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Searching for Madison Bumgarner's fastball

Sep 9, 2009, 12:43 PM EDT

Usually when a stud pitching prospect gets called up from Double-A just a month after his 20th birthday and throws 5.1 innings of two-run ball while making a spot start in place of the reigning Cy Young winner it’s cause for excitement, but instead Madison Bumgarner’s debut last night has people wondering what happened to his fastball.
Bumgarner has been an elite prospect since the Giants picked him 10th overall in the 2007 draft and his numbers in the minors are the stuff of video games set to “beginner.” He went 27-5 with a 1.65 ERA and 256/55 K/BB ratio in 273 innings prior to being called up, including 9-1 with a 1.93 ERA at Double-A this season.
Along with the first-round pedigree and insanely good numbers Bumgarner also comes with glowing scouting reports like this one from Baseball America: “There may not be a left-hander with a better fastball than Bumgarner’s. He hits 97 mph with minimal effort, consistently pitches at 93-94 and hitters have trouble picking up his heater from his high three-quarters delivery.”
Everyone who tuned into the Giants-Padres game last night expecting to see the 20-year-old phenom with a sub-2.00 ERA and mid-90s fastball instead saw a guy who topped out in the low-90s and worked mostly in the high-80s. There are reports that Bumgarner’s velocity has been dropping throughout the season and his declining strikeout rates back that up even if his sparkling ERA doesn’t.
Bumgarner struck out 187 batters in 166 innings between rookie-ball and Single-A, which works out to an outstanding 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. However, after moving up to Double-A he managed only 69 strikeouts in 107 innings, which equals just 5.8 per nine innings. He’s also seen his walk rate nearly double while serving up significantly more homers, including a pair of long balls against the Padres last night.
Rob Neyer of ESPN wonders if the Giants “have backed Bumgarner off his big fastball in favor of better control of his breaking ball and more consistency with his changeup” because “it’s hard to think a guy with a 1.85 ERA is hurt.” That makes sense to me, but it’s also possible that a pitcher who logged nearly 300 pro innings before turning 20 is simply fatigued and showing decreased velocity without actually being hurt.
Depending on Tim Lincecum’s back injury, we may have to wait until next season to find out.

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