With recent moves to sign Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, the Atlanta Braves appear to have a focus on short-term deals that breed long-term financial flexibility rather than to invest huge sums into players who might be an injury or rapid decline away from being a liability. While that could change in a heartbeat. if this approach holds, the Braves don’t seem like a future home for not only the top free agents available but many of the top trade targets who are tied down to long-term deals.
Again, that can change rapidly and we probably don’t need to look too much into Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s preference for future flexibility, the trade market over the free agent one, and a hesitancy to trade top prospects for a pitcher who could be one pitch from the DL. In contrast to his predecessor, John Coppolella, Anthopoulos is a better poker player who puts up smoke screens to mask his real intentions.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s suggest that the Braves want all of the following: a top-of-the-rotation arm, one that won’t require the kind of deal Patrick Corbin might, nor the kind of prospect capital the Indians would ask – or, more accurately, are asking – for Corey Kluber. Where can the Braves go from there? Well, many suggest the guy to focus on is Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner. But is he still the type of pitcher Braves fans remember from San Francisco’s lengthy postseason runs?
It seems like a perfect marriage for Bumgarner and the Braves. A southeast boy from Hickory, North Carolina who grew up a Braves fan and idolized Greg Maddux, Bumgarner was one of the game’s finest pitchers for the first 217 games of his career. He struck out nearly a batter an inning, pitched to a 2.99 ERA that was supported by a 3.12 FIP, and have I mentioned those postseason runs? He has a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings in the postseason, including allowing one run in 21 innings during his World Series MVP-winning performance back in 2014. While he never won a Cy Young, Bumgarner became one of the few pitchers to earn the title, “ace.”
But then, after pitching his Giants into the NLDS during 2016, Bumgarner’s 2017 follow-up campaign got off to a rocky start. While driving a dirt bike in Colorado during an April off day, Bumgarner was involved in an accident where he fell directly onto his pitching shoulder. He lost three months of action and while he pitched like a workhorse down the stretch for San Francisco, there were some concerns that he was never “right” following the accident. In 2018, he didn’t make it to opening day after a fractured finger landed him on the DL during spring training. That made him miss the first two months of action before finally making his season debut on June 5.
Again, Bumgarner just didn’t seem “right” once he returned to the Giants. In the 38 starts since the start of 2017 – which does include four starts before the dirt bike incident – Bumgarner has a 3.29 ERA. That would seem like Bumgarner was pitching about as well as ever, but there are warning signs that his ERA is not telling us. For one, after having a nearly matching ERA and FIP before 2017, his FIP is 3.97 over the last two seasons. While not an absolute rule, we do know that when a disparity like that exists, there might be a reason to investigate further.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Naturally, a higher FIP goes hand-in-hand with at least one of three things – lower strikeout rates or higher walk and/or home-run rates. In Bumgarner’s case, his strikeout rate have declined not only below his career averages (21% over last two seasons versus 24%), but Bumgarner was riding four consecutive years of increasing strikeout rates before 2017 to a career-high of 27.5% in 2016. Two straight years of declining strikeout numbers is worrisome. For walks and homers surrendered, we have split data. In 2017, his walk rate was solid but it climbed to its highest mark of his career last year. His HR/FB rate has the opposite effect – highest of his career in 2017, but closer to his career norm in 2018.
What about quality-of-contact? Bumgarner has never been a guy who lives off soft contact, but he has generally limited the other extreme – hard contact. From 2010-16, his rate of hard contact ranged between 23.4% in 2011 to 31.6% in 2016. Those were the two outliers as, most of the time, he was around 26-to-27% in hard contact. In 2017, the metric was 35%. In 2018, it ballooned up to 41.6%. These stats aren’t necessarily the end of the world, but like so many of the numbers we are focusing on, they have to be a bit concerning.
Does Statcast’s data back this up? Oh, yeah. In terms of Barrel % – or the times where the hitter had the near-perfect mix of launch angle and exit velocity – Bumgarner’s rate has climbed from 4.7% in 2015 to about 8.2% over the last two seasons. The major league average is 6.1%.
What about velocity? After all, Braves fans have seen Julio Teheran’s decreasing velocity and decreased performance. Does the same exist for Bumgarner? Yes-and-no. Yes, it does exist, but in many ways, we think of Bumgarner’s issues as an effect from the dirt bike accident. In terms of velocity, Bumgarner lost his average 93 mph fastball back in 2016 or a year before the accident. Since then, he’s averaged about 91.5 mph. Unsurprisingly, his ability to reach back and find another gear has also declined. He threw his fastest recorded pitch in 2015 at 96.97 mph. His fastest pitch last season was 93.35 mph. Further, he lost a lot of bite on his secondary options over the last couple of years. He’s throwing the ball slower and with less movement than he did during his Cy Young caliber seasons. While he has developed a newfound ability in his curveball, his heater, cutter, and changeup are just not as strong as they were back in 2015.
By so many metrics, Bumgarner is not an ace anymore. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worth taking a chance on. He won’t turn 30 until the day after the trading deadline next season (provided they don’t move it). We all know what his peak looks like. And even if that Bumgarner is no longer the one we see now, He was still a 3.1 fWAR pitcher over the last 38 starts, or slightly more than a full season. His K’s are down, but still around the major league average for a starter while his walk rate remains below. Even with a concerning FIP, it was still about 30 points below the league average.
With a standout defense behind him, Bumgarner could be rejuvenated. The Braves could also benefit from one the rationales to having Donaldson aboard. In a contract year with a team with World Series aspirations, Bumgarner might find a little something extra to hit free agency on a high note in search of his next big deal.
And at just $12 million for 2019, Bumgarner is a bargain right now. That holds especially true because the Giants won’t expect the kind of return the Indians do for Kluber. If Bumgarner had a more Bumgarner-esque 2019, you could easily attach the qualifying offer to him and add a draft choice.
Of course, the biggest question is if Bumgarner is the right fit? Remember the three things I said the Braves might be seeking: minimal investment in terms of both years and return expected along with a guy who can pair with Mike Foltynewicz at the top of the rotation. In that, I’m not so sure if Bumgarner is the right guy. On one hand, Bumgarner is a great fallback play if other targets don’t pan out. However, if the goal was to add a surefire front-of-the-rotation arm, something Anthopoulos acknowledges is a focus, Bumgarner doesn’t appear to satisfy that goal completely. He certainly could bounce back in 2019, making many detractors like myself look stupid. It wouldn’t be the first and definitely not the last time a player far exceeded my expectations.
Bumgarner would be a fine pitcher to take a chance on. At worst, he’s a better bet than Julio Teheran. He would likely be better than Sean Newcomb and Kevin Gausman as well and the price is almost certainly going to be right for the Braves. But prepare to be disappointed if you are expecting the Bumgarner that, after throwing a four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, tossed five two-innings to close out the Royals in Game 7. He hasn’t really been that Bumgarner since.