Insider Trading: Madison Bumgarner

If you’re a baseball fan, you know the narrative: Madison Bumgarner, big game pitcher. His performance during the San Francisco Giants’ 2014 World Series run: a 1.03 ERA in fifty-two and two-thirds innings pitched over seven appearances; seven runs allowed on thirty-six total baserunners; in the World Series-clinching Game 7, five scoreless in relief to preserve a 3-2 lead on just two days rest after a complete game shutout to win Game 5 (his second of the playoffs), culminating in World Series MVP honors to add to his NLCS MVP. That’s all backed up by stellar career playoff numbers: a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings pitched with two complete game shutouts in do-or-die Wild Card games. At the trade deadline, when the best teams in baseball are looking to bolster their rosters for the playoffs, that resumĂ© makes MadBum the flashiest name on the market.

The 2019 playoffs will mark the fifth anniversary of Bumgarner’s 2014 heroics. The San Francisco Giants starter, who will be a free agent for the first time after the 2019 season, turns 30 on August 1st. From 2011 to 2016, Bumgarner posted six consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched and the fourth-highest innings total in that span (sandwiched between Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander). He’s logged 1,754 innings since the start of his rookie season in 2010, ranking him 12th during that timeframe. MadBum’s been incredibly durable throughout his career, landing on the disabled list only twice: he sustained a shoulder injury in a dirt bike accident in April 2017 and was hit on his pitching hand by a Whit Merrifield line drive in Spring Training 2018, breaking his finger. Despite that durability, age and that large workload might have started to take their toll on the 6’4 southpaw.

Bumgarner’s ERA and FIP have increased in recent years as he appears to exit his prime. Unsurprisingly, his DRA- has also suffered, falling from a career-high 59.7 in 2016 (rating Bumgarner 40% better than average that season) to 90.9 this season (less than 10% better than the average pitcher). According to Statcast data, Bumgarner has seen his average exit velocity allowed and hard hit rate against (34.4% is average in 2019) increase in every season since 2015 (with the exception of 2018, when it remained steady). Offensive production against him has increased as well.

YearExit VelocityHard Hit %DRA-wOBAxwOBA
201586.6 mph30.1%60.1.266.273
201687.5 mph31.1%59.7.269.286
201787.8 mph34.3%77.9.296.318
201887.8 mph35.3%99.8.300.321
201989.6 mph42.1%90.9.307.324

Statcast tells us that Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball velocity has also taken a step backwards. The average velocity on his primary offering is down 1.1 mph from its 2016 peak at 92.7 mph to 91.6 mph in 2019. That 91.6 mph average actually represents an increase over his 2017 and 2018 marks, which sat at 91.1 and 90.8 mph, respectively. It’s likely that the 2017 shoulder injury and broken finger on his left-hand in 2018 sapped some of the zip from his four-seamer in those seasons. Still, Bumgarner’s powers may have started to dwindle. That average fastball velocity puts him in the 19th percentile according to Baseball Savant.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom for Bumgarner, though. His 2019 FIP and DRA- have both improved over his 2018 levels (from 3.99 to 3.70 and 99.8. to 90.9). That recovery is likely due to the 4.8% increase in his strikeout rate from 19.8% in 2018 (2.5% below league average) to 24.6% in 2019 (1.8% above league average). His chase rate (the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a pitcher gets hitters to swing at) is the highest of his career at 36.2%, up from 31.4% in 2018 (league average is 31.3% in 2019). MadBum’s swinging strike rate (the percentage of pitches that result in swings-and-misses) is the second-highest of his career at 12.0% and a 2.8% increase over 2018 (11.1% is average in 2019). As a result, Bumgarner is allowing contact on 76.6% of pitches, his best contact rate since 2016 and a 3.6% decrease from 2018. Considering the increasing amount of high-quality contact against Bumgarner in recent years, less frequent contact is great news for the Giants’ lefty.

It looks like the increased swing-and-miss in Bumgarner’s game is primarily the result of dramatic increases in spin rate and, consequently, movement on Bumgarner’s most frequently thrown pitches in 2019: the four-seam fastball, the cutter, and the curveball, which he’s thrown a combined 93.4% of the time in 2019.

Four-Seam Fastball
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2,082 rpm2,390 rpm
Vertical Movement19.6 inches17.2 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-14%-3%
Whiff%12.8%21.9%
Cutter
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2,129 rpm2,472 rpm
Vertical Movement32.6 inches29.6 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-9%-3%
Whiff%24.9%27.8%
Curveball
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2356 rpm2624 rpm
Horizontal Movement9.4 inches12.5 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-3%20%
Whiff%27.4%33.3%

These jumps in spin rate are not all as extreme as they appear. That four-seam fastball spin rate is not unprecedented for Bumgarner. He registered average four-seam spin rates of 2315 and 2309 rpm in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Moving to the cut fastball, it appears that, prior to 2017, the Statcast system categorized Bumgarner’s cutter as a slider. In 2016, that pitch had an average spin rate of 2,307 rpm. His curveball also topped out in 2016 at a spin rate of 2,368 rpm. Similar to his fastball velocity, it looks like Bumgarner has recovered some spin rate in 2019 after two injury-affected seasons in 2017 and 2018. However, his cutter and curveball have taken large leaps above their previous career-high spin rates. Whether four-seam fastball spin rates can be naturally increased is unsettled and controversial territory, but breaking ball spin rates can be improved with changes in grip and release. It’s entirely possible that Bumgarner made some adjustments to his cutter and curveball deliveries to gain more spin and movement in the offseason. This picture (borrowed from a tweet by Giants beat reporter Alex Pavlovic) from spring training provides even more evidence of a potential change.

Adjustments or not, Bumgarner may have turned a corner recently. Since June 25th, in five starts, he has a 1.55 ERA, 1.83 FIP, 30.4% strikeout rate, and 4.5% walk rate. His FIP ranks fourth since June 25th among pitchers with twenty or more innings pitched, and his FIP-, which is a park- and league-adjusted version of FIP on a scale where 100 is league-average (lower is better) is 44, bumping Bumgarner only one spot to fifth.

A pitcher’s home stadium should be a primary concern when considering a trade candidate. Oracle Park is a well-known pitchers park. According to ESPN Park Factors, since 2010, it has rated in the bottom third of all major league ballparks in terms of run-scoring in all but two seasons, ranked in the bottom five parks for offense six times, and has been dead last three times, including currently in 2019 when it is also suppressing home runs at a league-leading rate. Bumgarner’s FIP- in 2019 is 89, ranking him 30th among 70 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more innings. His 3.70 FIP ranks him 22nd among the same group. A move to a more hitter-friendly ballpark could hurt Bumgarner’s numbers slightly.

This feels like a familiar story. On July 2, 2017, Justin Verlander’s ERA hit a high-water mark at 4.96 after surrendering 7 runs to the Cleveland Indians in 3.1 innings. From that point through August 30th, he started 11 games, posting a 2.32 ERA and 84 strikeouts over 74 innings. He was traded just seconds before the now defunct August 31st waiver trade deadline. Verlander got even better with the help of his new team, and the rest is well-documented history.

As we approach the 2019 trade deadline, contending teams are circling a starting pitcher in apparent decline as his current team demands a high price for the franchise-defining ace. The star has potentially made some tweaks and appears to have returned to form, poised for a playoff run. The team that deals for Bumgarner will undoubtedly be having visions of 2014 when they do, but it won’t be because of the narrative you know.

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