In San Francisco, and sadly throughout Major League Baseball as well, there is mythos surrounding Madison Bumgarner, starting pitcher. We’ve already looked at one element of his production line over his career, but the whole thing needs examining, too. Similarly to Manager Bruce Bochy, the inexplicable postseason success of Bumgarner provides a stark contrast to his regular-season numbers.
Bumgarner’s postseason statistics—8-3, 2.11 ERA—are abnormal compared to his regular-season numbers (108-80, 3.01 ERA). In October, the reality is that pitchers’ arms are tired, so any player who improves his regular-season numbers by this much is either extremely fortunate, a physical freak of nature, or doing something other players are not—maybe all three.
Either way, Bumgarner’s regular-season win percentage (.574) is a little low considering his ERA and ERA+ over his 10-year career. That 124 ERA+ demonstrates he is a better-than average pitcher in the regular season. Yet he’s never won 20 games in a season; he’s never finished in the Top 3 of a Cy Young Award voting process; and he’s led the National League in just one performance-based statistical category in his entire career (four complete games in 2015).
This is not the resume of a Hall of Fame starting pitcher; it’s not even close. The facts are that MadBum grades out as just the 247th-best SP of all time, and that’s not going to get him into the Hall. For comparison’s sake, Los Angeles starter Clayton Kershaw is ranked right now as the 48th-best SP in history, because he’s won 20-plus games twice; he has a seven-year streak of finishing in the Top 5 Cy Young voting, including three wins and six times in the Top 3; and he’s lead the NL in performance-based stat categories a whopping 37 times in an 11-year career.
That’s a Hall of Fame pitcher, regardless of postseason performance. It’s objective, and it’s factual. So how do we explain Bumgarner’s postseason success, when he’s been nowhere near that good in the regular season? His regular seasons do not even come close to warranting Hall consideration; the mythos of the postseason has people in S.F. and elsewhere projecting him into Cooperstown.
Let’s look at the 2014 postseason, when Bumgarner cemented his legacy in the eyes of those who do not know better: At the time, he pitched 217 1/3 innings in the regular season, which was a career high. He was 25 years old. Yet somehow, he tossed another 52 2/3 innings in October that were significantly better than those he threw in the regular season. Compare the stat lines:
2014 regular season: 18-10, 2.98 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 8.0 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 9.1 K/9
2014 postseason: 4-1, 1.03 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 4.8 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 1.0 BB/9, 7.7 K/9
A few thoughts. First, in the postseason, hitters always have the advantage, because pitchers are tired. Second, pitchers—after facing a variety of quality in the regular season—are now facing better hitters on a consistent basis than they’ve seen all season. Third, the pressure and the travel take their toll on pitchers more than hitters, as well, due to the fatigue and quality factors noted above.
Forget the W-L record in the comparison above, because that is often circumstantial, especially in the postseason when short rest, bullpen appearances, etc., alter those numbers. The ERA is cut in a third; the WHIP is significantly lower; and the hits allowed number is unreal. Home runs decreased, as did walk—both almost in half. The strikeout rate is the only thing to suggest that maybe Bumgarner was tired.
Does he literally have ice water in his veins? Not at all. This postseason was an outlier for Bumgarner, although it was the one where he pitched the most innings. Look at his three postseasons for the Giants on their World Series runs (plus his 2016 October, for good measure):
2010: 20 2/3 IP, 2-0, 2.18 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 0.4 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 7.8 K/9
2012: 15 IP, 1-2, 6.00 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 10.2 H/9, 1.8 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 8.4 K/9
2014: 52 2/3 IP, 4-1, 1.03 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 4.8 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 1.0 BB/9, 7.7 K/9
2016: 14 IP, 1-0, 1.93 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, 6.4 K/9
Again, after throwing a career-high number of innings in the 2014 regular-season, Bumgarner then went to improve upon his performance by more than 50% overall in the final 50-plus inning of the season—when his arm should have been falling off, by any reasonable medical expectation based on decades of MLB postseason observation and reality.
(Note: Keep this 2014 postseason anomaly in mind as you also look at Bumgarner’s hitting improvement at the same time.)
His other postseasons are more normal, by far. In 2010, for example, Bumgarner was a rookie who made just 18 regular-season starts at the MLB level and gave up 9.6 H/9 in the process of compiling a 3.00 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. His postseason improvement is within the standard measurement of possible improvement.
In 2012, Bumgarner was terrible in his first two October starts and very good in his third. Overall, though, the numbers are a mess, but they’re typical for a pitcher who had a 3.37 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP over 32 regular-season starts and 208 1/3 innings. He was tired, and his inconsistency showed in October.
By the last postseason (2016) for the southpaw, he again is reverting to normalcy in terms of regular-season and postseason correlation. Bumgarner threw 226 2/3 innings in the regular season, his new career high, and he was inconsistent again in the postseason. His first start was stellar; his second one was mediocre. At this point, he was also 27 years old, which is the accepted physical-peak performance age for MLB players in terms of statistical analysis these days.
The 2014 postseason stands out like a sore thumb in Bumgarner’s stat line. But hey, considering this is San Francisco, what else would you expect but myth making based on some very fishy statistical anomalies. Yeah, sometimes players get hot: That happens. But they don’t get that hot for that long at the end of the toughest season of a player’s career so far, in terms of toll on the body. His 2010, 2012 and 2016 postseason efforts are akin to what we would expect of a pitcher with his regular-season production level.
That’s the myth that has Bumgarner entrenched in MLB lore and San Francisco legend. There’s no way he belongs in the Hall of Fame, however, because his regular-season numbers represent his real value—not the postseason ones, especially that very peculiar 2014 October when Bumgarner’s arm should have been falling off.