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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts, #5: Madison Bumgarner

Albatross! Get yer albatross here!

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Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images
  • Date signed: December 2019
  • Length: five years (2020-24)
  • Cost at time: $85 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $85.60 million
  • Production: 0.3 bWAR
  • Negative value: $83.20 million

How the player got there

Madison Bumgarner was a legend in San Francisco, and spent 13 consecutive seasons with the organization, after the drafted him in the first round (#10 overall) of the 2007 draft. He won three World Series rings with the team. These were in no small part due to Bumgarner’s 0.25 ERA in five World Series starts, allowing one earned run over 36 innings. His 2014 post-season run was the stuff of legend, throwing two complete games in six starts, and winning MVP honors in both the Championship and World Series. It culminated in a 15-out shutout save in Game 7, three days after tossing 117 pitches in a complete Game 5 shutout. There’s a reason he’s a legend in the Bay area.

Bumgarner had signed a long-term contract with San Francisco back in April 2012, which guaranteed him $35 million for 2013-17, plus $12 million options for 2018 and 2019. At the time, it was a record for a pitcher with that amount of experience, but it unquestionably paid off. He was worth 26.3 bWAR over those seven seasons, and that’s not even counting his value as a hitter, e.g. in 2015, he hit five homers, more than Angel Pagan in his 133 games. But as the last of those years proceeded, the Giants decided to move on from Madison. They had intended to give him a contract extension before 2017, but he hurt his shoulder in a dirt-bike accident, and the relationship with the team suffered as a result.

After he entered free-agency, the Giants did still make Bumgarner an offer of four years and $70 million, but were unwilling to budge in terms of length, and match the Diamondbacks’ offer of five years and $85 million. The Dodgers were also in the race, after losing out in their pursuit of Gerrit Cole, with the Twins, Braves, Padres, Reds, White Sox and Cardinals among the others linked to Bumgarner. The contract length was a sticking point, with few willing to past four years, and Atlanta being even more conservative, not being prepared to go beyond a three-year contract. The D-backs’ initial pitch of $72 million (presumably for four years), earlier in the winter, was spurned before they eventually got their man.

The deal with Arizona had an interesting structure. The first year, Bumgarner received just $6 million, before a sharp uptick in the middle trio of seasons to $19 million, $23 million and $23 million for 2021-23, before a drop to $14 million for the final season. However, in each of those peak three years, $5 million was deferred without interest, to be paid out after the contract ended, in 2025-27. He also received limited no-trade protection, allowing him to block deals with five teams (no word on what they are), a hotel suite on the road, and four premium seats at all games. But he confirmed, reports Arizona were not the highest bidder for his services: “We definitely left some money on the table. You can say that.”

“His presence, his leadership, certainly his track record. All the things we’ve watched from across the field with the success he’s had with the San Francisco Giants, we felt this was a big add for us.”
GM Mike Hazen

What went wrong

From the start, Hazen acknowledged some were skeptical of the long-term contract, such as those who noted Bumgarner’s career high 3.90 ERA in 2017 - only a 107 ERA. “Those are fair questions. I get it. We look through all that stuff, we do a lot of the homework on those things. … Frankly, we felt like he had kind of trended back in the right direction this year. We felt a little of those road numbers were skewed a little bit late in the season in September by a few bad road starts... We feel like we’re getting a top of the rotation starting pitcher. We’ve parsed through a lot of the numbers. It is what it is. I get it. But what we saw this year, we thought we saw a really good starting pitcher.”

Nobody thought that in 2020. Bumgarner took the loss on Opening Day, though at least he didn’t pitch too badly, coming one out short of a quality start. However, that 5.2 inning appearance turned out to be his longest outing of the year, and there were some real horrorshow ones. Consecutive games allowing seven and six earned runs preceded a month on the DL with a back strain, and when he returned MadBum became the first AZ pitcher to allow 13 hits in a game for over seven years. He did not win a game until the very last day of the (admittedly, COVID-shortened) season, ending with a 6.48 ERA and a FIP that was higher still, at 7.18.

2021 was, at least, a bit more up and down. He had an 11.20 ERA after three starts. But later in April, he threw a 7-inning no-hitter in Atlanta. It was part of a five-game stretch where he had a 0.90 ERA and a K:BB of 34:2 across thirty innings: one of the best spells in team history, and the WHIP of 0.47 was the lowest for an NL pitcher across five starts, in over a century. However, this was followed by four games with an ERA in double digits and a six-week trip to the IL with shoulder inflammation. On returning, he had seven consecutive starts allowing two earned runs or fewer... then finished the year with a 6.30 ERA across his final seven games. Fans got emotional whiplash from Bumgarner that season.

This year started well, but there was a yawning chasm between Bumgarner’s ERA and his FIP. After his sixth start on May 4, he had a 1.50 ERA; his FIP was more than three runs higher, at 4.86. The latter proved almost eerily predictive, with Madison finishing off the season owning an almost exactly identical ERA of 4.88, as regression took its toll. There was the occasional good outing, to be sure. However, there were no shortage of reports about the team’s interest in trading Bumgarner, especially when he started the season strongly. Now, it’s more a question of how much money the D-backs will have to eat, as Jack discussed a few weeks ago.

This is the only contract on the list to have been signed within the past seven years. This is partly because the Mike Hazen run front office has seemed hesitant to sign too many big deals, which are the ones with most potential to blow up in the team’s face. However, there are still a number of candidates which could end up making their way onto a future update of this list. We already discussed the Nick Ahmed extension, which could rise higher, depending on what the player does this season. We’re also about to get into the Ketel Marte extension, which at $76 million is not cheap, and will need consistently better than 2022 production to make it into positive territory.

However, this is already firmly ensconced on the list, even with two years still to go. At the time, the ZIPS projection was for him to be worth 5.8 fWAR through 2022, but the reality has fallen far short: 1.4 fWAR or 0.3 bWAR. With two years left to go, this could potentially break either way: if Bumgarner declines further over the remainder, this might potentially end up occupying a podium position. On the other hand, it could drop below Zack Greinke: falling any lower than that would require the pitcher to be worth more than one win per remaining season. I’m not optimistic.

Biggest lesson to be learned

If this one goes right, Hazen will look like a genius. If it goes wrong, it’ll hurt.
Zach Buchanan, December 15th, 2019

There were good reasons to be concerned about Bumgarner’s peripherals, and the team’s willingness to get into a length war made things worse. If you’re the outlying bidder on any contract negotiation, this is probably a red flag.