SF Giants: Comparing Madison Bumgarner to MLB's Young Lefty Elite
The Giants' Madison Bumgarner rolled into spring training in 2010 as the Giants' highest-profile minor league prospect. With two-time defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the perennially overshadowed Matt Cain already on board, the Giants were on the brink of having three first-round picks on the same staff together.
An enviable position indeed.
That spring, Bumgarner came out looking more like Kirk Reuter. His fastball topped out in the mid-80s, and he was getting hammered from Phoenix to Tuscon and back. For fans like myself who take the word of minor league scouts and journalists as doctrine, we felt duped. To us, Bumgarner looked more like a bargain bin version of Barry Zito.
Then Bumgarner's arm was healed by Stan Conte's magic dust. Some other things happened, the Giants won the World Series, and the hype surrounding Bumgarner's future is one of the biggest storylines entering 2012.
But how does he stack up to other recent southpaw phenoms? Is MadBum ready to join the ranks of the elite?
For comparison, I chose four other lefty starters who broke onto the All-Star scene over the last five years. Barring injury, this looks to be the cream of the crop for the foreseeable future when it comes to left-handed aces. The list includes Dodgers Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Red Sox ace Jon Lester, Tampa Bay fireballer David Price and Phillies star Cole Hamels.
I compared each of these five pitchers over their first 51 starts, leaving out early career September starts and the occasional relief appearance.
I make no judgments about who is better in this group right now. I am just happy that the Giants' No. 3 starter is in this kind of company.
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It's so in vogue to trash the win-loss record. While yes, even the average Matt Cain fan can tell you that win-loss is not a reliable indicator of pitcher quality, it still makes for an interesting study in the type of environment in which a pitcher plays.
For example, Lester's first two years were in 2006 and 2007, where he pitched for one of the best offenses in baseball, hence the best record with the worst ERA. Somewhat hidden here as well is the fact that Clayton Kershaw did not eat up innings in his first two seasons. He was often out of games before the wins and losses were decided.
Bumgarner's Giants were atrocious offensively. The win-loss record does not tell the story of low run support, an abundance of high-leverage situations and plenty of 2-1 ballgames.
ERA and ERA-Plus
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ERA-plus is a pitcher's ERA adjusted to account for the ballpark in which he pitches, with an average set at 100. The average MLB ERA over the last five years is around 4.30.
Here, you will see Bumgarner's and Kershaw's stats downgraded somewhat by ERA-plus because of the vast confines of AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium. On the other hand is Hamels, who spends half his season pitching in hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park.
Bottom Line: With ERA-plus often ranging from 170 to 180, to all the way down in the 50s, there's no real distinction between these guys.
We will have to get more specific.
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WHIP and K/9 are indicators of a pitcher's control and ability to keep guys off base. Bumgarner's exceptional K/BB ratio is inflated by a ridiculous 5.21 ratio in the second half of 2011. If we decide to take that as a sign of things to come, Bumgarner may be headed into the realm of control artists like Cliff Lee or Tom Glavine.
Kershaw, while always a strikeout machine, can attribute his 2011 Cy Young to the fact that he lowered his WHIP to 0.97 while bumping his K/BB all the way up to 4.6. Price has found similar success by decreasing his wildness. In 2011, his WHIP dropped to 1.12 and his K/BB upped to 3.46.
Control issues often do in a fair number of young aces. Kershaw, Price and Lester all harnessed to some degree, while high pitch counts and spotty control have been the downfall of other lefty phenoms like Jonathan Sanchez, J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano.
If 2011 is any indication, Bumgarner seems headed in the right direction.
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Perhaps Bumgarner's success is a result of luck? Fifty-one starts is a small sample size.
Bumgarner's numbers in this realm match up against the competition. When it comes to BABIP, Bumgarner has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball. Should that number regress to the mean, you will see a corresponding drop in ERA and WHIP.
While his fly ball percentage is low, this could be partially a function of playing in one of the biggest ballparks in baseball.
|Pitcher||BABIP*||Fly Ball %|
*Batting Average on Balls in Play and the percentage of fly balls that turn into home runs are measures of how lucky a pitcher is. On average, about 11-12 percent of fly balls turn into home runs. Significant variations from the average are said to be a result of a pitcher's good or bad luck. The average BABIP is often between .290 and .300.
All five of these guys were thrown into the postseason fire early on in their careers with varying success.
It wasn't until after his third year that Cole Hamels became a Philadelphia World Series legend. Lester, on the other hand, was dominant alongside Josh Beckett in 2007 in leading the Red Sox to their second title.
Bumgarner found himself on the mound in three of the Giants' most crucial games during their 2010 World Series run. He won the clinching game in the NLDS in Atlanta and sufficiently held back the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLCS to give the Giants a 3-1 lead.
And, with the Giants holding a 2-1 lead in the World Series, the rookie walked into the ballpark at Arlington and shut down the best offense in baseball, giving the Giants a commanding lead, allowing Tim Lincecum to seal up the series the next day.
Bumgarner's only 22 years old, and his ability to come through in the big moment is already proven.