The Astros, as one would expect given their pitching woes of late, have been linked in one way or another to just about every major trade deadline candidate in recent weeks. There are arguments for and against the acquisition of most of the players they’ve been linked to, but one particular name has been bandied about some recently (also in this piece from MLB Trade Rumors) that it seems, to this writer, the Astros should completely avoid: former World Series hero and three time World Champion Madison Bumgarner. Yes, despite his nine inning, one run performance against Noah Syndergaard last night.
Now, there are already a couple of cracks in the facade of his potential acquisition even without this piece - in much more recent days, there have been questions as to whether the San Francisco Giants (who have been on a good run recently) will even sell at all. And even if they do decide to sell, there’s no guarantee they’d move one of the most popular players in franchise history. It seems prudent for them to do so, to this writer, but more than simple, cold baseball arithmetic goes into such decisions.
Assuming they are indeed amenable to a move, however, there are quite a few reasons for the Astros to stay away, and that’s what this conversation is intended to be about.
The good news for Bumgarner fans who root for his trade to the Astros, is that quite often when this writer opines against trading for a given player, the trade ends up happening...so perhaps this opposition should be taken with a grain of salt.
Here’s why it’s a bad idea, based on the publicly available information on hand.
Of Myths And Men
The first and most crucial aspect of understanding both the desire of most fans to trade for Bumgarner in the first place as well as a big part of why it’s a bad idea is in understanding the truth about his mythic playoff performance over the years. Certainly there is no doubt that his playoff performance, especially in the 2014 World Series, was superlative. The question is: how does this inform expectations of his performance going forward?
Aside from difficult-to-quantify aspects of trade value like “veteran presence” and “clubhouse leadership” (which are legitimate qualities, to be sure, but are perhaps overstated in their import often by fans, and which are almost impossible to quantify based on publicly available data and as such don’t have much place in the analysis of amateurs like the authors of this site and like almost all of those reading on this site) the fact that a pitcher has met with success in the postseason historically is almost as useless for the purposes of amateur analysis as playoff struggles would be. The most commonly-used example is, of course, Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs - no serious person would refuse Kershaw’s presence on their roster based on his playoff struggles, historically. By the same token, player success in the playoffs should be taken with an equally huge grain of salt - at least, insofar as utilization as predictors of future performance. The playoffs themselves are just very, very small samples of data - especially if one agrees, as this author does, that it’s more indicative to view each playoff season as its own unique event, rather than combining all playoffs statistics into one large pool from which to quantify.
Long story short, each playoff appearance (even in subsequent years) is separated by months and months between events, and a confluence of factors can change (or not) to affect each instance individually. A player can conceivably hit a hot streak at just the right time (think Colby Rasmus in 2015, or Carlos Beltran in 2004) and dominate a given postseason run. If they hit a hot streak (or are just really, really good and play at or around their normal level) in multiple playoff appearances at the right time, a casual observer can view these instances in the aggregate as evidence of a greater ability to perform under pressure; to perform when it counts the most. Conversely, as was the case with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio once upon a time, if a player hits struggles at the end of a long, draining season (or perhaps faces the likes of Kevin Brown or Greg Maddux or John Smoltz or Tom Glavine in the postseason...) and happens upon a cold streak in the playoffs on more than one small-sample-size occasion, their playoff numbers can take a huge hit overall, and fans might begin to observe the lack of “clutch performance” in them.
Others can view the events as disparate instances of hot streaks and good performances (or cold streaks and bad performances) that happened to coincide with the onset of the playoffs and not ascribe extra significance to them beyond evaluating the individual performances as they happen and within their own extremely volatile small sample windows in a given season.
As you might have surmised, the author of this piece falls in the latter group, and as such doesn’t pay much attention to playoff success or failure - at least, not as a prognostication tool in endeavoring to anticipate future performance.
However, even if you fall into the former group and consider playoff performance to be of strong merit - one simply does not acquire a baseball player for what they have done in the past. At least, not in today’s game. One acquires a player based on the performance they are likely to achieve going forward. Which brings us to the more data-intensive section of the piece.
Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign
A brief caveat: All statistics herein are courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise notated, and current as of this typing on 7/18/19 - they do not include Bumgarner’s nine inning gem against the Mets last night.
There are, of course, things Madison Bumgarner still does well. After seeing his K/9 numbers take precipitous hits over the last two seasons (from 9.97 K/9 in 2016 to 8.19 in 2017 and 7.57 in 2018, the latter two seasons of which were injury-shortened) he has rebounded to post a strong mark (9.33 K/9) through 20 starts this season so far - three more starts than he made in all of 2017, and only one fewer than he made in all of 2018. Returned, too, is the sub-2 BB/9 number reminiscent of his halcyon days as a preeminent ace for the San Francisco Giants. His 19.8% K-BB ratio this season is more than a full percentage point better than his career mark in the metric, and the highest it’s been since 2016. These are strong indicators of a rebound after two down seasons by the Bay.
However, there are other very troubling indicators - especially if one views the injuries and downward trend in stuff and bat-missing ability of the past several seasons as troubling aging indicators of a pitcher who, while only being 29, is already approaching 2,000 innings in the Major Leagues.
For starters, Bumgarner has experienced a dip in velocity over the last couple seasons. This isn’t uncommon for pitchers as they approach 2,000 Major League innings, but the absence of surprise doesn’t negate the minor trouble it portends for a guy who isn’t an extremely high-velo arm to begin with. Velocity isn’t necessarily indicative of prowess (after all, Bumgarner’s peak velo was only an average of 92 miles per hour at his height, and it is still sitting at 91.2 miles per hour this year) but typically, especially in today’s game, pitchers who lack massive stuff and/or velo need to compensate based on command and quality of opponent contact.
In other words, the real difference comes in the type and quality of contact he’s allowing this year.
Right off the bat, the hard contact percentage jumps off the page. Starting after 2013, Bumgarner’s Hard% has jumped every subsequent season...to the point that now, just five years after he posted a 26.9% hard hit rate in 2014, his hard hit rate has jumped nearly a full twenty percentage points.
To say again: it has jumped twenty percent. His 46.1% hard hit percentage this season is almost 16% higher than his career average, and for a period of time this season it was the worst mark in baseball among qualified starters. He has since been overtaken by Adrian Sampson of the Texas Rangers for the dubious honor, but still: being second worst in all of baseball in hard hit percentage is not a place you want to be, as a pitcher.
Adding fuel to the contact quality fire, his soft contact percentage is the lowest it’s been over the course of his entire career - just a paltry 15% so far this season, which is 3.2% worse than his career average and considerably lower than the 19% or so he was hovering around during his best years. Even his medium contact (the middling-exit velocity baseballs) percentage is diminished and has been diminishing steadily since that epic 2014 season. From 2017 to 2018, his medium hit percentage dropped from 48.2% down to 40.6%...and this year, it’s dropped even more, down to a 38.9% mark. Basically, when batters are making contact, they’re hitting rockets.
Once one understands the alarming upward trend in hard contact percentage, it becomes prudent to understand where the baseball is being hit while it’s being hit harder. More hard contact is generally bad regardless, but if the harder contact is accompanied by, say, an increased number of balls put on the ground, it might ostensibly be somewhat mitigated by moving from a team like the Giants to a team like the Astros, who achieve a higher than ordinary number of outs based on their defensive positioning and shifting.
So, what does the data say?
It says that Madison Bumgarner has seen his percentage of batted balls on the ground drop from an already-fly ball heavy mark of 42.7% just last season down to an anemic 36.4% this season - good for the fifth lowest mark among all qualified starters. To put it into proper Astros-centric perspective, Justin Verlander (who leads all of baseball in number of home runs allowed this year) has one of the four lower percentages of ground balls (his is 34.3% and is good for the second lowest mark in baseball) but has limited hard contact much better and has done a better job of missing bats than Bumgarner has. On top of that, Verlander is somehow still fielding an unsustainable .186 BABIP that’s helping keep his overall numbers lower. Bumgarner has a not-terrible BABIP of .314 (in fact it’s far more in line with league average than Verlander’s is, and closer to Bumgarner’s career mark than Verlander’s is to his career mark) that is also affecting number comparisons between the two. Basically, they both give up a lot of hard contact and a ton of balls in the air - Bumgarner just gives up more hard contact while allowing nearly as many balls put in the air and missing fewer bats.
Going even further beyond these marks, Bumgarner gives up an extremely high number of pulled baseballs. His 45.5% pull mark this season is the highest percentage he’s allowed since his truncated debut season in 2009, and it ranks as the eighth heighest such mark among all qualified starting pitchers in the Major Leagues this season.
This is troublesome information irrespective of ballpark or competition, but consider this additionally:
- According to ESPN’s 2019 Ballpark Factors, Oracle Park in San Francisco is dead last in all of baseball among home run hitting environments, and in terms of overall run scoring as well. In other words, it’s the best pitcher’s park in baseball this year. Minute Maid Park, on the other hand, is twentieth on the list in run scoring (still a pretty neutral or slightly-pitcher friendly park, the way it’s been almost every year of its existence) but twelfth in home run environs. The only stadium that Madison Bumgarner currently pitches in often that offers a more prolific home run environment than Minute Maid Park this season? Coors Field. American League West opponent stadiums (Angel Stadium and the Ballpark in Arlington) are also in the top ten among home run environments this season.
- While pitcher/batter handedness matchups tend to get overblown quite a bit, it’s still worth taking a look down potential American League playoff rosters and noting the following notable right-handed (or switch) hitters to ostensibly face the left-handed throwing Bumgarner in the playoffs:
Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox)
Mookie Betts (Boston Red Sox)
J.D. Martinez (Boston Red Sox)
Carlos Santana (Cleveland Indians)
Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians)
Jose Ramirez (Cleveland Indians)
Roberto Perez (Cleveland Indians)
Jorge Polanco (Minnesota Twins)
Byron Buxton (Minnesota Twins)
Nelson Cruz (Minnesota Twins)
Mitch Garver (Minnesota Twins)
Marwin Gonzalez (Minnesota Twins)
Jonathan Schoop (Minnesota Twins)
And who can forget...
DJ LeMahieu (New York Yankees)
Gleyber Torres (New York Yankees)
Aaron Judge (New York Yankees)
Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees)
Giancarlo Stanton (New York Yankees)
Luke Voit (New York Yankees)
Giovanny Urshela (New York Yankees)
That’s not even considering the National League, because first one has to traverse that American League gauntlet.
But does Madison Bumgarner perhaps have reverse splits, as one last effort to preserve a modicum of interest in a trade for him from the perspective of an Astros fan?
The short answer is no - right-handed batters hit him significantly harder than left-handed batters do:
Madison Bumgarner 2019 Splits
Could it be just a fluke of a season for him? Perhaps throughout his Major League career he’s been more effective at neutralizing right-handed bats?
Madison Bumgarner Career Splits
So, to conclude: take a 29 year old pitcher with 1,700 or so Major League innings logged on his arm who is currently posting (again - not including his July 18th start against the Mets) a 3.86 ERA (3.81 FIP/3.98 xFIP) with a 9.33 K/9 and a 1.93 BB/9 in the best pitcher’s ballpark in all of Major League Baseball while still giving up more hard contact than almost anyone in the sport and who offers more pull contact (among that hard contact) than all but seven other qualified starters and who also offers fewer balls on the ground than all but four other qualified starting pitchers in the game, and put him in Minute Maid Park (the Crawford Boxes leap to mind, but pulling the baseball down the right field line also leads to a lot of home runs in the ballpark) and line up that gauntlet of opposition for him to face.
Brent Strom can only do so much. There’s a very real chance that Bumgarner in an Astros uniform doesn’t even make a playoff start. If he does, it seems likely to only be a start or two as the fourth starter, in the League Championship Series and the World Series if it gets to that point.
It screams itself hoarse as a recipe for disaster, and the Astros should avoid it at all costs.