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Phillies Nuggets: What type of season is Madison Bumgarner having?

Madison Bumgarner figures to be tied to the Phillies for much of the summer. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner has made four All-Star teams, won three World Series titles and been a World Series MVP all before his 30th birthday. If Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is given the space to facilitate a trade for the 29-year-old this summer – which not everyone is convinced will happen – there, of course, will be a ton of interest.

But to properly evaluate what a trade return would like like for Bumgarner, who can be a free-agent after the season, it’s first worth asking: What exactly is he at this stage of his career?

Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Phillies had a scout present at Bumgarner’s start in Arizona on May 18, where he allowed four runs on five hits in 6.1 innings. In all likelihood, the organization had someone present to watch Bumgarner pitch in Miami Wednesday night. If they did, they saw Bumgarner take a loss in six plus innings of work against the Marlins.

By no means was Bumgarner bad Wednesday evening – he scattered six hits and allowed just two earned runs in six plus frames. Bumgarner did allow three hits to former Phillie Jorge Alfaro, the first of which was a double off of the right field wall that may have left some smaller stadiums. Alfaro was ultimately stranded at second base in the second inning, but recorded his third hit off Bumgarner to open the seventh inning, with manager Bruce Bochy electing to pull Bumgarner there. Alfaro would ultimately come around to score, tying a game that the Fish would ultimately win 4-2.

Bumgarner entered Wednesday, his 12th start of the season, with a 4.10 ERA and 3.63 FIP. He exited the game with a 4.01 ERA 3.58 FIP. So Bumgarner’s season has been good for a middle of the rotation arm on a contender. At least thus far, there’s been nothing in 2019 that would indicate he could sway who wins a specific division or what team is the favorite in the National League.

The Phillies have employed quite a few successful postseason pitchers – Curt Schilling and Cliff Lee come to mind – but Bumgarner certainly is one of the five best postseason pitchers ever. Bumgarner has three career postseason complete games, along with a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 career postseason innings. Most notably, he won the 2014 World Series MVP, coming in to close Game 7 of the Giants World Series victory over the Kansas City Royals just three days after pitching a complete game in Game 5 of the World Series. His postseason credentials, at least in terms of active pitchers, are unmatched.

But, thankfully for the Phillies, it isn’t 2014 anymore. Bumgarner is having a nice season for the Giants, but isn’t anywhere near the pitcher that went 18-10 with a 2.98 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 3.6 fWAR. Between 2011 and 2016, Bumgarner topped the 200 innings mark six straight seasons, posting a 23.3 combined fWAR, including peaking with a 5.0 fWAR in 2015. You get the sense that’s exactly what happened with Bumgarner in 2015 – he peaked.

In 2017, Bumgarner went 4-9 with a 3.32 ERA, 3.95 FIP and 1.6 fWAR in 111 innings. A year later, in 2018, Bumgarner went 6-7 with a 3.26 ERA, 3.99 FIP in 129.1 innings. To be fair, two bad-luck injuries limited Bumgarner over the past two seasons. In April of 2017, he sustained a grade-two sprain in his left shoulder (his throwing shoulder) while riding his dirt bike. In March of 2018, he broke his pitching hand when a ball was lined at him during Spring Training. Bumgarner didn’t undergo Tommy John Surgery or have any alarming injury. But he is a very different pitcher in terms of approach than he was during his prime.

The strange thing is Bumgarner hasn’t seen a drastic velocity drop that has forced him to change how he pitches. His fastball has lost nearly a mile per hour on his fastball since 2015, but his average fastball velocity in 2019 has been 92.1 mph, his highest mark since 2015. Even with a fastball that is still thrown with enough velocity to be effective, Bumgarner is only using his fastball 41.5 percent of the time in 2019. That’s actually quite an increase over 3.43 percent in 2018, a career-low. But in 2015, when he finished sixth in National League Cy Young Award voting, Bumgarner used his fastball nearly 50 percent of the time. Since 2015, Bumgarner has increased the usage of his cutter (which opponents hit over .325 against in April).

There is something to be said for the Cole Hamels effect. Last season, in addition to benefiting from no longer playing his home games at Globe Life Park, Hamels seemed to relish joining a pennant race, something he was accustomed to being part of during his career. Hamels posted a 4.72 ERA in 20 starts with the Rangers. In 12 starts as a Cub, Hamels posted a 2.36 ERA across 76.1 innings, helping the Cubs to reach the postseason. Could Bumgarner – who, like Hamels, began competing for World Series titles at an early stage of his career – benefit from joining a pennant race? You bet.

At the same time, there’s also something to be said for the Clayton Kershaw effect. Bumgarner may not turn 30 until August, but he made his major league debut when he was 19 and has an extended postseason history. After last night’s start, Bumgarner has pitched 1,712.1 career innings. He may only be 29, but that’s more than 700 career innings than another 29-year-old star left-handed pitcher – Patrick Corbin of the Washington Nationals. Kershaw, who debuted was he was 20 and also has over 150 career postseason innings, has remained very effective when healthy, but the 31-year-old hasn’t pitched more than 175 innings since 2015. Presumably, the plan in trading for Bumgarner would not only be to employ him for the rest of this season, but sign him to a long-term deal after a potential playoff run. There’s ample reason to be concerned about how such a deal would age.

The other thing at play here is that when the Rangers traded Hamels last summer, they weren’t trading a franchise icon. At least thus far, Bumgarner is having a much better season than Hamels was a year ago – although he has certainly benefited from playing his home games in a much more pitcher-friendly park. But even if he continues to pitch at the level he has thus far – good, not great – there will be more pressure on the Giants to secure a franchise-altering return for Bumgarner. Is that unrealistic, especially given that Bumgarner can become a free-agent just months after the trade deadline? Yes. But it may mean that organizationally, the Giants talk themselves into holding onto Bumgarner for the rest of this season, knowing that if they don’t re-sign him, they’ll likely get draft compensation if he leaves in free-agency.

None of this is to say that the Phillies shouldn’t continue to monitor Bumgarner and touch base with the Giants in their quest to add another elite arm at the top of the rotation. But you have to take the full picture into account, and in this case, there are quite a few moving parts.


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