Bumgarner leaves Giant legacy by the Bay

December 16th, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants didn't merely lose their staff ace on Sunday when agreed to a five-year, $85 million deal with the D-backs, sources confirmed to MLB.com. They lost a genuine legend, one whose presence on the pitcher's mound commanded respect and transcended his own uneven performance.

All it took for Bumgarner's reputation to reach heights only he has scaled in recent history was his sustained excellence in the 2014 postseason. Those games are a half-decade old, but they might as well have occurred a couple of months ago, given Bumgarner's enduring on-field charisma.

Numerous facts and figures amplify the greatness that Bumgarner achieved five years ago. What truly captured the public's imagination, more than the record number of postseason innings (52 2/3) he accumulated, was his ability to pitch five innings of scoreless relief in World Series Game 7 on two days' rest -- following his four-hit shutout of the Royals in Game 5. The ancient saying, "If you want a job done right, do it yourself" surely leapt to a million minds, as Bumgarner almost singlehandedly led the Giants to their third Series triumph in five seasons.

One comparison measures just how incomparable Bumgarner was: He became the third pitcher to earn at least two wins as a starter and work at least three innings of relief in a single Fall Classic. The others were Detroit's George Mullin in 1909 and Boston's Cy Young -- Cy Young! -- in 1903. In other words, record keepers needed to dig through more than a century of baseball history to find suitable parallels to Bumgarner. And one of them happened to be the man whose name defines the game's top pitching award.

Bumgarner was perceived as somebody who could get things done. No wonder a nationally televised commercial featured him chopping down an enormous tree. Or that one day after the Giants clinched the 2014 Series, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan gave this jocular reply when he was asked who would start at quarterback for his struggling team that Sunday against Kansas City: "We're gonna go with that Bumgarner guy." Or that when Sports Illustrated honored Bumgarner as its Sportsman of the Year that December, the ceremony began a half hour late because former President Bill Clinton was enraptured by Bumgarner and couldn't stop talking to him and his wife, Ali, outside the main banquet area.

Bumgarner's career path appeared to be following a Hall of Fame trajectory. Through the 2016 season, he owned a 100-67 record with a 1.10 WHIP. At age 27, the left-hander seemed to be growing stronger, or at least gaining stability. His ERAs for the 2013-16 seasons were 2.77, 2.98, 2.93 and 2.74. He recorded sensible innings totals in that same span, averaging 216 per year.

Bumgarner was playing under the terms of an almost laughably club-friendly contract at the time. But it almost didn't matter. Surely, everyone thought, the Giants will do all they can to retain this singular performer.

Then came Bumgarner's shoulder injury resulting from a motorbike accident on an off-day in Denver in April 2017 and the line drive hit by Kansas City's Whit Merrifield at the very end of Spring Training in 2018 that broke a bone in his pitching hand. Bumgarner appeared increasingly vulnerable while compiling a 19-25 record with a 3.57 ERA from 2017-19.

Relatively few of Bumgarner's skeptics wear Major League uniforms, however. Among his peers, Bumgarner inspires a brand of loyalty that borders on idolatry.

"The grandeur is still there," Pittsburgh right-hander Trevor Williams said after pitching against Bumgarner on Sept. 9. "I had this game circled [on my calendar] as soon as I found out I was pitching against him, because you wake up knowing that you get to face off against one of the greats."

Buster Posey, who caught in 228 of Bumgarner's 289 regular-season appearances, understands his former batterymate's mystique better than anybody.

"I don't know if this is too simplistic or not, but you could argue that he's one of the few in history -- definitely of this generation -- who, if you've got one game to win, he's the guy you want on the mound," Posey said. "Maybe not just because of raw stuff, but you know he's going to will himself to win the game. He's proven that over the last 10 years. That's one of those intangible assets that I think people are drawn to. It's really hard to throw numbers on that, to be able to value exactly what it's worth."

Thus, it's impossible to determine how the Giants will choose to tangibly honor Bumgarner. He seems deserving of something more than a place on the club's Wall of Fame and less than a retired number or a statue. What's certain is that he deserves to be remembered as one of the Giants' finest pitchers, at least in their San Francisco era (since 1958). His effectiveness during 11 seasons (119-92, 3.13 ERA) and his postseason record (8-3, 2.11 ERA in 14 starts and two high-leverage relief appearances) affirm that.

"Competitor" is the word most frequently associated with Bumgarner. Complimentary as it sounds, it might be inadequate.

"I would put him in the category of 'dominator.' Simply competing isn't in his repertoire," said Chris Stewart, who caught Bumgarner during the left-hander's first full Major League season. "He wants to go out and dominate every single pitch of the game. He expects to pitch nine innings every single outing, without walking or giving up a hit to anybody. That attitude propels him to go out and give the best effort possible, often ending in a positive result for the team."

Even the Royals, who Bumgarner vanquished, appreciate his ferocity.

"If I had to sum him up in one word, I'd say 'bulldog,'" said Jarrod Dyson, a reserve outfielder with the '14 Royals. "He's somebody who wants the rock, demands the rock and does what he has to do when he gets the rock. Playing against him, you always looked at him as an ace. Even if he didn't have the velo, he knew how to pitch. He knew how to take what he's got and use it to the best of his abilities. That's what makes him so good. He fears nobody who gets in the box, and he goes right after everybody who gets in the box. He's always been a bulldog, in my book. You see a guy like that go to war every day and demand the rock, you always say, 'Damn, what would it be like to play with him?' He's one of those type of guys."

Asked to recall Bumgarner's Game 7 effort, Dyson invoked the name of one of the greatest athletes ever.

"Just like [Michael] Jordan on the [basketball] court," Dyson said. "He wants the ball for the last shot. 'With the game on the line, you need to let me be in there.' "

Reliever Wade Davis, another 2014 Royal, recalled Bumgarner as being "pretty much the most calm, collected person I've ever seen out there in those situations. He made it look pretty easy."

Though Bumgarner admitted after coaxing Salvador Perez's popup to end Game 7 that he finally felt tired, Davis still saw a durable opponent. "The last four or five pitches he threw to Salvador, he didn't look like he was overthrowing," Davis said. "Even though we lost, it was awesome to watch."

Time for the D-backs to get a better view.