MadBum Rising in the Desert

Madison Bumgarner should be a pitcher to watch in year two in Arizona.

After being the face of the San Francisco Giants franchise for 11 years (which also included helping the franchise win three World Series rings), Madison Bumgarner moved to Arizona after the 2019 season, signing a five-year, $85 million deal to be the face of the Diamondbacks rotation.

The deal seemed a bit much to some critics, especially in regard to the number of years. However, Bumgarner was coming off a solid final season with the Giants, as he posted a 3.90 ERA, 3.3 fWAR, and 203 strikeouts in 207.2 IP, according to Fangraphs.

While Bumgarner was not expected to be the borderline “elite” pitcher he was from 2014-2017 (3.5 fWAR or higher every season during that timespan), 2019 demonstrated that Bumgarner could still be a workhorse for the Diamondbacks in 2020 and beyond. His final season in San Francisco was his first 200-plus innings and 200-strikeout season since 2016, as he struggled with injury in 2017 and 2018, which limited him to 240.2 IP over that two-year span.

Unfortunately, while Bumgarner’s arrival in Arizona came with much excitement from the fan base (especially after being such a foil for Diamondbacks hitters for so long), Bumgarner’s desert debut was a remarkable thud during the shortened 2020 season. Bumgarner was limited to nine starts and only pitched 41.2 IP, as much of his season was spent on the IL in August.

Overall, Bumgarner’s 2020 metrics were downright ugly, as he posted a 6.48 ERA, 7.18 FIP, -0.5 fWAR, according to FanGraphs data. Furthermore, his Statcast metrics weren’t much better. The former World Series MVP posted exit velocity and hard-hit rates that ranked in the bottom 28th percentile; a whiff rate that ranked in the bottom 4th percentile; fastball velocity that ranked in the bottom 2nd percentile; and a barrel rate that ranked in the bottom 1st percentile.

Even though he did not pitch many innings in 2020, Bumgarner was one of the least valuable starting pitchers in baseball in 2020. And at 31-years-of-age, and coming off a remarkable drop in fastball velocity, Bumgarner has been seen as a stay-away in most fantasy league formats, as he is only owned in 24 percent of Yahoo! leagues and 15 percent of ESPN leagues.

However, while he may be seen primarily as a deep or NL-only league option for most fantasy owners, Bumgarner could be a dark horse worth paying attention to in 2021, especially if this Spring has been any indication.


Changes in Spin and Velocity


The most obvious metric that stands out for Bumgarner from his 2020 campaign was the significant drop in velocity in his four-seam fastball from his career norms. Let’s take a look at how his four-seamer profiled last year with the Diamondbacks, and how it compared to the profile and other metrics of his four-seamer in 2018 and 2019 when he was with the Giants:

Bumgarner Four-Seam Fastball Metrics, 2018-2020

Bumgarner has always relied heavily on his four-seam fastball for success throughout his career, even early on in his Giants tenure. While he has utilized the cutter more in his pitching arsenal since introducing it in 2017, Bumgarner has been at his most effective when he throws his four-seamer the most, as evidenced from this pitch percentage chart from Savant.

However, in 2017 and 2018, Bumgarner not only battled injury but also saw a dip in the effectiveness of his fastball, as demonstrated by the pitch posting 15.7 and 12.7 percent whiff rates in 2017 and 2018. However, in 2019, he made some adjustments to make his four-seamer more effective, and that helped Bumgarner produce a whiff rate of 21.7 percent on the pitch.

So what changes did Bumgarner make?

The most pronounced difference in 2019 was that Bumgarner added a significant amount of spin on his fastball, as the spin rate on the pitch increased 323 revolutions per minute (RPMs) from 2018 to 2019. The increased spin on the four-seamer appeared to have an impact on the movement of the pitch, especially on the vertical end.

Let’s take a look at Bumgarner’s vertical movement chart over his career, and notice the difference in four-seamer movement (red line) from 2018 to 2019:

As one can see from the graph above, Bumgarner increased the movement by nearly a couple of inches on the fastball, which made it a more effective pitch, especially in two-strike counts. Here’s a look at his improved and elevated four-seamer punching out Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola with ease.


In 2020, Bumgarner continued to maintain a strong spin rate on his four-seamer in Arizona. He averaged 2,395 RPMs on the pitch last season, which ranked him in the 85th percentile last season. Unfortunately, while the spin remained strong on the pitch, it dipped dramatically in velocity, as Bumgarner lost nearly three MPH on his fastball from 2019, according to Savant data.

Thus, while Bumgarner’s pitch continued to grow in vertical movement, it became even more hittable, as the xWOBA on the pitch went from .324 in 2019 to .463 in 2020. Furthermore, he also saw the exit velocity on batted balls on the four-seamer increase as well, as it went from 90.5 to 91.3 from 2019 to 2020, respectively. Thus, it did not surprise baseball fans that Bumgarner not only posted a measly 8.4 percent whiff rate on the fastball in 2020, but also gave up big hits like this one below to the Giants’ Wilmer Flores:


Notice how the 2020 pitch is pretty much in the same area, and yet, the result is vastly different. A 91 mph four-seam fastball with some good movement will produce a fair share of swings and misses, especially with Bumgarner’s history of control (career 4.14 K/BB rati0). However, an 89 MPH in the same zone will be a meatball for any hitter, and hitters were able to tee off of those meatballs frequently in 2020, as evidenced by the 84 percent “meatball swing” percentage, which was an 8.6 percent increase from 2019.

Thus, in order for Bumgarner to be the pitcher that he was back in 2019 in San Francisco, the velocity will need to see an uptick in 2021.


Seeing Gains (and More Changes) This Spring


Bumgarner has not pitched much this spring, as the Diamondbacks seem to be treading carefully with their multi-year investment after he struggled with injury a year ago. Bumgarner has made three starts, and though his last outing wasn’t the greatest, there have been some promising signs that he may be due for a bounce back, especially in regard to strikeouts and walks, as evidenced below:

2021 Spring Training
2021 3 2 1 6.35 3 11.1 8 8 8 3 3 16 0.971 6.4 2.4 2.4 12.7 5.33 8.0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/28/2021.

Judging from his three starts in Cactus League play, Bumgarner is showing signs that he can be the pitcher he was in San Francisco for this upcoming season. The fact that he has struck out 16 batters in 11.1 innings of work, and has only allowed three walks is promising, even if it may only be spring training. Furthermore, reports on Bumgarner’s velocity has been encouraging, as evidenced below:


90-91 mph is a lot more promising than 88-89 (though reports from his latest start hinted that his velocity was more in the 89-90 range), especially if Bumgarner can continue to generate the same kind of spin on his fastball that he has showcased the past couple of seasons.

However, an increase in velocity isn’t the only difference people have seen from Bumgarner this Spring. According to reports, especially from the “B” games that he has pitched, Bumgarner has been making some modifications with his pace and arm slot in order to give hitters different looks throughout the game. Hence, it seems like Bumgarner is incorporating some of the same tactics used by a former Giants teammate, as hinted by The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan:

Buchanan goes more into Bumgarner’s approach in The Athletic piece, but this bit really sticks out as evidence that this new strategy from Bumgarner may be more than just some “spring tinkering”:

From where did the 31-year-old draw the inspiration for such a tactic? Look no further than his teammate of four years with the Giants, right-hander Johnny Cueto. Cueto is the master of disrupting a hitter’s timing. He quick-pitches, he pauses on his back foot. He even does a little shimmy and a little shake sometimes.

Bumgarner isn’t looking to get that groovy on the mound — “I don’t know if I’ll go that far,” he said Sunday — but he is looking to make it harder for hitters to sync up with him. Cueto, he said, “is the best at it.” So, why not fold it in to what Bumgarner already does well?

“Honestly, I think it makes too much sense not to do if you can do it,” Bumgarner said. “I don’t know where we’ll go after this, but it’s something I’ll be playing with.”

“Diamondbacks star Madison Bumgarner is adding a little Johnny Cueto to his game” by Zach Buchanan; The Athletic

Thus, if Bumgarner does add a “quick pitching” element to his approach, and sees an uptick in his velocity, then it is certainly possible that Bumgarner could go from a “former ace in regression” to one that could be due for a surprising bounce back in 2021.


How Does MadBum Stack to Other Similar Pitchers?


In Nick Pollack’s pre-season Top 200 SP Rankings on Pitcher List, Pollack ranked Bumgarner 152, behind the Angels’ Jose Quintana (151), but ahead of other veteran arms such as Martin Perez of the Red Sox (154) and Jon Lester of the Nationals (157). I felt that comparing Bumgarner to those other three left-handed pitchers would be worthwhile, especially since it is easy to foresee fantasy owners discerning among these four lefty veterans for starting pitching help in the late rounds in deeper draft formats.

I decided to analyze all four pitchers based on plate discipline data over a two-year span from 2019 to 2020. Including 2019 metrics as well would also give me a better idea of how the four pitchers compared over a larger sample of innings.

Here is what the data produced:

Bumgarner, Quintana, Lester, and Perez 19-20 Plate Discipline

Based on the plate discipline metrics above, Bumgarner would be the best option of the four. He not only is superior in terms of generating strikes, but he also limits contact the best of the four, and he works the most efficiently as well, as evidenced by the 69.1 percent first-strike rate, which is 4.6 percent better than Perez, the second-best pitcher in that category among this group of arms.

Bumgarner may be thrust into a more active role in the Diamondbacks rotation, especially in the midst of Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen suffering a hairline fracture in his forearm recently that may put him on the IL to begin the year. As a result, Bumgarner has been appointed as the Diamondbacks’ Opening Day starter for a second-straight season, something that would’ve been seen as unthinkable less than a month ago. That will only add to Bumgarner’s starts and innings this year, which could only add to his overall value to fantasy owners.

There is no question that Bumgarner is far from the pitcher that he was from 2014 through 2017, a time where he pretty much single-handedly led the Giants to a World Series title in 2014 and was one of the more feared pitchers in the game. However, Bumgarner has always proven to be a productive innings-eater when healthy who can rack up strikeouts, limit walks, and produced respectable ERA and WHIP numbers, even in his post-peak period, as 2019 showed.

Is Bumgarner healthy and ready to be that pitcher again? Well, the early returns are good so far this Spring, and the Diamondbacks are treating him with care, which could be a good or bad sign (it will be interesting to see how the Diamondbacks handle Bumgarner after Gallen’s injury).

That being said, Bumgarner may be worth taking a flier on in the late rounds for pitcher-starved teams, especially in deep or NL-only leagues.

And it is certainly possible that he could surpass his 293 ADP value, according to Fantasy Pros, by season’s end…especially if the velocity and changes we have seen this Spring prove to have a lasting impact.

Photos by Daniel Gluskoter | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on Instagram)

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien is a high school educator and baseball blogger based in the Kansas City metro area. In addition to writing for Pitcher List, he writes about the Kansas City Royals at his own blog, the Royals Reporter, which can be found at royalsreporter.com.

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