Prior to opening day each year, MLB experts are typically asked to predict who they believe will win each of the league’s major awards. Without fail, particularly in regard to the National League Cy Young Award in recent years, the same names are often mentioned – Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee, to name a couple. Yet, there always seems to be a few surprise vote-getters when the ballots are finally cast.
In 2011, Halladay, Lincecum and Lee all finished in the top six of the voting. The rest of the names on the ballot, including the eventual winner, Clayton Kershaw, likely weren’t a part of anyone’s preseason predictions.
Before winning his first Cy Young Award, Kershaw had a career 26-23 record and 3.17 ERA in three previous seasons – never even having appeared on the award’s ballot before last year. Ian Kennedy, who finished fourth after going 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA with Arizona, boasted a career 10-14 record and 4.33 ERA prior to 2011.
Admittedly, it’ll be hard to argue with any experts who again select Halladay, Lincecum or Lee as their favorites going into 2012. However, just as it was the case a year ago, I believe the winner could potentially be a name that no expert will have foreseen.
That distinction could belong to San Francisco Giants southpaw, Madison Bumgarner.
After being chosen with the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft out of South Caldwell High School (Hudson, NC), it wasn’t long before Bumgarner was contributing in the big leagues. Making his debut as a September call-up in 2009, the 20-year-old started one game and made three relief appearances (10 IP, 1.80 ERA).
Bumgarner was added to the Giants starting rotation at the end of June 2010. During his subsequent 18 starts, Madison established himself as a reliable member of the staff. Despite relatively lackluster support from the offense in the majority of games in which he pitched, Bumgarner still managed to finish with a 7-6 record, thanks in large part to an impressive 3.00 ERA.
In September, as his team worked towards an eventual NL West title, Madison posted a 1.13 ERA over five starts and instilled enough confidence in his manager to earn a spot on the postseason roster.
At the age of 21, he became the youngest pitcher in franchise history to start and earn a victory in a postseason game – the NLDS clincher against the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stop there. Bumgarner was then given the nod to start game four of the World Series against Texas; in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball, nonetheless. His eight shutout innings in the win helped propel the Giants to their first World Series title in 56 years.
Overall, against the likes of Atlanta, Philadelphia and Texas, Bumgarner posted a 2-0 record along with a sparkling 2.18 ERA in 20.2 postseason innings.
Last year, Bumgarner pitched his first full season in the MLB. Still being relatively inexperienced at the age of 22 didn’t stop a continuation of his success that started the two seasons prior. In 33 starts, Bumgarner went 13-13 with a 3.21 ERA in 204.2 innings. Most importantly though, for a pitcher who had never before experienced the duration of a full major league season, Madison’s dependability and effectiveness made him one of the most integral components of San Francisco’s 2011 roster.
Of course, awards aren’t handed out based on past performance (unless you’re talking about most of Derek Jeter’s Gold Glove Awards).
So, what makes Bumgarner someone to watch this coming season?
Well, a little bit of it has to do with a hunch. The rest is in the numbers.
For instance, while his ERA increased slightly from 2010-11, the rest of his statistics actually improved – reiterating once again that the earned run average is a less-than-reliable barometer of a pitcher’s overall effectiveness.
Then again, such statistical progression between one season and the next could just as easily prove coincidental. To that, I would point first to just when Bumgarner’s improvement took place in 2011.
Coming off the hangover of a World Series championship, the whole Giants team stumbled out of the gate in the first few months of last season; perhaps nobody more than Bumgarner. In his first five starts, he struggled to the tune of an 0-4 record and 6.17 ERA. His issues continued into May, where his winless record reached 0-6.
(It’s also worth noting that, again, Bumgarner was victimized by an oft-ineffective offense; 11 of his 13 losses occurred in games where his team managed less than three runs of support)
However, the turning point in Bumgarner’s season began in the month of July and continued throughout the remainder of the season.
July: 6 GS (2-1) 3.69 ERA
August: 6 GS (3-2) 2.30 ERA
September: 5 GS (4-1) 2.01 ERA
Here’s a look at his first and second half numbers –
First half: 18 GS (4-9) 3.87 ERA
Second half: 15 GS (9-4) 2.52 ERA
As Bumgarner became more comfortable – despite, again, never having thrown that many innings in a single season before – you can see how impressive his numbers were. In fact, when you take his statistics from the second half and project them to reflect an entire season, there’s tangible evidence for the very real potential of a 20-win season. Not a lot of pitchers in history have won 20 games without also winning the Cy Young Award.
Statistics aside, one of the biggest reasons for my endorsement of Bumgarner is the development of what has quickly become his out pitch, the slider.
Over the course of his last couple seasons in the MLB, the average speed of Bumgarner’s slider has risen a total of 8.9 mph (from 78.3 to 87.2). Simultaneously, the average horizontal movement of his slider has actually lessened 1.2 inches, while its average vertical movement has increase 3.2 inches. Essentially, Bumgarner’s slider has evolved from a de facto cutter to more of a slurve-type pitch.
However, the real success of his slider has been a result of location, not necessarily deception.
For instance, the average pitcher induces a swing-and-miss with the slider around 13 percent of the time. Bumgarner, on the other hand, gets them at a rate of just over 11 percent. The difference being, while the average pitcher throws their slider for a strike just 63 percent of the time, Madison finds the zone at a 74 percent clip.
As I said earlier, Bumgarner’s overall numbers improved notably from 2010-11. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the 10.2 percent increase in the usage of his slider during that time.
Another important factor to point out when prospecting Bumgarner’s success in the next season compared to last, is the decimation that San Francisco’s offense incurred as a result of injuries in 2011.
Pat Burrell, one of the most important pieces to the team’s World Series title a year earlier, made three separate trips to the disabled list and played only 92 games as a result of a troubling right foot. Fellow stars Freddy Sanchez, Pablo Sandoval, Cody Ross, Brandon Belt and Nate Schierholtz also spent significant time on the DL.
Yet, it was an injury to the 2010 Rookie of the Year that hurt the Giants the most.
In late May, star catcher Buster Posey’s season was brought to an abrupt conclusion when he suffered a broken fibula in his left leg during a collision at home plate. Just 45 games into 2011 — after hitting .305 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI in only 108 games during 2010 — the team’s budding star behind the plate was lost for the remainder of the year.
To put it all in perspective, the Giants had just one offensive player appear in more than 125 games during the 2011 season – and that player was Aubrey Huff, who hit just .246. Naturally, without offense it’s difficult for a pitcher to control the outcome of any game.
Earlier this offseason, San Francisco acquired Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan via trades in an effort to upgrade the offense that should already be improved merely as a result of being healthy. Assuming Posey can return to his 2010 form at the onset of the season, run support could actually become a benefactor for Bumgarner as opposed to the deterrent it has been in the past. As I said earlier, 11 of his 13 losses in 2011 came in games where the offense failed to score even three runs.
Heading into 2011, ZiPS – an advanced forecasting system used to project player statistics – had Madison Bumgarner finishing with a 3.93 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 5.84 K/9 and 2.78 BB/9. He drastically outperformed each of those projections, finishing with a 3.21 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.40 K/9 and 2.02 BB/9.
Bumgarner’s 2012 ZiPS projections have yet to be released. However, Bill James – an integral part in institutionalizing the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR – has his season forecasted at 14-10, 3.36 ERA.
Now, with the experience of a full season under his belt, an ever-improving slider to compliment his other pitches, and a healthy offense that should be drastically improved from a year ago, the odds of Bumgarner outperforming his projections for a second consecutive season appear more than favorable. If that happens, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — who are responsible for the voting of all major awards — will take notice.
Despite less-than-stellar career numbers to this point (20-19, 3.21 ERA) don’t be surprised to find Bumgarner’s name towards the top of the 2012 National League Cy Young Award voting. Remember, prior to winning the award last season, Kershaw had eerily similar statistics (26-23, 3.17 ERA) at just about the same stage in his career.