by Eno Sarris //
Like Billy Madison in the movie of the same name, Madison Bumgarner had to go back to school to get his millions. After a lightning-quick ascension through the ranks and up the prospect ladder, Bumgarner had a rude awakening in the upper levels of the minor leagues as well as the major leagues last year. Now he’s gone back to school, spending much of the first half of this season in the minors. So far, so good back in the majors in 2010 as the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs show. What can we expect going forward?
Last year, Bumgarner was the #9 prospect in baseball and had finished two-and-a-half-years at Single-A with a strikeout rate above one per inning and a booming mid-90s fastball. It almost didn’t seem like he needed any more fine-tuning in the minor leagues, but he went to Double-A anyway because that’s what young pitchers do.
That’s when things began to go south. Reports of diminished velocity started coming through, and the results showed that something was off. His strikeout rate fell precipitously, down to 5.8 per nine in AA. The shine was off. The whispers started. A penguin was spotted. Even Bob Barker started talking trash.
The Giants called him up for a cup of coffee anyway, and in four games, his strikeout rate looked great (9.00 K/9), and you’d have been forgiven for thinking that maybe this velocity thing was overblown. Bumgarner would graduate with honors if he could put up a strikeout rate like that, even with the caveat that he was relieving, and that relievers usually enjoy a slightly higher strikeout rate. Unfortunately, his K rate masked a still-diminished velocity (89.3 MPH on his fastball), and batters teed up on him often, with a 1.80 HR/9 number that would have to change for him to be successful at the major league level.
This year, in Bumgarner’s return to school, he performed adequately but did not recover his former glory on the gun or in his peripherals. His 6.4 K/9 at Triple-A this year wouldn’t qualify him for notice on any prospect list without giving him heavy extra credit for his young age (he’s still only 20 years old). The reason he was able to contribute a 3.16 ERA was the fact that he still doesn’t walk people (2.4 BB/9 in Triple-A and 1.9 career in minor leagues). And while some reports had him regaining velocity with a change in mechanics, his re-found ability to hit 90 on the gun from time to time was not a full recovery. The scouting reports had him as hitting the mid-90s before the mysterious dip. Another way his reduced ineffectiveness was obvious was in the number of hits Bumgarner gave up per nine innings: 9.6. That was a full two hits per nine worse than his previous numbers.
So now he’s back in the majors, diploma in hand. His fastball is averaging 90.3 MPH compared to last year’s 89.2 MPH, and he’s only striking out 6.75 batters per nine innings. His 47.6% groundball percentage is OK, but not good enough to mitigate his poor strikeout numbers. He’s not walking anyone (1.61 BB/9), but that’s about the best thing that can be send for him right now… other than his 2.57 ERA. The worst part about his current numbers is that he’s been lucky. He has a .266 BABIP and a 82.7% strand rate, numbers which trend towards .300 and 70% across baseball every year. A few more dinks and dunks should fall in, and a few more baserunners will hit home plate. In short, he has graduated, but not with honors. He looks like a pitcher who can put up an ERA in the low fours and lock down the back of a rotation by not walking batters and having just enough stuff.
Needless to say, this isn’t what the Giants expected out of their prized arm. At 20 years old, it’s possible that he fills in his frame or finds some arm slot that works better for him. He’s still young. But if someone values his upside like he was still the super-prospect of old, then managers should go ahead and sell. His ‘real’ velocity is just not back. Or, as Billy Madison might have said, “OK, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.”
For more on Madison Bumgarner and other quacktastic young pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.
by Eno Sarris //
There are a lot of different ways to look at Ted Lilly and his season so far.
1) He’s doing fine. He has a 2.90 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and is only 2-5 because of a poor offense behind him. The Cubs have scored the third-fewest runs in baseball, so Lilly is good for everything but wins. Just check out his Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs! He’s elite in every category but strikeouts. This is not a crazy way to look at Lilly – he’s never been about strikeouts anyway, and he’s still got his trademark control. Buy!
2) He’s heading for disaster. He’s sporting a career low in strikeouts per nine innings this year (5.66). A drop in strikeouts for a veteran is worrisome enough, but Lilly hasn’t ever averaged below 6.84 K/9 for a full year, and the lowest average he has put up in the National League was 7.57 in his first year with the Cubs. This is not a dip, it’s falling off the table bad. And Lilly’s walk rate, though still solid (2.37 BB/9), has gone up from last year (1.83 BB/9).
Lilly is also suffering from his worst fastball velocity in years – one system has him at 85.6 MPH, and one at 86.4 MPH. Both are far below his normal ~88 MPH level. Add to all this the fact that Lilly is a flyball pitcher (34.4% career groundball rate) and suddenly you can envision that home run rate (1.05) starting to inflate closer to his career number (1.35) once Wrigley Field starts warming up. Lower velocity, fewer strikeouts, more walks, and more home runs on the way? Sell!
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. A pitcher with an 88 MPH fastball obviously doesn’t rely on blowing people away for his success. His current walk rate is in line with his National League walk rate (2.36 BB/9) and he’s getting his pitches in the zone at exactly his career rate (54.7%). It’s a little worrisome that his contact rate is up (83.7% this year, 79.7% career), but we have not yet tackled his velocity fully.
It may be tempting to point to his arthroscopic surgery and the reduced velocity and wipe your hands of Lilly. The surgery did go into the labrum, and labrum surgeries have ruined many careers. But the surgery only repaired a little fraying, and was done soon after last season ended. He’s now put seven months between himself and the surgery, and lo and behold, look at his velocity charts for the most recent games (courtesy www.fangraphs.com). See how he’s been his old self again in the last two starts? Maybe Lilly just needed a little time to get back to his prior form. You might notice that his K/9 in those last two starts was a decent 6.19 (11 strikeouts in 16 innings). While velocity alone does not a good pitcher make, given average movement (and Lilly’s movement is not elite), a faster fastball is always better. Here’s some great work on the subject by Jeremy Greenhouse at Baseball Analysts.
As a flyball pitcher, Lilly will always have the risk of the home run looming (or flying) over his head. A 1.3+ HR/9 rate is not a comfortable place to be for most pitchers. Had he put up his 1.35 career HR/9 rate last year, for example, he would have been sixth-worst among ERA title qualifiers in the category. But Lilly always makes up for this flaw by not walking anyone (and thus keeping his WHIP low); the home runs he allows are often solo shots. Because he helps in WHIP, doesn’t (usually) hurt in strikeouts, and will hopefully start to win some games, he’s still a valuable pitcher despite the lack of a marquee name.
And since he still gives up those home runs, hasn’t pushed the average velocity needle back over the hump, and hasn’t yet struck out enough batters to register in that category, he can be hard to trade. Especially in leagues where other managers know how to find the velocity of a pitcher, that makes Lilly a “hold” in most formats.