 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies at AT&T Park on April 17, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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I started out writing this piece to address Madison Bumgarner's declining strikeout rate this season, small sample size and all. But, when I dug deeper, with the help of Dan Brooks' excellent site Brooks Baseball, I discovered that Tim Lincecum may not be the only Giants starter who has ditched the slider. I will get into that data in a bit.

I drafted Giants starter Madison Bumgarner in the 4th round of my NL-only 5 x 5 league draft a few weeks ago, with the thought that he could build on his excellent 2011 season, but so far, his results have been less than stellar. Last season, he threw 204.2 innings, winning 13 games, with a 3.21 ERA, 2.67 FIP and 3.10 xFIP. His FIP of 2.67 was the fourth lowest in all of baseball.

In 2011, Bumgarner did a good job at striking out batters, as he put up a 8.40 K/9 and a 2.02 BB/9 while keeping the ball on the ground at a 46.0% clip. This season, he is 2-1 with a 3.63 ERA, 5.45 FIP and 4.87 xFIP. The season is just two weeks old, and we all know know about small sample sizes, but Bumgarner's strikeout per nine rate has plummeted to just 3.63 in his 3 starts thus far, and his walk rate has increased slightly to 2.60. On the positive side, Bumgarner's ground ball rate has increased from 46.0% in 2011 to 51.7% this season.

I am curious if we should be worried about his low strikeout rate, so let's take a look at each of his starts, some Pitch type data from Brooks Baseball, along with some historical date, after the jump:

Here are the pitching lines from each of Bumgarner's first 3 starts this season:

April 7 - 4.0 IP, 7 hits, 2 HRs, 4 ER, 3 K, 2 BB, 8 FB, 6 GB, 1 LD

April 12 - 7.1 IP, 4 hits, 0 HR, 1 ER, 2 K, 2 BB, 5 FB, 14 GB, 4 LD

April 17 - 6 IP, 7 hits, 1 HR, 2 ER, 2 K, 1 BB, 8 FB, 11 GB, 3 LD

As you can see, he is keeping the ball on the ground, which you like to see, but the strikeouts are looking very Carl Pavano-like. He has also given up 3 home runs in 17.1 innings of work, so that should come down as the season progresses.

Should fantasy owners be worried about the drop in strikeout rate? I don't think so. Looking back as his first three starts of 2011, here are his pitching lines:

April 5 - 3 IP, 5 hits, 0 HR, 3 ER, 2K, 3 BB, 3 FB, 3 GB, 5 LD

April 11 - 5 IP, 8 hits, 1 HR, 5 ER, 3 K, 4 BB,, 3 FB, 7 GB, 7 LD

April 17 - 6.2 IP, 8 hits, 1 HR, 4 ER, 2 K, 1 BB, 9 FB, 12 GB, 4 LD

Do you see the similarities between his start to the 2012 vs his start to the 2011 season? In 2011, he was keeping the ball on the ground, but not striking out very many batters, and gave up a few home runs as well. After those 3 starts in 2011, he went on to have one more bad start on April 22nd, where he gave 4 runs on 4 hits in just 2.2 innings, striking out 2 and walking 2. In his remaining 29 starts, he struck out at least 6 batters in 16 of those starts, so it just may be that he is a slow starter. For his career, he has a 5.09 ERA in April, and June is the only other month where he has a career ERA over 4.00, so Bumgarner's peripheral stats should start to get back to the norm real soon.

Or will they?

Digging into his 2011 pitch type data over at Brooks Baseball, I found that in 2011, Bumgarner thew his slider 20% of the time, which resulted in a whiff rate of just under 13.5%. This season, according to Brooks Baseball, he has not thrown a single slider. NOT ONE. As stated previously, It appears that Tim Lincecum is not the only Giants starter who is ditching the slider this season.

Here are his pitch types, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, for 2011 and in his 3 starts in 2012:

2011 2012

Fourseam fastball 43% 41%

Sinker 10% 2%

Cutter 13% 39%

Slider 20% 0%

Curveball 11% 11%

Changeup 4% 6%

Bumgarner, it appears, has ditched the slider for the cutter as he is throwing it three times as much as he did in 2011. Last year, the whiff rate on his cutter was 13.38%, and 13.46% on his slider. In 2012, his whiff rate on his cutter is down to 8.64%, so this, along with ditching the slider, may be the reason for the drop in his strikeout rate this season. One positive sign I discovered when reviewing the data over at Brooks Baseball is that the whiff rate on his curveball has increased from 11.47% to 15.22% this season, so we may see him throw more curveballs as the season progresses.

So, should we expect Bumgarner's strikeout rate to increase as the season gets longer, or will his sub 4.00 K rate be the expectation?

NOTE: The PitchFX data over at Fangraphs is quite different from the data over on Brooks Baseball, and here may be the reason why courtesy of Adam Foster from Project Prospect and Rotoworld. He penned this scouting report on Bumgarner - great timing! - and here is an excerpt:

Though it most frequently moves like a super cutter, Bumgarner calls his primary breaking ball a slider. It is sometimes in the mid-80s with big, sweeping action, but he usually throws it in the high-80s with late break and decent depth. He’ll add and subtract velocity and movement from it depending on the situation. Mixed in with his fastball, and because of his arm slot and deception, it’s an above-average pitch. He throws it as often as any pitch in his arsenal aside from his fastball (about 70% of his pitches have been fastballs or sliders thus far in his MLB career).

I assume this may explain the difference between Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs, so fantasy owners should not worry, as I have, about his strikeout rate thus far.