Royals Face Toughest Test Yet: Madison Bumgarner’s Fastball


Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the playoffs, the Royals have played good teams. Every game has been against a team filled with talented players, and the games in the World Series will be no different, in that regard. Even though the Giants only won 88 games in the regular season, they have the best catcher in baseball, surrounded by loads of other very good hitters. The Giants are a good team.

What the Royals haven’t faced much of in the playoffs is elite-level starting pitching. Obviously they got to Jon Lester in the Wild Card game, but after him, the next best starter they faced was either Chris Tillman or Jered Weaver. Both of those guys are solid starters. They’re not Madison Bumgarner. The Giants have Madison Bumgarner.

Bumgarner will be on regular rest for Game 1, which means he’s going to be squaring off with James Shields for the opener. The big lefty enters the World Series having made 4 postseason starts, pitched 31.2 innings, struck out 25 batters, walked 5, all while maintaining a 1.42 ERA. He’s been the best pitcher in the playoffs, and there isn’t a close second.

He’s almost always been a great pitcher, and one of his best pitches has almost always been his cutter. But recently, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out, Bumgarner has stopped throwing his cutter as often, and has instead relied more upon his fastball. That change coincided with Bumgarner’s results improving, so it seems to be a strategy the Royals should expect to see in Game 1 and Game 5, if the series gets that far.

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One of the reasons for Bumgarner’s fastball success is his location, which is obviously important for a pitcher. Another reason for the recent improvement is Bumgarner’s increased fastball velocity. His average velocity in October is nearly a full mile per hour higher than it was in August, and nearly three and a half miles per hour higher than it was in October of 2012.

Left-handed starters throwing almost 94 MPH is rare. It’s a very short list of guys like Danny Duffy, David Price, and Clayton Kershaw, although the latter two are closer to 93 MPH. The Royals see velocity often enough, but it could be different seeing that kind of velocity come from the left side.

Still, I wanted to see how the Royals have fared against similar velocity this season, just to get an idea of what we might expect. I went to Baseball Savant and looked up the Royals’ regular lineup’s batting averages and slugging percentages against fastballs (both of the four- and two-seam variety) of at least 93 MPH.

Alcides Escobar – .244/.333
Nori Aoki – .246/.356
Lorenzo Cain – .348/.493
Eric Hosmer – .349/.442
Billy Butler – .290/.473
Alex Gordon – .244/.423
Salvador Perez – .234/.336
Omar Infante – .245/.404
Mike Moustakas – .197/.225

That’s quite the spread. If we use past results to project future performance, Cain appears to have a good chance of continuing his hot streak, as he has success against heat, and will have the platoon advantage. Hosmer has done very well against hard fastballs this year, but he tends to struggle against lefties, so this could still be a tough matchup. Bumgarner may also have his hands full with Butler, who hit 4 of his home runs on fastballs of at least 93 MPH.

On the other end of the spectrum, this first game could be difficult for Perez and Moose. Even facing a lefty, Perez may not have much luck against Bumgarner’s fastball, so you just have to hope these 5 days of rest will help him be more prepared come Tuesday. As for Moose, well, I’m not totally sure what to expect from him, and based on what’s happened this postseason, there isn’t anything that would really surprise me.

It’s also not too encouraging to see the top two spots of the lineup have such little success against heat this season, but both Escobar and Aoki have more success against southpaws, and with their speed, they may still be able to reach base, even if they’re not squaring up anything.

The Royals overall were a better offense against lefties than they were against righties, but then again, Bumgarner isn’t just another lefty. He’s been incredibly dominant in the playoffs, thanks in part to his increased fastball velocity. The Royals are going to see quite a few fastballs with a lot of velocity, so they’re going to have to be ready to attack them when Bumgarner comes in the zone.

That’s easier said than done, of course. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and even when hitters know what’s coming, his fastball is still tough to hit. A lineup that has played well in the postseason will need to step up their game even more when they face Bumgarner on Tuesday night.