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2020 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews #39: Madison Bumgarner

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Maybe we’d have been better off signing Mason Saunders...

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images
  • Rating: 2.95
  • Age: 31
  • 2020 Stats: 41.2 IP, 47 H, 31 R, 30 ER, 13 HR, 13 BB, 30 SO, 6.48 ERA, 7.18 FIP, -0.3 bWAR
  • 2020 Salary: $6 million (not pro-rated)
  • 2021 Status: second season of five-year contract, will earn $19 million

If Madison Bumgarner doesn’t improve going forward, Yasmany Tomas may not be long in owning the record for the worst contract in Diamondbacks history. The five-year, $85 million contract signed by the pitcher in December 2019 got off to the worst possible start, with Bumgarner performing below replacement level in the first year. Overall, by some metrics it was among the worst season’s ever for a D-backs starter. Before this year, only three pitchers with more than a handful of starts for Arizona posted a FIP above seven for a season: Armando Galarraga in 2011, Edgar Gonzalez in 2004 and Armando Reynoso in 2001. 2020 MadBum is now part of the club [as, incidentally, is 2020 Robbie Ray]

The arrival of Bumgarner was a surprise, and was generally greeted warmly at the time by SnakePit readers. There were some concerns about his declining production, and the length of the deal. Madison clearly wasn’t the same guy he was from 2013-16, when he was an All-Star all four year, and put up an average of 4.4 bWAR. But he was still worth 2.4 and 2.5 bWAR in 2018 and 2019, and at the age of 30, seemed likely to have a couple of solid years left. While 2029 had been the first time since 2016 he had passed 130 innings, the injuries which derailed him the previous two years were both freak accidents (including the notorious dirt-bike incident), rather than being indicative of health issues.

There was some discussion of diminished velocity in spring, before everything shut down, and that became a major concern after his Opening Day start against the Padres. It wasn’t a bad outing - he allowed three earned runs on four hits and three walks over 5.2 innings, and almost tossed six scoreless. But his fastball averaged only 88.1 mph, four mph down on his first start of 2019, and was there or thereabouts five days later. He said, “Man, I feel good. That’s what’s been frustrating. I know the velocity is down a good bit. I’ve had a bunch of it over my career, but this is certainly a big drop right now and that’s been frustrating for me. But at the same time, I’ve gotta go out there and pitch with what I’ve got.”

The calendar turned to August, and Bumgarner fell apart. His two outings against Houston and San Diego saw him charged with 13 earned runs in 6.1 innings, as his velocity dropped even further, below 88 mph. [Maybe Dan Haren should have tried to sell his Twitter handle to Madison] On August 8, Sarah Langs of mlb.com wrote “If we impose a minimum of 50 fastballs, Bumgarner’s 3.9 mph drop is not only the largest among starters this year, but also tied for the second-largest from one season to a next by a starter on his fastballs since pitch tracking began in 2008.” The only bigger drop was Hisashi Iwakuma, and the shoulder issue responsible led to the end of his MLB career in 2017.

Nate dug into the missing velocity, and pitching coach Matt Herges (who had worked with Bumgarner in San Francisco) seemed to think that wasn’t the problem. “I think his pinpoint command is the issue. When he needs to make a pitch, he usually makes a pitch. Lately, he’s making pitches, but it’s not to the degree that he’s used to. It’s not nine out of 10. It’s more like six or seven out of 10.” But a physical problem quickly reared its head, though this appears to have followed the velocity loss, rather than being responsible for it. On August 9, he woke up feeling discomfort in his mid-back, but after treatment, tried to pitch through it. It didn’t go well: six earned runs in two innings. He said:

“I thought I would try to go out there and give us what I could and, hopefully, try to save the bullpen a little bit and try to keep us in the game. I wound up doing neither one. It would grab me at what seemed like random times to me. One delivery it seemed like it might kind of grab me is how I would describe it. Then the next one it wouldn’t do it at all, but you’re waiting for it. It was tough. It was aggravating... Obviously, hindsight is 20-20. We’re sitting here, and it looks like, obviously, I should not have been out there. At the time, me, I feel like I can find a way and get guys out and keep us in the game, and it just didn’t work out that way.”

He ended up missing about four weeks. Over a normal season, that wouldn’t perhaps have been so bad, but the 24 games between his starts represented 40% of this year’s schedule. And when he came back, the velocity wasn’t much better, Bumgarner’s fastball averaging 89.0 mph over his five starts in September. His ERA over them was 4.44, but this was skewed by a brutal outing against the Angels on September 15, where Madison was tagged for 13 hits and eight runs in 5.1 innings. That gave him an ERA of 8.53 to that point, the worst ever by any regular D-backs starter through 50 games of the season.

To give you some idea of the struggles endured by our Opening Day starter, the video above includes the five hardest-hit home-runs of the 13 (in only 41.2 innings of work) allowed by Bumgarner in 2020. They’re in ascending order, and include a pair from that Angels game. You’ll see a shot by former Diamondback Justin Upton, which came off the bat at 108.5 mph, and the reel finishes with Jared Walsh’s laser, a couple of innings earlier. That was the hardest hit ball of the year off Madison, at 112.2 mph. He allowed eight balls in play that day alone, with an exit velocity of 101 mph or greater and all told, led the majors in barrel percentage. That’s not a good thing.

But if there was hope, it came over the final two outings of the year for Madison, highlights of which are embedded in the video below. If the power still remained AWOL, the results were considerably better. In each of those outings, he threw five shutout innings of two-hit ball, with a K:BB of 11:1 over those ten frames. This suggest Herges may have been onto something with the idea that control was key. MadBum pitched with an infected wisdom tooth, so didn’t have anything to say after his season finale, but Herges was pleased: “I’m seeing old Bum these last two games. I’m seeing an attack, I’m seeing a confidence, I’m seeing just a bravado about him that he hasn’t had this year for some reason.”

In some ways, MadBum’s final ailment is appropriate, since for most of the year, watching him pitch was about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. He failed to reach even the most modest of expectations, and we can only hope those final outings are indeed a sign of better things to come. For the backloading on the contract kicks in with a vengeance next year, Bumgarner’s price more than tripling, to $19 million. It is possible this was just not mich more than a bad month for Madison. But we’ll be holding our breath over his first few starts next year, because it turns out that isn’t the case.... Well, the next four years could end up feeling every bit as long as the Tomas contract.