Last night, Madison Bumgarner was about as perfect as one can be without actually pitching a perfect game. In nine innings against the suck-ass Rockies, Bumgarner allowed one hit and struck out 13 batters while throwing just 103 pitches. And he did it by adhering to a very simple formula: Throw a lot of strikes, and throw a lot of fastballs.
Bumgarner threw a first-pitch strike to 24 of the 28 batters he faced, and worked himself into 15 0-2 counts on the night. He didn't pull this off with craft or backward-pitching guile, either; he simply pounded the zone with fastballs that the Rockies couldn't do anything with. Fifty-eight of the 72 fastballs that Bumgarner threw were strikes; 22 of them were thrown in 0-0 counts; and 16 of them were thrown on 0-1 counts.
A lot of good pitchers attack the zone with their fastball early in the count to induce contact or set batters up for breaking pitches, but last night Bumgarner said "fuck all that cute shit" and decided to just keep throwing heaters. He came after hitters in 0-2 counts with curveballs and cutters just five times, instead choosing to go back to his fastball 15 times. When a pitcher strikes out 13 guys, you expect the highlight reel to be full of hitters being stupefied by ungodly breaking stuff, but watch last night's reel and all you'll see is Rockies hitters swinging straight through a barrage of 92 mph fastballs.
The Rockies swung and missed at Bumgarner's fastball 20 times last night, good for a staggering whiffs-per-swing rate of 45 percent. Certainly, a lot of this has to do with the lineup that the Rockies ran out being horrible garbage, but Bumgarner's fastball has long been more than just a get-me-over pitch. On the season, only David Price's fastball has a higher whiffs-per-swing rate (30.24 percent) than Bumgarner (29.79 percent), and Price's fastball comes in about two miles per hour faster than Bumgarner's.
Despite not having world-class velocity, Bumgarner's able to turn his fastball into a multi-faceted weapon—one that can both start and finish at-bats—because he knows how to most effectively deploy it. This chart, from Brooks Baseball, shows the location and whiff percentage of all the fastballs Bumgarner has thrown this year in two-strike counts:
You can see that Bumgarner loves to go high and strafe batters with his fastball when he's got them on the ropes, guarding the corners and lower half against his cutter and curveball. When they're blitzed with that high fastball, as the Rockies were again and again last night, they can't help but swing and miss a good chunk of the time. Now compare this to a chart plotting the same thing for Yordano Ventura, who possesses the hardest fastball in the league:
As you can see, Ventura just kind of sprays his fastball all over the place in two-strike counts, and while he throws a good chunk of them up in the zone, he has a much harder time getting batters to swing and miss at those pitches. Ventura's chart looks like it was made by a guy who just throws his fastball. Bumgarner's was crafted by a precision-guided weapon.
As we've said before, this is exactly what makes Bumgarner so much fun to watch. None of his pitches are going to blow anyone away, but his sense for exactly when and how to use them leads games like the one he had last night. If not for Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter earlier in the year, Bumgarner's start, which earned a game score of 98, would have been the finest of the year. Not bad for a guy who basically spent the whole game throwing one pitch, perfectly.