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Beating Madison Bumgarner

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The Mets are facing a pitcher who’s well known for his postseason success, but let’s see how they might go about defeating him.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at New York Mets Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the Mets host the National League Wild Card game at Citi Field. Considering how things went over the course of the season and the players that were lost to injury along the way, it’s pretty remarkable. And despite having three of their ace-caliber starting pitchers undergo season-ending surgeries, they have the fourth—Noah Syndergaard—lined up to start the game on plenty of rest. There’s just one thing that’s not ideal about the game: Mets hitters have to face Madison Bumgarner.

If you aren’t already familiar with these numbers by now, you’ll probably read or hear them at least once more today: Bumgarner has a 1.80 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40.0 innings spanning six starts against the Mets in his career. In the postseason, he has a 2.14 ERA and 3.05 FIP in fourteen career appearances, twelve of which have been starts. In the regular season, he’s thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2011, and he’s had an ERA under 3.00 every year since 2013. It’s worth pointing out that Bumgarner plays his home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, but there’s no doubt that he’s very good at his craft.

It’s also worth pointing out that Bumgarner racked up a big chunk of his dominant numbers against the Mets a while ago. Four of the six starts took place before the 2015 season. The other two took place this year, one apiece in New York and San Francisco. The Mets got to him for the first time in the latter, which took late in late August, just before the Mets went on a tear that won them their spot in the postseason.

So how do the Mets go about beating him now? Well, let’s start by checking in with Grant Brisbee, who’s seen a whole lot more of Bumgarner than we have over the past several years.

It's a cliché, but Bumgarner is better at beating himself than any team possibly could be. Because when he's mechanically sound, and his command is on point, he murders lefties with breaking balls and hard stuff up, and he murders righties with a hybrid slider/cutter that bores in on the hands. If they hit it, it goes foul, at best.

Cespedes might have the bat speed to mess with that, even if Bumgarner is going well. But the biggest problem with Bumgarner is when he catches too much of the plate. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, so he's going to thrive when he's making hitters guess when it's too late.

I guess that applies to every pitcher, but Bumgarner is one of the few who can actually execute that kind of hyper-fine command when he's right, so it's almost weirder when he can't.

Before we delve into Bumgarner beating himself, let’s take a quick look at Bumgarner’s tendencies. As Grant mentions, he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, and while he’s never been a flamethrower, his velocity was lower this year than in any of his previous full major league seasons.

Brooks Baseball

There are five pitches in the mix, officially, but Bumgarner throws three of them—the four-seam fastball, cutter, and regular curve—the grand majority of the time. His usage this year is pretty much in line with what he’s thrown over the past couple of seasons. Here’s the 2016 breakdown, with average velocity included:

  • Four-seam fastball: 48.2%, 91.7 mph
  • Cutter: 33.4%, 87.6 mph
  • Curveball: 15.1%, 75.5 mph
  • Changeup: 3.3%, 84.1 mph
  • Slow curve: 0.1%, 70.1 mph

To illustrate Grant’s point, here’s where Bumgarner threw his four-seam fastball against left-handed hitters this season. All of these zone profiles are from the catcher’s point of view.

Brooks Baseball

And here’s where he throws the curveballs to lefties:

Brooks Baseball

And here’s where he threw the cutter—or cutter/slider hybrid—to right-handed hitters this year:

Brooks Baseball

The Mets certainly know all of this, but it probably doesn’t make facing Bumgarner any easier. Despite the slight dip in velocity, his strikeout rate was a career-best 9.97 per nine innings/27.5% this year. His walk rate was up a bit, but only to 2.14 per nine/5.9 percent.

The only thing that stands out as abnormally bad—”bad” being relative here—is his home run rate. Bumgarner allowed 26 home runs over the course of the season, an average of 1.03 of them per nine innings pitched. That’s the first time in his career he’s average over one per nine.

From Baseball Savant, here’s a breakdown of where those 26 pitches were thrown and what types of pitch they were. The pitch classifications read a bit differently than those from Brooks, but the fastball/cutter (“slider”) distinction is the main point here.

Whether or not Mets hitters can wait for Bumgarner to leave pitches in those spots is what makes things challenging. But the Mets have hit plenty of home runs this year, and it seems like the best way to beat Bumgarner is to hit his very rare mistakes over the fence. It’s probably a lot easier said than done.

Or maybe the Mets just need Yoenis Cespedes to stare Bumgarner down.