The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.
For most of the 2010s, Madison Bumgarner was at the top of the baseball world, winning three World Series rings, dominating the postseason, and entrenching himself as one of the National League's top hurlers.
Six years later, Bumgarner's released by the Diamondbacks and may be out of the game for good. What happened? And what will MadBum's legacy be?
Bumgarner's Rise And Fall
Bumgarner's 15 seasons can be split into two clear halves. The San Francisco era... and what happened after:
The Peak (2009-2019)
There were a few years when Bumgarner seriously pushed Clayton Kershaw for the title of the best lefty pitcher in baseball.
From 2013 to 2016 he posted a 2.86 ERA, was a four-time All-Star, and earned top-10 Cy Young votes each year. Most importantly, he was the prototypical workhorse, logging at least 200 innings every season from 2011 through 2016. During that six-year stretch, only Kershaw, James Shields, and David Price pitched more regular-season innings than Bumgarner, and only Kershaw did it with a lower ERA. Bumgarner also logged heavy innings in the playoffs, but we'll get to that later.
The Giants' horse quietly did it with the bat, too, back when baseball made pitchers painfully hit in the NL. In 2015, MadBum hit five homers and posted a .743 OPS in his starts (exactly league average) earning his second Silver Slugger.
Here's Madison Bumgarner watching a home run ball he hit off of Clayton Kershaw pic.twitter.com/Dd3aiaXyvu— Andrew Pasquini (@pasquiniandrew) April 1, 2021
The Fall (2020-2023)
After 11 brilliant years in the Bay Area, Bumgarner and the Giants finally split in 2019. The Diamondbacks, hoping to bring in an innings-eating reliable veteran, signed a then-29-year-old Bumgarner to a five-year deal for $85 million total. There were signs of slight regression in Bumgarner's final years with SF (the ERA drifted up to 3.90 in 2019, while the strikeouts slowly ticked down), but none could've predicted what happened next.
The DBacks could've expected one or two bad years at the end of Bumgarner's deal, but he instead fell fast and hard. In his first season with Arizona, in 2020, Bumgarner's ERA jumped to 6.48 and it wasn't just bad luck, as his FIP sat at 7.18. Over the next two-plus seasons, Bumgarner never recovered, rocking a 5.23 ERA during his 69 career starts in the desert.
Why The Collapse?
The instant Bumgarner joined the DBacks, every relevant statistic trended the wrong way. His hard-hit rate jumped up, the pitch velocity went down, and batters went from hitting between .200 and .240 against him, to scorching balls for a .300 batting average.
Many pitchers can keep doing it deep into their 30s, but Bumgarner's collapse came the second he exited his 20s. There weren't any major injuries to sap his stuff, but it's reasonable to think his arm just got worked to its limit. Because Bumgarner debuted at age 19, went on so many deep playoff runs, and regularly hauled heavy innings, he had more innings before he was 30 (1800) than most hurlers have in their career.
In the 2014 MLB postseason alone, Bumgarner added 52 more innings to his season total. That's more innings than closers Joakim Soria, Casey Janssen, and Aroldis Chapman pitched all season that year.
Bumgarner's body may have been 30, but his arm was much older.
Is Bumgarner A Hall of Famer?
Bumgarner was near the top of baseball during his peak, but his fast fall may cost him Cooperstown. By the JAWS Hall of Fame rating system, which accounts for a player's peak and longevity, Bumgarner's 33.7 JAWS WAR sits well below the average Hall of Fame pitcher's 61.4.
The regular season metrics probably don't get him there, but Bumgarner's case for Cooperstown is a bit more nuanced. If he gets in, it'll be on the back of playoff success. He's pitched the most playoff innings in a single season, has the second-most playoff shutouts of all time, and is eighth in all-time postseason win probability added.
It's hard to tell the story of baseball without Bumgarner's postseason heroics. That alone might be enough to earn him a Hall of Fame plaque.
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