At 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds, he’s a forceful, feared creature who has cultivated a reputation as one of the most dominant pitchers of the last decade.
But with each time he emerges in his natural habitat — the mound in the middle of the diamond — Madison Bumgarner is more than just the sturdy left-handed ace tasked with turning an opponent into prey.
He’s an elephant in the room known as AT&T Park.
Since the free agency era began in 1976, only one other left-handed pitcher has compiled a lower ERA in their first decade of starting than Bumgarner’s 3.00 mark.
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Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw’s 2.36 ERA in his first 10 seasons placed him on the fast-track to the Hall of Fame, but Kershaw’s franchise isn’t facing the same kind of dilemma the Giants must soon confront.
The Dodgers are five-time reigning National League West champions and the front-runners to take the division crown again this season. The Giants are four years removed from their last World Series and have posted a 152-199 record since the 2016 All-Star break, entering Saturday.
Rebuild or remodel? Tear it all down or patch it back together? It’s the decision beginning to loom over the Giants and a determination that hinges on Bumgarner’s status with the franchise.
Reality sets in
When Bumgarner took the mound Tuesday at AT&T Park, he became just the fifth pitcher this season to throw seven shutout innings against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.
Though the Astros’ lineup was depleted by injuries and Bumgarner didn’t have his best command, the left-hander proved what he’s still capable of in a must-win setting. Unfortunately for Bumgarner, so did his team.
A two-run Astros homer in the eighth inning cost Bumgarner a chance at a win and dropped the Giants to 57-58 with 47 games left to play. FanGraphs had the Giants’ odds of winning the National League West at 0.3 percent and their odds of securing a wild-card berth at 1.8 percent.
“We’ve been counted out plenty of times since I’ve been here,” Bumgarner said. “But we’ve turned it around. I can’t remember a time we were the favorites.”
Though the Giants are accustomed to an underdog role, a path to the postseason is increasingly hard to find. After the front office emphasized the importance of fielding a contending club, the Giants are threatening to bow out of the race by the middle of August, which would lay the groundwork for a tense offseason.
With general manager Bobby Evans, vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy heading into the final years of their contracts in 2019, pressure continues to mount on three key decision-makers expected to reverse disturbing trends.
The triumvirate leading on-field and off-the-field decisions aren’t the only members of the Giants who can hear the clock ticking. Thanks to a contract that expires at the end of next season, Bumgarner’s future is just as uncertain.
Elite or above average?
Heroes never die in the baseball world, and in October 2014, Bumgarner became immortal.
From his complete game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild card game to his five-inning relief stint that closed out Game 7 of the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, Bumgarner authored the most sensational postseason pitching performance in Giants history.
Four years later, his left shoulder has been separated and his left hand fractured. His fastball velocity is down and his walk rate is up. Once considered among the top tier of baseball’s aces, Bumgarner’s stats offer clues that suggest he’s no longer a one-man ticket to a World Series title.
A quick gander at his numbers suggest Bumgarner remains elite. His 2.69 ERA would be the lowest of his career if he had enough innings to qualify for an ERA title. He’s allowing fewer home runs than ever before and has given up two earned runs or fewer in eight of his 12 outings.
But digging deeper into Bumgarner’s 2018 season reveals rather inconvenient truths, even if the sample size is small.
The Giants’ ace is walking 3.7 batters per nine innings, nearly one full batter more than he has at any point in his career. His strikeout rate of 7.7 batters per nine innings is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season while his 1.249 WHIP is his worst mark since 2010.
And while his average fastball velocity is hovering just under 92 miles per hour, opponents are hitting .288 against the pitch and chasing it out of the strike zone just 20 percent of the time according to BaseballSavant.
As baseball evolves and velocity proves increasingly important, Bumgarner is throwing the greatest percentage of offspeed pitches of his career and inducing whiffs on a career-low 4.76 percent of his four-seam fastballs.
Is Bumgarner built to remain one of the game’s best arms well into his 30s? As he approaches the end of his contract, the Giants are carefully considering that question.
The contract awaits
Barring an agreement to an extension, Bumgarner is set to become a free agent in the winter of 2019 and enter a marketplace that still puts a premium on pitching.
Of the 74 $100 million contracts awarded in baseball history, 23 have been signed by pitchers including six since 2016. While Bumgarner’s regular season numbers don’t match those of Kershaw, who can opt out of his seven-year, $215 million deal after this season, the Giants starter could command at least a five-year deal worth north of $30 million annually when he hits the market.
If Kershaw opts out this year, Bumgarner could join him in 2019 as the second left-handed pitcher to ever hit free agency with a sub-3.00 career ERA. Though Barry Zito, C.C. Sabathia and David Price all signed record-setting contracts for left-handed pitchers, none boasted the postseason credentials Bumgarner will carry into next winter.
The primary concern for any franchise interested in signing heralded starting pitchers is whether they’ll remain healthy for the duration of their contracts. The Giants have signed three starters to $100-plus million deals and Zito, Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto all missed time due to injuries.
Any team willing to sign Bumgarner will consider the toll injuries to his pitching shoulder and hand have taken over the last two years, but the left-hander feels he’s not showing any wear and tear.
“When you say somebody hurt their left shoulder or pitching hand, I understand that,” Bumgarner said. “But I never felt that.”
While the Giants have watched a growing list of veteran pitchers break down under their watch, they also have a history of rewarding their homegrown stars and World Series heroes with contracts that honor their past performances.
Should the club finish under .500 for the second straight season, the front office knows there’s an emergency switch it can flip if the Giants want to hasten a rebuild that’s practically underway thanks to the efforts of six impressive rookies.
Few, if any, players will enter this winter with the trade value Bumgarner possesses as interested teams know they could have a battle-tested postseason warrior on their side for a full year.
Coercing the Giants into trading Bumgarner won’t be an easy mission, however, as the franchise has given no indication it plans to sacrifice the present and build for the future by selling off a legend.
For Evans and Sabean to convince CEO Larry Baer to sign off on a Bumgarner trade, the Giants would likely need to receive an overwhelming package of players in an offer. Parting with Bumgarner would be perceived as a betrayal by a substantial portion of the Giants fan base, and the club would need to have a realistic plan to communicate to fans that shows how such a trade better positions San Francisco for the future.
Though dealing Bumgarner remains unlikely and in some corners of the front office, possibly a non-starter, doing so would alleviate the Giants of feeling compelled to outbid any Bumgarner suitors when he enters free agency.
As the Giants prepare for the arrival of their No. 2 overall draft choice Joey Bart, the franchise could usher in the future with a new wave of players and a revitalized farm system. A trade of Bumgarner could also inspire other bold decisions like moving Brandon Belt and Joe Panik, but it’s more difficult for the Giants to shed core pieces when they still feel like a team centered around their ace can navigate through future postseasons.
Turning a corner
For a franchise that became accustomed to winning, the Giants are on the brink of needing to implement change due to an extensive period of losing.
Though four of the most important members of the organization have contracts set to expire after 2019, only one plays baseball for a living. That Bumgarner represents the heart of a core with championship pedigree and a valuable trade chip who could single-handedly accelerate a rebuild is a challenging juxtaposition for the Giants to evaluate.
Should the Giants ignore the troubles past high-dollar contracts have caused them and recommit to building around a pitcher entering his second decade in the majors? Or should the front office disregard Bumgarner’s past achievements and break recent precedent in hopes a new core can lead the Giants to a land where Bumgarner’s legend first took shape? Regardless of whether the Giants commit to making Bumgarner a Giant for life, allow him to walk in free agency or trade him to facilitate a rebuild, the decision will ultimately shape the direction and future of the franchise.
Because before the Giants determine how they plan to achieve future success, they must decide whether that future includes Bumgarner.