Prime cut: Bumgarner leaning on revamped pitch

2 years ago

WASHINGTON — Backed into his first jam Tuesday afternoon — a two-on, no-out fourth-inning matchup with Nationals slugger Josh Bell — Madison Bumgarner turned to an old friend, and his new most trusted weapon. He started Bell off with a cutter, then threw another. And another. And another, and another and another.

By the time Bell returned to the dugout, he’d seen six pitches from Bumgarner — all cutters — the last of which he bounced into an inning-deflating double play. Bumgarner then greeted Keibert Ruiz with four more consecutive cutters, using five total to whiff Ruiz on seven pitches and escape the inning unscathed. While two unearned runs ultimately sent Bumgarner and the D-backs to a hard-luck 6-1 loss in Game 1 of the doubleheader at Nationals Park, that fourth-inning sequence illustrated an emerging trend for Arizona’s ace.

“My cutter was my best pitch today, it saved me,” Bumgarner said. “Everything else was just OK. But the cutter was good enough to really just pitch off the whole day.”

Added Bumgarner: “I don’t know what the numbers are, but we probably threw it 70 times today.”

As far as cutters go, that would be exorbitant. But Bumgarner isn’t far off. He threw 12 cutters in a row during that fourth-inning jam and 52 total in five innings, easily the highest single-game count of his career. Cutters accounted for 62.6 percent of his pitches, the most by any starter in a game this season and Bumgarner’s highest single-game total — by about 10 percent. It’s the sixth-highest single-game cutter percentage by a starter dating back to 2020; only Brewers ace Corbin Burners has leaned on the pitch more.

All told, Bumgarner is throwing 53 percent cutters through three starts this season, per Statcast. That’s way up from 34.3 percent in 2021; since tightening his slider for a distinct cutter in 2017, he’s never thrown the pitch more than 36 percent of the time.

Three of his five strikeouts Tuesday came on the pitch. The five total punchouts pushed Bumgarner (1,957) past Bobby Witt Sr. and Whitey Ford for 96th on the all-time list.

“It’s always been good for me, but this is as good as it’s been in quite a few years,” Bumgarner said. “It hasn’t been this way for a while now.”

Bumgarner described the current iteration as “in between” a slider and cutter movement-wise, calling it the result of intentional offseason tinkering. Bumgarner’s unusual release point and across-the-body mechanics give it natural tilt, allowing him to bear the pitch in on righties from a starting point that appears well beyond the opposite batter’s box. And its slider origins give it more vertical movement than most cutters, allowing Bumgarner to use it as a swing-and-miss pitch against left-handed hitters.

Consider it evidence of evolution from the now 32-year-old Bumgarner, who was a four-time All-Star with the Giants but has watched his dominance fade in recent years. He’s 8-15 with a 4.84 ERA since joining the D-backs on a five-year, $85 million deal prior to the 2020 season, throwing the rough equivalent of one full season (201 innings) in that stretch. His fastball velocity is ticking up this year, as well, after averaging in the high 80s for his first two years in the desert.

“I use it like a fastball, move it around, up, down, in, out,” Bumgarner said of the cutter. “If I’m not able to get the fastball, curveball or changeup very effectively, and it’s working, I’ll just do what I did today. I do whatever I can to get outs. I don’t care if I throw whatever percentage of what. I’m just here to get outs. That’s all I care about.”