With another homerun in yesterday’s loss to the Cardinals, the debate as to whether or not Madison Bumgarner should receive regular at-bats in a pinch-hitting capacity on his non-pitching days, has again gained steam. For any other team in almost any other season, a debate like this would be short-lived. But for a team who is at the bottom of baseball in almost every meaningful offensive category, including a ML worst 108 homeruns (65 less than the Major League average), the question deserves a bit more consideration.
There is no debating Bumgarner’s raw power potential as a hitter. Wes Ferrell, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians back in the ‘30s, is the all-time MLB leader for homeruns hit by a pitcher, with 38. In his 8 Big-League seasons, Bumgarner already has 17 homeruns, 15 of which have come over the last 4 seasons. If Bumgarner continues his 4-year pace, he could very-well overtake Ferrell by the time he’s 33 or 34.
Perhaps even more impressive than Bumgarner’s overall success as a hitter is the pace at which he has hit homeruns over the course of his career despite limited at-bats. According to Ryan Spaeder, Bumgarner and AL Homerun leader Aaron Judge have both hit 14 homeruns over their last 285 plate appearances. Additionally, over the course of Bumgarner’s career, he’s hit homeruns at a greater rate (2.90%) than he has allowed (2.40%).
While the chances of Bruce Bochy using Bumgarner as a regular pinch hitter are slim-to-none (the risk is far too high), it is fun to project how Bumgarner stacks up against some of baseballs better hitters. Through video, we’re able to see that the majority of Bumgarner’s offensive success has more to do with him being pitched to like a hitting-pitcher, than his talents as a hitter. When looking at Bumgarner’s mechanics and offensive consistency, there is no doubt that he would struggle over the long-term given regular at-bats.
As we have discussed in each and every swing analysis to date, the most common characteristics of a Major League swing center upon balance, athleticism, and consistency. A hitter who struggles with any of these three foundations to hitting, will find success hard to come by at the Major League level. In my opinion, no player does a better job in these fundamental areas of hitting than Orioles 3rd baseman Manny Machado.
When we look at Bumgarner and compare him with Machado, we are provided a much better idea as to why (aside from making massive swing adjustments), Bumgarner would struggle as a hitter.
If we first look at the balance and foundation at the height of the leg-kick, we notice how much more centered/athletic Machado is. Due to Bumgarner’s exaggerated shift back, his momentum has taken his weight fully over his back foot, as illustrated by his knee settling directly over his foot. Machado, on the other hand, has his knee inside of his back foot, allowing the momentum and force he generates from his lower half to be utilized efficiently between his feet.
We also see how extended Bumgarner’s hands have become due to his elongated leg-kick and weight shift. Machado’s hands are directly over his back foot, which triggers a shorter swing path to the ball.
When the toe of the stride-foot connects with the ground, we are provided with a perfect illustration of the difference between a 1-dimensional hitter and a complete hitter. With his aggressive leg-kick and stride (and over-extended hands), Bumgarner is forced to compensate by clearing his front hip and front foot in order to get the bat head back through the hitting zone. As a result, all of his momentum pulls Bumgarner off to the 3rd base side and in an uphill path. With Machado, we are presented with a picture-perfect view of what it looks like to be balanced and square to your target. Machado’s stride foot is still closed, front hip still level and square to the pitcher, while maintaining a 50/50 split in balance with the hands staying separated back.
In my experience, what separates hitters like Machado from other hitters isn’t necessarily the mechanics of the swing – it’s the ability to get into the same strong hitting position (as we see above), consistently, and on time. Even without seeing the pitch or location, we know that Bumgarner’s approach to the ball can hit one pitch-type in two locations – a fastball from the inner half of the plate to the outer third. Machado is able to make the necessary in-swing adjustments to compensate for all pitches and locations due to his superior balance and strong foundation.
When the stride-foots’ heel plants into the ground, which serves as a catapult mechanism for the lower half to fire through, we again see a significant difference in lower-half efficiency. Because of Machado’s square setup, he’s able to drive all of his weight and momentum into his front side, providing maximum power and bat speed to all fields. Because Bumgarner’s front side has already collapsed, his ability to hit a non-fastball on the outer-half is minimal.
The good news for Bumgarner is that upon contact, he’s in a very strong hitting position. However the efficiency with which he’s gotten to that point leaves much to be desired.
I don’t have any doubt that it terms of strength, there aren’t many guys that match up to Bumgarner. However as I discussed earlier with Tim Tebow, strength can be rendered relatively useless if the body isn’t in a position to utilize it.
From a coaching standpoint, I would expect Bumgarner’s success to be limited to fastballs and change-ups, whereas sliders and breaking balls would be near impossible to hit. And thanks to the information at Brooks Baseball, we see that has been the case throughout his career. To date, Bumgarner is a .250 hitter against fastballs while hitting 11 of his 17 homeruns. He’s also a .323 hitter against change-ups with another homerun. However, Bumgarner is a career .098 hitter with 2 homeruns against sliders and .068 with 0 homeruns against curveballs.
Madison Bumgarner has tremendous raw power and is a great hitting pitcher, but that’s where the argument stops for me. Unless he was able to re-vamp his entire swing pre-contact, something very few full-time hitters are able to do, it’s probably in his best interest (and the Giants’ as well), for Bumgarner to continue to be a 1-dimensional hitter who feats on pitchers mistakes. And if this season is any indication, opposing pitchers will continue to throw Bumgarner fastballs and change-ups despite his inability to hit anything else.