How will teams value MadBum in free agency?

October 20th, 2019

No matter what happens this offseason, will be connected to the Giants forever.

It couldn’t be any other way, not after the first-round pick from the 2007 Draft spent 11 seasons in San Francisco, made four All-Star teams, played an outsized role in three championship runs, and created so many memories on the mound -- and even at the plate.

And yet, Bumgarner could be pitching in a new uniform in 2020. The left-hander is set to become a free agent this offseason, and it’s far from clear the Giants will re-sign him.

What exactly does his value look like, though? It depends on how clubs reconcile four different aspects of Bumgarner’s career.

A pitcher at his peak
From his first full season in 2011 through ‘16, Bumgarner was a highly effective workhorse. He tied for third in the Majors in starts (195) and ranked fourth in innings (1,276 2/3), second in wins (100) and fourth in strikeouts (1,285). Among the 115 pitchers who threw at least 600 innings in that time, Bumgarner posted the fourth-lowest ERA (3.00) and sixth-lowest FIP (3.07). Playing half his games at spacious AT&T Park (now Oracle Park) certainly helped -- Bumgarner’s park-adjusted numbers were a bit less spectacular -- but there was no denying his ace status.

Combining his quantity and quality of work, FanGraphs pitching WAR had Bumgarner (23.4) ninth in MLB over that six-year stretch, while the Baseball Reference version (21.8) put him 10th. And those numbers don’t include the fact that Bugmarner added more WAR at the plate (3.6) than any other pitcher during that time.

Had Bumgarner not signed an extension with the Giants in 2012, he would have reached free agency after that ‘16 campaign, when he was just 27 and coming off a fourth-place Cy Young Award finish. Three years later, Bumgarner is 30, and teams are less willing than ever to pay for past accomplishments.

An October legend
On Oct. 11, 2010, a 21-year-old Bumgarner started Game 4 of the NL Division Series and went six strong innings to outduel veteran Derek Lowe. The Giants advanced past the Braves, as Bumgarner became the second-youngest pitcher (behind Fernando Valenzuela) to start and win a postseason series-clinching game. A playoff hero was born.

Bumgarner was instrumental to San Francisco’s championships in 2010, ‘12 and especially ‘14, when he carried the Giants to a title. No baseball fan who watched Bumgarner’s performance in the 2014 World Series -- wins in Games 1 and 5, and a five-inning save in Game 7 -- could possibly forget it.

All of those moments, adding up to a 2.11 career postseason ERA in more than 100 innings, will be a hot topic throughout Bumgarner’s free agency. If a contending team believes that success was due in large part to some intangible qualities that can remain durable as Bumgarner ages, that will bode well for him. But how many modern front offices will buy into that idea?

A star on the sidelines
Bumgarner has been remarkably healthy throughout his career, with two major exceptions. In April 2017, a dirt-bike accident that occurred on a Giants off-day in Denver left him with bruised ribs and a shoulder sprain, and cost him three months. Then late in 2018 Spring Training, a comebacker hit during a Cactus League game fractured a finger on Bumgarner’s pitching hand, and held him out until June.

As a result of those incidents, Bumgarner started only 38 games over that two-year span, although he remained effective when he was on the mound (3.29 ERA). Also encouraging is that both setbacks were firmly in the “freak accident” category, rather than something chronic that could cause concern going forward.

Even if having two of his past three seasons marred by injuries isn’t a point in Bumgarner’s favor heading into free agency, it’s not something that should cost him, either.

Back, but at what level?
There were no freak accidents in 2019, and Bumgarner tied for the Major League lead in starts (34) while throwing the ninth-most innings (207 2/3). A pitcher who can handle that type of workload still has value, even if teams continue to put more emphasis on their bullpens.

Yet there were red flags, too. Bugmarner’s park-adjusted 107 ERA+ was only a bit above league average, declining for the third straight year. His strikeout rate (24.1%) ticked up from 2017-18 but was still only a middle-of-the-pack figure, and below where it was at its peak. Combine that moderate bat-missing ability with a drop in ground ball rate, and a hard-hit rate that ranked in only the 10th percentile of MLB pitchers, and you get a lot of dangerous contact.

While it’s partly a function of Bumgarner’s workload, only Mike Leake and Rick Porcello allowed more barrels -- batted balls with an optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Expected wOBA, an all-encompassing Statcast metric that considers strikeouts and quality of contact, put Bumgarner 56th of 108 pitchers in 2019 (minimum 500 batters faced), just in front of Homer Bailey and Jason Vargas.

Those are factors that teams are going to consider as they ponder the future of a pitcher with a lot of mileage on his arm and a fastball that already sits in the low 90s. After a season in which mid-30s arms such as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Charlie Morton continued to thrive, it would be silly to count Bumgarner out simply because of his age. But there are also counter-examples to fear, such as Felix Hernandez, who was as good or better than Bumgarner at 29 before beginning a steep descent that may have ended this year at 33.

Add together Bumgarner’s stellar track record, his nearly unmatched postseason excellence, his recent injury history and his 2019 performance, and there is a lot for pitching-hungry teams to weigh this offseason.