We’ve all heard the stories, read the freakouts, Madison Bumgarner’s velocity still appears to be down after two starts in Spring Training. The quick synopsis is that Bumgarner dominated minor league hitters in 2008. His numbers from that year were videogame-like (10.4 K/9, 1.3 BB/9) and the scouting reports backed them up — throwing a low-to-mid 90′s heater with pinpoint accuracy. Bumgarner also had a successful campaign in 2009, but his strikeout numbers slipped between A+ and AA (8.5 K/9 in A+ ball to 5.8 K/9 in AA). Scouting reports were now stating that Bumgarner was throwing in the upper-80′s instead of his usual 90′s. He ended the year with a September call-up and the PFX numbers said the same — diminished velocity.
Stepping aside from whether or not it’s normal for a 20-year-old to lose 4-6 mph on his fastball, we should ask the question, does velocity really matter all that much for a pitcher? I took this chance to continue my scatter plot kick of late to try and find out. I took every starting pitcher in the majors that tossed at least 100 innings between 2008-09 and then plotted their average velocity on their fastballs by their FIP. All data was pulled from FanGraphs.
A quick note of procedure, I omitted Tim Wakefield from the numbers because as a knuckle-baller, he’s his own creature. He rarely throws a fastball — 10% of the time on average — and when he does, it’s closer to BP fastball at 72 mph. Also, this isn’t meant to be a final statement on velocity and pitcher quality, but more of a sketch than the final word. Quick and dirty.
The graph’s results should be pretty self-explanatory. The harder a pitcher throws, the more likely he is to strikeout hitters, which means less chances for his defense to muck things up. I’m not sure if FIP is the right way to go about this, since it’s already rewarding guys who strike hitters out but I wanted to remove defense from the equation when trying to value a pitcher. I’m open to any suggestions. Still, I think the graph does make a good point. Throwing hard is almost always going to help your average starting pitcher. There are some exceptions: Johnny Cueto of the Reds is a hard-thrower, on average his fastball was clocked at 93.4 mph, but his FIP of 4.9 isn’t particularly appealing. Clearly, velocity only does not a pitcher make. But, overall, we can see that a relationship does exist. It’s not the only relationship (I assume batted-ball types, control, other pitch-types, LOB%, etc. come in to play) but throwing hard does have it’s advantages.
Two guys I wanted to note are Mike Mussina and Jamie Moyer. Neither throw hard: Mussina at 86.4 mph and Moyer at 81.2 mph. But, should we hold them up as examples for Bumgarner? I don’t think so. Mussina and Moyer might not throw hard, but unlike Bumgarner, they’ve got diverse repertoires. They both have at least 4 pitches — maybe more — that they can use against hitters. Mussina’s curveball was rated well by FanGraph’s pitch-type values, as was Moyer’s changeup and cutter. Bumgarner has been able to locate his fastball well, and there is some deception in his delivery, but the pitch becomes a lot less sexier with the drop in miles-per-hour. Outside of that particular pitch, Bumgarner is still learning to throw his slider and his changeup is a 3rd best pitch in a predominately 2-pitch arsenal.
It seems to me that unless Bumgarner can regain some of his lost velocity with his current set of pitches, he’s going to be in for a bumpy ride in the present. Not may pitchers can thrive off of 1-pitch in a starter’s role and Bumgarner should be no different. If his slider develops and if he can hone his change some more and if he’s healthy, then he could be starting in San Francisco sometime this season for an extended period even without the velocity. But it’s quite clear, at the moment, he should start the year in Fresno. Hopefully the Giants can figure out what’s going on in his very talented arm. If they can, we could be in for a treat.