Two-and-a-half seasons into his professional career, Madison Bumgarner is already established as one of the game's premiere pitchers. He'll slot in behind ace Matt Cain and in front of two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum in the San Francisco Giants' rotation to open this season.
The 23-year-old lefty has already thrown 534 regular-season innings and signed a long-term contract extension that will keep him at the top of the rotation with Cain through at least 2017. Listed at 6'5" and 227 pounds, the big Southerner is built to continue to eat 200 innings every season for the foreseeable future.
To be an ace, a starting pitcher must be able to do these five things: throw strikes (control), throw quality pitches within the zone (command), miss bats, keep the ball in the park and get opposite-handed hitters out. Bumgarner has shown that he can do all of those things thus far in his professional career, though he has room for improvement against right-handed hitters.
He's only walked 5.6 percent of the hitters he's faced while striking out 21.7 percent—showing his ability to throw strikes and miss bats. He's allowed just 48 home runs in his career, and opponents have hit .248 against him—proving that he can keep the ball in the park and throw quality pitches in the zone to consistently get hitters out.
Right-handed hitters have hit .255/.307/.400 against Bumgarner, and while that's perfectly acceptable, it's the one area where he can improve the most.
Bumgarner has put up a 3.23 ERA since he established himself as a fixture in the Giants' rotation, which ranks him among the top 20 pitchers in the game in that time frame. Despite his regular-season excellence and the 15 shutout innings he's thrown in the World Series, he can still get even better by further neutralizing righties.
His repertoire consists predominantly of a 90-92 mph four-seam fastball and an 86-90 mph slider. He combines to throw those two pitches more than 80 percent of the time for a good reason: They are his two best offerings.
His slider is his best pitch and one of the best secondary pitches in the game. It will sometimes look like a cutter with flatter movement and other times look like a true slider with the traditional tilt and sweeping action away from a lefty or into a righty.
He throws from a low arm slot that makes it nearly impossible for left-handed hitters to pick him up. Lefties have hit just .223 off of Bumgarner thus far in his career.
However, right-handed batters have had more success off of Bumgarner because they get a better look at the ball from his low release point. Since his changeup and curve aren't pitches that he really trusts, right-handed hitters can just sit on his two-pitch mix. His fastball and slider are both hard pitches that move into right-handed hitters from his low arm slot.
Thus, in order to have more success against righties, Bumgarner has to come up with something different to keep them off-balance. Throwing the changeup, which is slower than the fastball and slider with movement in the opposite direction, is one solution.
Another option is to develop a two-seam fastball, and that is something Bumgarner is working on this spring. Like the changeup, the two-seam fastball has movement away from a righty.
Alex Pavolvic of the San Jose Mercury News wrote about Bumgarner's new weapon on Friday:
Madison Bumgarner gave up three hits and walked two in 1 2/3, but said much of that had to do with him working in a two-seamer, a pitch he hasn’t thrown in a couple of years. Bumgarner said he wants to give hitters a different look.
“I just feel like it would help to have a couple of pitches going the other way,” he said. “It’s just about getting a little tail [on pitches].”
It will be interesting to see how that pitch develops for him this spring. Bumgarner doesn't throw a great curve or changeup in part because of the way he slings the ball across his body from the low arm slot, and that could also give him trouble with the two-seam fastball.
Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong throws an excellent two-seam fastball, changeup and curve because he stays on top of the ball by throwing from a higher release point. All three of those pitches are more effective when the pitcher stays on top of the ball and drives it downward, something that is hard to do from a lower release point.
Bumgarner has emerged as an elite pitcher at an age where most of his peers are still honing their craft in the minor leagues. He's done it by relying primarily on just two pitches—albeit two outstanding ones.
His low release point makes him hard to hit, but it also makes it tough for him to throw anything other than the four-seam fastball and slider. In order for him take another leap forward this season, he'll have to find a third pitch that hitters need to account for.
Developing a consistent third pitch will further enhance the effects of the four-seamer and the slider. If he can develop another consistent weapon, his ERA will assuredly drop below 3.00 this season, and his first All-Star appearance will be a lock.