Recently, there has been a groundswell of support for the idea of San Francisco Giants pitcher/slugger Madison Bumgarner participating in the Home Run Derby at this year’s All-Star Game festivities.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@theaceofspaeder) June 8, 2016
Eno Sarris of FanGraphs asked Bumgarner about that stat, specifically whether Bumgarner benefits from only having to play every fifth day.
Told Bumgarner that he has as many HR over his last 190 PA as Trout, asked if he’d have harder time if he played everyday. “I’d have more.”
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) June 7, 2016
There was also an implied (or at least untweeted) question about Bumgarner being pitched like a pitcher; in other words, have his power numbers benefited from pitchers not throwing him their best stuff?
“I couldn’t get pitched any harder than I do,” Bumgarner said about the mix he’s seen recently.
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) June 7, 2016
Obviously, this is not literally true, but Bumgarner probably didn’t mean it literally. His point is that pitchers are not pitching him like he’s a pitcher, that his reputation has preceded him and he is being pitched like any other tough hitter in the Giants lineup.
I am not going to attempt to verify that assessment, although his 63 OPS+ this season certainly supports it. What I do want to look at, though, is how good the pitches have been that Bumgarner has hit over the fence in his career. Bumgarner has 13 career homers, the most of any active pitcher. Have they been on tough pitches? Or have they come when he was being pitched like he was a pitcher?
(Look, I know my bio below this article says I am a Dodgers fan, and that is true. It is reasonable for you to question my impartiality on the subject of Bumgarner. But I promise you, I went into this project with no idea what I would find and with a vow to myself to write the results fairly and accurately no matter what. It just so happens that I got to enjoy writing it.)
All of Bumgarner’s Homers
Okay, you want a spoiler? Exactly one of Bumgarner’s home runs has come on what you might call a good pitch. That was this one:
Home Run 6: September 23, 2014 — Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bumgarner had tried unsuccessfully to bunt, and he was facing an 0-2 count. Greinke tried to put him away with a curveball, and it was decently placed. Bumgarner reached out and hit it over the wall for his sixth career homer.
Let’s look at the other 12. Here are the strikezone plots (courtesy of brooksbaseball.net) for eight of them; see if you can spot any similarities:
Home Run 1: June 12, 2012 — Bud Norris, Houston Astros
Home Run 2: September 11, 2012 — Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies
Home Run 3: April 11, 2014 — Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado Rockies
Home Run 5: July 13, 2014 — Matt Stites, Arizona Diamondbacks
Home Run 7: May 21, 2015 — Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Home Run 11: August 21, 2015 — Jeff Locke, Pittsburgh Pirates
Home Run 12: April 9, 2016 — Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Home Run 13: June 2, 2016 — Aaron Blair, Atlanta Braves
Each of these eight homers came on a fastball that was basically right down the middle and a little bit up in the zone. These were not pitchers’ pitches; these were pitches you throw to a pitcher, and Bumgarner, who hits very well for a pitcher, hit them out of the park.
So we have covered “good pitch” and “fastball down the pipe.” Our next category is “pitches out of the zone.” There are two of those:
Home Run 4: June 15, 2014 — Franklin Morales, Colorado Rockies
This first one came off of Franklin Morales of the Colorado Rockies in 2014. It came on a 2-1 count, and it was the third high fastball of the at-bat. At 91 MPH, it was not overpowering, and basically it was as much of a meatball as a pitch outside the zone could be. Watch (starting at 0:27):
Home Run 9: July 25, 2015 — Chris Bassitt, Oakland Athletics
This one came last July against Oakland A’s rookie Chris Bassitt. It was a full count, and here is Bassitt’s description of the pitch:
“It was just an awkward thing, where I was like, ‘Don’t walk him, don’t walk him, don’t walk him.’ And I grooved a fastball right down the middle, and obviously he can hit a little bit.”
Now, Bassitt’s assertion that it was right down the middle is not quite right. It was an inch or two inside. But watch the video and you will see it for what it was: an 89-MPH meatball:
And now, for our final category, we have “hanging offspeed pitches.” There have been two of those:
Home Run 8: June 28, 2015 — Christian Bergman, Colorado Rockies
It looks on the graph like all the high fastballs down the middle. On the video, you can see that it was an 82-MPH slider than forgot to slide:
Home Run 10: August 16, 2015 — Casey Janssen, Washington Nationals
Again, the graph looks the same. Right down the middle, a little up in the zone. This was an 84-MPH hanging offspeed pitch:
What does it all mean?
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t mean anything. We’re all going to die someday, no matter how many home runs Madison Bumgarner hits. And in the context of whether Bumgarner should be in the Home Run Derby, this probably supports his case, as the vast majority of his home runs have come on pitches roughly on par with what he would see in the Derby.
It would take a major research project to determine what percentage of all home runs — or even those by elite sluggers like Trout and Harper — came on mistake pitches. But I am confident that if you undertook such a project, you would find that percentage to be much lower than 92.3 percent, which is where Bumgarner sits for his career.
Does this take away from what Bumgarner has done? Of course not. He is the premier power hitting pitcher in the game today. But it takes at least a step or two towards dispelling the silly notion that Bumgarner is a great hitter. Like pretty much every great-hitting pitcher before him, you absolutely have to include the “for a pitcher” caveat when discussing his prowess.
It doesn’t diminish his accomplishments, but it might diminish the delusions of some of his fans.