When you first consider Madison Bumgarner being traded to the Braves, it can make a lot of sense. For starters, do you remember that part in Moneyball where Billy Beane suggests Scott Hatteberg to his scouts? Everyone in the room goes, “who?” Brad Pitt’s character says, “Exactly. The guy sounds like an Oakland A already.” Bumgarner is not exactly in the same context – we all know he is. But when you consider his story, it’s amazing he’s not already a Brave.
Bumgarner was born in Hickory, North Carolina and received a great amount of love after dominating in high school for the South Caldwell High School Spartans. He still lives in the area during the offseason on a farm. Oh, and he grew up a big Braves fan who idolized Greg Maddux while watching the former Braves ace on TBS.
He’s battle-tested in pennant races and the playoffs, famously tossing eight shutout innings in his first World Series start back in 2010 and absolutely crushing the Royals’ dreams in 2014 with a Game 5 shutout and five scoreless innings in relief in Game 7.
The Braves love local boys. They would love a front-of-the-rotation arm to plop in front of youngsters Mike Soroka and Max Fried, along with re-emerging Mike Foltynewicz. It seems like a perfect match.
But is it? Here’s a spoiler alert – the answer is far more murky than many want to believe it is. That included me.
First, we need to all agree that Madison Bumgarner hasn’t been the same since the start of 2017 – which includes the dirt bike accident and shoulder issues. Both his FIP and xFIP have been about 70 points higher. His slider/cutter has especially lost a lot of bite. That’s problematic especially because Bumgarner has never really lived off the fastball for outs. The pitch put him in favorable counts because of pinpoint control, allowing him to get outs with the cutter/slider.
I say cutter/slider because different baseball institutions will refer to it as one or the other. In fact, Baseball Savant, who is the official home for Statcast, completely changed their labeling of the pitch between 2016 and 2017 and started to refer to his slider as a cutter instead. That’s, of course, based on the pitch movement more so than whatever the pitcher calls it. Either way, I’m calling it a cutter from here on.
Specifically, the pitch is getting too much break. A cutter is at its best when it sharply breaks as it reaches the plate, prompting hitters to hit the top of the ball or simply whiff completely. Too much break requires the ball to break sooner, allowing hitters to recognize it better and either lay off or adjust their swings accordingly. Ignoring the actual results – which do show about a 40-point climb in hitter’s wOBA – one of the biggest signs that the cutter is simply not as sharp as it once was is launch angle. Again, Statcast refers to the pitch as a slider prior to 2017. In 2015-16, the “slider” was getting an average launch angle on batted balls of about 5 degrees. It’s really hard to do many positive things consistently with 5 degrees of launch angle. That’s a grounder and grounders turn into outs the vast majority of the time.
But in 2017, which includes the dirt bike accident, Bumgarner’s launch angle on his cutter was 12 degrees. That’s a big jump. Of course, in general, hitters are trying to get more launch angle than they once did. Nevertheless, that’s an unusual change. In 2018, launch angle increased a bit more to 14 degrees on the cutter. This year, it’s still at 14 degrees. For the cutter, it’s not so much that hitters are hitting it harder – exit velocity is similar to pre-2017 levels. They are hitting it further. And that is leading to Bumgarner’s best pitch – and it still is his best pitch – not being nearly as legendary as it once was.
One possible bright spot for Bumgarner this year has been his curveball. Well, sort of. The spin rate on the pitch is up to 2600 RPM. That’s between 300-400 RPM higher than it was from 2015-18, which is how long ago the data goes. That part is good and it’s leading to more whiffs. It’s also getting hit a bit hard with a 91 mph exit velocity. He might be fighting command with increased spin and still working on getting the pitch to do what he wants. It’s a promising sign because Bumgarner needs a true secondary breaking pitch to get hitters off his fastball/cutter. If your cutter is nasty as Bumgarner’s once was, you can throw it with the hitter knowing it’s coming and still come away victorious. But now? Not so much.
Bumgarner also has a changeup that he uses just 8% of the time and a four-seamer. Interestingly, perhaps going back to the four-seamer could be a benefit. Bumgarner has gone through stages with his fastball. Before 2016, he threw the sinker and four seamer often with the latter being his preferred choice. In 2017, he fell in love with being a sinker/cutter pitcher and in the last two years, he’s almost given up the four-seamer completely. Now, again, this might have been a change in how Statcast looks at the data. But potentially, more four-seamers that run higher in the zone – if properly located – could at least change the hitter’s eye level. I’m sure if the Braves acquired him, it’d be one thing Rick Kranitz and the Braves would talk about.
But that circles back to the idea of whether the Braves should acquire him. And there’s another wrinkle here.
Bumgarner grew up a Braves fan, but put the Braves on his no-trade list. Many were surprised by that, but Bumgarner was making a smart choice here. Obviously, he wouldn’t hate spending the summer in a pennant race for the team he rooted for during his childhood. Just look at the other teams on his list – Red Sox, Cubs, Astros, Brewers, Yankees, Phillies, and Cardinals. What do they all have in common? Contenders. To me, there are two reasons he included these teams. The first is obvious – he can pick-and-choose which contender he wants to go to. Of course, that’s within reason. The Giants don’t have to do him a solid and only deal with those teams and/or involve him in the discussion as to how close one team is to trading for him. But the second reason is far more likely – at least to me. Madison Bumgarner’s representatives can effectively negotiate with the suitor, potentially for a trade bonus and/or a contract extension.
Oh, yeah, his contract situation. Bumgarner is a free agent at the end of the season. By choosing to acquire Bumgarner, a team will not be able to recoup a draft choice if they let him leave after the season – players need to spend the whole season with one team to be offered a qualifying offer. That’s on top of whatever prospect or prospects they sent the Giants to acquire the lefty. To sum up, the team lost likely a good prospect – quite likely multiple good prospects – for a few months of Madison Bumgarner and could lose him for nothing in the offseason. That fact could push a team to try to get a contract extension signed before agreeing to a trade.
Bumgarner’s no-trade list was a master-stroke – especially with the Braves. In his year-and-a-half with the Braves, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been very cautious when it came to losing prospects. In the few deals he has agreed to, the best prospect surrendered was Jean Carlos Encarnacion, a very young third baseman who has an OPS under .600 since the trade last summer and has yet to advance behind the South Atlantic League, which is where he was when the trade happened.
Let’s get back to the crucial point, though. Is Madison Bumgarner a perfect fit for the Atlanta Braves? Well, that all depends on your expectations.
He’s not the MadBum from old. The 2014 World Series was nearly five years ago. Expecting that kind of production from him would be, at the very least, overly optimistic. He hasn’t displayed ace-level stuff since the Obama administration. If you are looking for a guy to lead this rotation like Justin Verlander did for the Astros, I believe Bumgarner won’t match your expectations.
Are you looking for a safer bet than Kevin Gausman or Julio Teheran, one of which would likely would lose their rotation spot if you acquire Bumgarner? I would say that’s fair. Not that Teheran or Gausman or both couldn’t outperform Bumgarner over the second half, but Bumgarner is merely the safer bet who doesn’t have some worrisome in consistencies when you take into account peripherals versus results. Plus, adding Bumgarner would give you opportunities to skip one of your younger starters in order to limit innings. The Padres are doing a great job of that with Chris Paddack this season.
And then, there’s the whole playoff bulldog past with Bumgarner that no other arm on the Braves pitching staff has. How much do you value that? We haven’t seen this lesser version of Bumgarner in the playoffs, but he does have a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings in the playoffs, including just one earned run allowed in 36 World Series innings. That seems good, but I’ll send an e-mail to my friends at Fangraphs before fully endorsing that take.
Consider all these things as you put together a trade offer. Is Bumgarner worth a Top-10 prospect to you – a guy like Bryse Wilson? Maybe a Top-15 ‘spect like Kyle Muller, Huascar Ynoa, or Greyson Jenista? Maybe only a guy closer to 20th like Trey Riley or Tucker Davidson? This is based on MLB Pipeline, by the way. Where is your line? Are you renting an arm for the remainder of 2019 or do you push for an extension?
These are the types of things Anthopoulos is considering right now. When it comes to acquiring players, the choice is often not a simple yes/no answer. General managers are tasked to consider whether or not the player improves the team and whether or not that improvement is enough to make up for the loss of salary room and prospects.
As for me, is Bumgarner an improvement for the rotation? Studying what I know about him, I do believe this lesser version of Bumgarner is an improvement. Would I give up Bryse Wilson for him? No. But would I float a Kolby Allard and Izzy Wilson offer – or potentially increase the scope of the deal to try to add one of the Giants’ relievers like Will Smith? I would. But with no contract extension and I’m not getting into a bidding war.
To be fair, I have been on the anti-MadBum train for a little while on social media anytime someone would suggest him. I don’t personally like him and it’s clear he’s not the pitcher he once was. But when you break it down, even if he’s not the same Bumgarner, he could still improve the team. I would argue that the improvement isn’t significant enough to make Bumgarner a priority, but I believe it’s undeniable that he can make the Braves better. He might not get the Game One start anymore, but that doesn’t make him useless.
Madison Bumgarner is good. But he’s not that good. Let another team unload top prospects for him if they so choose. The improvement is just not great enough for the Braves to hand over an awesome prospect for a guy who is no longer at the top of his game. But if nobody else is calling, getting Bumgarner for peanuts for the remainder of 2019 wouldn’t be the worst move.