Madison Bumgarner & Less Being More

Madison Bumgarner is only 24 years old, but he’s already established himself as a stud starter in fantasy circles. For the second-consecutive year, he was a top-15 starter in standard rotisserie formats and even catapulted himself into the top-10 in 2013 with a stellar 2.77 ERA in 201.1 innings. Owners appear to be valuing him properly, too, as his ADP had him the 13th-highest starter drafted coming into the 2013 season.

When turning our attention to future performance, very little stands out in a negative sense. We can perhaps be concerned about the .251 BABIP from last season, but Bumgarner still compiled a 3.05 FIP, which would still be better than average. Aside from the BABIP caveat, fantasy owners have to covet his consistency. His fastball velocity is firmly planted at 91 mph, his innings totals hover around the 200 mark, his ERA roughly dances between 2.75 and 3.25, his ground-ball percentage is either 46 or 47 percent, and his OSwing% has remained above 30% (and increasing).

Most of the time, pitchers in their early-to-mid 20s are projected to improve in key areas. Perhaps they’re supposed to add velocity or improve their command/control, but the overarching assumption is that young pitchers will take steps forward until their prime, where their performance will then stabilize. While all such generalizations will never be 100-percent factual, Bumgarner appears to buck the trend. He is what he is, and he’s largely been the same pitcher for the past three seasons with some fluctuations in BABIP and HR/FB.

For fantasy owners, such consistency for a starting pitcher is attractive. We’ll never be able to perfectly project year-to-year production, but with guys like Madison Bumgarner, we can at least feel confident in what we’re getting on draft day. His teammate, Matt Cain, was much the same from 2009 to 2012, which is why the right-hander’s abysmal performance in early 2013 was so alarming for many owners.

Bumgarner has been consistent, but it’s notable that his strikeout rate increased from 8.25 K/9 in 2012 to 8.90 K/9 last year. That’s the highest mark of his career, if we don’t include the 10 innings he threw for the Giants in 2009. If the southpaw is going to take the next step forward and become a bona fide ace, I believe it will happen because he begins to miss more bats. It happened last year, and a specific trend makes me wonder if it could continue.

To be clear, I’m not simply talking about his jump in strikeout rate. The most notable improvement in 2013 came in his swinging-strike rate, which increased to 11.1%. That’s by far the highest of his career and a 2.1% increase from the previous season. Furthermore, it was the seventh-highest SwStr% amongst qualified starters. If that can stabilize, Bumgarner becomes even more valuable to fantasy owners, as he could be a top-10 source of strikeouts.

His highest swinging-strike rate coincided with his lowest fastball percentage to date. The left-hander has consistently utilized his fastball less and less, and I’m wondering if that could lead to higher swinging-strike rates and more strikeouts. Not only because he’s throwing more offspeed pitches, but also because his fastball has largely become more difficult to hit as he’s thrown it less often.

Year FB% SwStr%
2010 57.3% 5.7%
2011 52.6% 7.0%
2012 43.4% 7.4%
2013 38.5% 11.2%

The above table illustrates how his fastball has generated a higher swinging-strike rate the less often he’s thrown it. Suddenly, his decreased contact percentage from 80.6% to a career-low 76.4% makes a lot more sense. And I’m not convinced whatsoever that Bumgarner is featuring his fastball less often because it’s not an effective pitch. His velocity has remained consistent, and opposing hitters only hit .213/.247/.327 against his fastball in 2012 and he still chose to throw it less often in 2013.

In my opinion, it’s more a product of his slider/cutter being his best pitch, so he’s relied upon it more often every season. In turn, his fastball has gotten more marginalized in his arsenal. It just so happens to make his fastball even more effective. I’m slightly concerned such a heavy reliance on his slider/cutter risks injury, but perhaps his low arm slot alleviates that a bit.

Fantasy owners should adore Madison Bumgarner for his consistency. He’s an easy top-15 starter and was even more than that in 2013. It’s not unreasonable to expect that level of performance to continue. If his strikeout rate continues to increase, though, one wonders if he can transform into a true fantasy ace. And those kind of players — guys who have high floors, but a legitimate chance for improvement — are the ones I prefer to target in the top four or five rounds each year. As of right now, MadBum will be on my short list of pitchers I’d select in that range.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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10 years ago

I had a similar sentiment on Bumgarner entering last year, selected him in the 5th round and he anchored my staff to a roto title. If memory serves me, that was one pick ahead of Darvish and after Cliff Lee, so it ended up being the right approach to grab an “ace” around there, as opposed to Verlander-Price-Felix. This kid is building some resume with three excellent seasons already.