What to Expect: Madison Bumgarner
Around this time last year there was a small panic about the future of lefty Madison Bumgarner. Drafted out of high school in 2007, he was touted as having a plus fastball that sat around 94-95 mph, while concerns were abound for his unorthodox delivery. In one season at A-ball, he became the next great hope for the rotation, going 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA to go with 10.4 K/9 and a walk rate of 1.3 BB/9. After that season at Augusta, he quickly rose through the ranks until he made his Major League debut in September of 2009. Fans everywhere tuned in to see what all this talk was about, as expectations ran high. While pitching pretty well given that he was a 20 year-old in the Majors, his fastball didn’t top 89 mph, and widespread panic began to set in about possible arm troubles.
No one seemed to be able to explain what exactly the problem was. Theories ranged from him throwing too many innings at a young age, to Bumgarner angering a voodoo priest while on vacation in the Caribbean causing said priest to curse him to an eternity without a plus fastball. I did a breakdown of his mechanics (Bumgarner’s, not the priest) last year that showed his back-side was dragging through his delivery, causing him to lose miles on his fastball. While this theory hasn’t been confirmed by anyone within the organization, I still have my suspicions.
Whatever the problem was though, it was seemingly fixed. Bumgarner’s velocity returned to him, he pitched eight shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series, and all was right in the world. The concern now is how to preserve a young arm that threw almost 220 innings counting the postseason. The organization needs to straddle that fine line between giving the team the best chance to win by throwing Bumgarner out there every fifth day for six months, and Mark Prior-ing the arm of a promising pitcher who has yet to enter his prime. The talent is clearly there, but even when he was drafted scouts were concerned that his sling-like motion would put added stress on his arm.
Hoping for the best-case scenario healthy-wise (knock on wood), Bumgarner will likely be one of the best #4 starters in the Major Leagues. You know who the Yankees have projected as their fourth starter? Ivan Nova. Or the Padres? Cory Luebke. I rest my case. The Giants have a luxury not afforded to many other teams in that they have an incredibly deep pitching staff top to bottom. All this breaks down though if the bottom of the rotation can’t perform, so a lot will rest on guys like Bumgarner and Barry Zito.
In terms of what to expect for 2011, things look good as long as Bruce Bochy finds a way to limit Bumgarner’s innings while still winning ballgames. Much of his success last season came from expanding his pitch repertoire, something that will likely continue on to this season. When he was drafted, Bumgarner had nothing more than a 95 mph fastball, a pocket full of dreams, and no real secondary pitches to speak of. In a few short years, he’s developed a full arsenal of pitches that he used to great success in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, he went from throwing his changeup 5.9% of the time, to 10.3%. In one short year, he learned how to throw a curveball, something he didn’t have upon his initial arrival to the Majors. In 2010, he used it 12% of the time while it was worth 3.1 runs above average (the changeup rated at 5.2, up from 0.3 in 2009).
At 21 years of age, Bumgarner had matured faster than most pitchers entering their late 20’s do. If his improved pitch repertoire is indicative of anything, it’s that he’s receptive to advice from coaches, as well as talented enough to use newly learned pitches successfully. That’s not to say that most other pitchers aren’t constantly trying to improve, but to break into the Majors the way he did and to have that kind of success in the postseason at such a young age shows poise beyond his years.
I would expect more of the same from the young lefty in 2011, with some refining as well. With a valuable season under his belt that ended in a lengthy playoff run and an eventual World Series title, Bumgarner’s already accomplished a lot. Here’s to another year like 2010; stay healthy MadBum.