Buyer Beware: Madison Bumgarner Is No Longer a Big-Game Lock

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 27, 2019

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner follows the path Wilson Ramos's two-run, home run, during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Madison Bumgarner would like everyone, presumably including potential trade suitors, to know he's still got it.

Does he, though?

We're not talking about Bumgarner's credentials. The left-hander has been an All-Star four times in 11 seasons with the San Francisco Giants and is a three-time World Series champion. He earned each of his rings, none more so than when he ripped off a 1.03 ERA in 52.2 innings in October 2014.

Never mind the guy he wants to be remembered as. That's the guy Bumgarner wants to be known as now.

As the 29-year-old told Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic:

"I'm the same guy I was in 2014, contrary to popular belief. I know that gets said a lot, 'Oh, he's not the same guy he used to be.' That's just ... wrong. Numbers are what they are right now, but let's just wait to the end of the season. And we'll check. Maybe they won't be there and maybe they will. All I know is, the last two years, the stuff was a little different rushing back from two injuries. Now? How I feel is the same. My stuff is the same."

The "numbers," of course, aren't so sure.

Given that Bumgarner made only 38 starts in 2017 and 2018 because of shoulder and hand injuries, it's a positive that he's up to 17 starts this season. Yet his 4.21 ERA is nothing like the 3.03 career ERA he had coming into the year. It's the mark of an average starter, not an ace.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

As Baggarly reported, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is ready to hold on to Bumgarner if he doesn't get offers to his liking for the southpaw. But in light of the club's need to rebuild and Bumgarner's pending free agency, that sure seems like a bluff.

It sounds like contenders aren't about to fall for it. To wit, MLB Network's Jon Heyman said on the Big Time Baseball podcast (h/t Katherine Acquavella of CBSSports.com) that the New York Yankees are split on Bumgarner's value. Generally, the feeling may be that he has more name value than actual value.

"Bumgarner might be a big name, but I'm looking at somebody who may have actual impact; he hasn't pitched well since his injury," one American League general manager told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand in May.

But in fairness to Bumgarner, he wasn't altogether kidding himself by insisting he's not fundamentally broken.

After his fastball went missing for a couple of years, its 91.8 mph average velocity for 2019 isn't far off its 92.1 mph peak from 2014 and 2015. Likewise, his average spin rate is the best it's been since Statcast began tracking in 2015.

Lo and behold, his strikeouts-per-nine rate has recovered. Throw in an additional improvement in his walks-per-nine rate, and his 4.21 ERA begins to reek of bad luck.

But while all this certainly supports Bumgarner's notion that he's still the same guy he was in 2014, well, that was five years ago. That's a long time in baseball years, and he's made only two postseason starts in the interim. His reputation as a big-game pitcher is arguably dated.

More to the point, his velocity, spin rate, strikeout and walk numbers don't tell the whole story of where he is as a pitcher. Because there's also this:

Pictured here is the rate of hard contact that Bumgarner has allowed since 2011 (his first full season) relative to the league average. It didn't used to be a problem. It very much is now.

Seeing this trend in conjunction with the ones previously discussed is...odd, to say the least. But above all, it gets at how his four-seam fastball just isn't the weapon that it used to be.

Its rising action hasn't recovered to the same degree as its velocity, and even the latter recovery must be taken with a grain of salt. In 2015, Bumgarner's 92.1 mph heater was faster than the average starter's 91.7 mph heater. Four years later, his 91.8 mph is significantly slower than the 92.7 mph average.

Despite this, Bumgarner still works primarily off his four-seamer. Moreover, he's putting four-seamers in the strike zone at his highest rate since 2015. Here's a chart that shows how well that's working:

In short, not well at all. Bumgarner used to get away with challenging hitters in the zone with his fastball. Now the slugging percentage he allows on such pitches is easily outpacing the league average.

Given that four-seamers account for 10 of the 17 home runs he's allowed, this is a root cause of his struggle with the long ball. And it would be worse if he didn't have the Oracle Park advantage:

  • Home: 9 GS, .418 SLG%, 8 HR
  • Away: 8 GS, .478 SLG%, 9 HR

Bumgarner is only half of a great pitcher right now. He's fit to take the ball in the postseason, but it's hard to make a case for him as a Game 1 starter. Or even a Game 2 starter, for that matter.

Granted, whether it's as simple as playing down his four-seamer or perhaps altering how he throws it, he may only be one adjustment from reclaiming his ace form. Now more than ever, such adjustments have been known to happen. Whether it's the Houston Astros with Justin Verlander or the Tampa Bay Rays with Tyler Glasnow, it just takes the right team making the right suggestions.

Teams nonetheless have good reasons to not want to pay a premium for the chance to tinker with Bumgarner. If one can get a good deal on him, then great. Go for it.

If not, it might want to consider Marcus Stroman, Matthew Boyd or even Max Scherzer instead.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.


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