The rumors are true: Madison Bumgarner has thrown a lot of innings.
But let’s not pretend the only 30-year-old Bumgarner is some sort of withered husk of his former self. Mostly because he’s only six months older than me, and I’m not ready to be a withered husk yet.
Figuring out how much gas the longtime San Francisco Giant has left in the tank is certainly going to be top of mind for the White Sox after they missed out on Zack Wheeler, who took less money than the South Siders were offering to go play for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re now forced to look elsewhere in their quest to upgrade the starting rotation, and Bumgarner leads a pack of free agents still on the market, a group behind elite arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg that also includes Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
There are legitimate concerns over what kind of effect 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have on a pitcher who will get a multi-year contract. Bumgarner wasn’t the same pitcher in the last three seasons as the one he was from 2013 to 2016, when he finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four years in a row. But there were some promising developments in 2019 to suggest there’s plenty of life left in his arm.
Bumgarner made just 38 starts in 2017 and 2018, shelved with freak injuries: He injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident in 2017 and was hit in the hand with a line drive in 2018. Then he turned around and made 34 starts in 2019, the most in baseball. Those specific injuries shouldn’t ring any alarm bells when it comes to long-term health concerns.
Then there are the numbers, some of which ticked up significantly in 2019. Yes, his 3.90 ERA was a career high, but it was still lower than the 3.96 ERA Wheeler delivered. But Bumgarner finished the season with an 8.8 K/9, his highest since 2016, and a 1.9 BB/9, a dramatic drop from the 3.0 BB/9 he posted the year prior. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best of his 11-year big league career.
As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pointed out, Bumgarner’s fastball in 2019 was as fast as it had been since 2015, and the increase in his fastball’s spin rate — for all you spin rate fans out there — from 2018 to 2019 was the biggest jump in the game.
Of course, not everything was sunshine and lollipops. In 2019, Bumgarner finished with the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, with 43.8 percent of the batted balls he gave up hit hard. His 35.8-percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career. And while 207.2 innings — the most he threw in a season since 2016 — had a lot to do with certain stats looking large, he did give up a career-high 30 home runs and a career-high 90 earned runs.
Who knows whether Bumgarner will receive the same five-year deal that Wheeler did. Wheeler might be of similar age, just eight months younger than Bumgarner, but has a significantly less taxed throwing arm after he missed two seasons due to injury. But speculation abounds that Bumgarner will receive a similarly expensive deal, one richer than $100 million after Wheeler agreed to a $118 million pact with the Phillies — and turned down a contract offer worth more than $120 million from the White Sox.
Bumgarner, though, brings plenty Wheeler never could. He’s a three-time World Series champ and arguably the best pitcher in World Series history, with a 0.25 ERA in five Fall Classic games. That kind of winning experience would be invaluable to a team like the White Sox, whose veteran leader, while incredibly deserving of his status in the clubhouse, has played for sub-.500 teams in all six of his major league seasons.
In that regard, because their resumes are so similar, Bumgarner can be a Jon Lester of sorts for this Chicago rebuilding effort. Lester was the first big-name player to sign up with the then-rebuilding Cubs, inking a gigantic free-agent contract after a 2014 season in which the Cubs — who had yet to even call up Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber — lost 89 games. With Lester (and those youngsters) aboard, the Cubs went to the NLCS in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016.
Coincidentally, the 2019 White Sox also lost 89 games. Coincidentally, Lester was also 30 years old and had World Series rings on more than one finger when he signed his big deal. (For what it’s worth, Lester had logged a combined 1,680 regular-season and postseason innings when he joined the Cubs.) Bumgarner buying into the vision on the South Side would be oh so reminiscent of Lester doing so on the North Side.
Lester was more than just a symbol for those Cubs teams, pitching as well as — if not better than — any pitcher they’ve had (save maybe Jake Arrieta) since he signed. Bumgarner would have to do the same to have the same kind of impact, obviously. But the jumps in those statistics just in 2019 signal he could be capable of doing just that.
This isn’t to say the White Sox “lucked out” in missing out on Wheeler or that Bumgarner is guaranteed to be a slam-dunk success for whichever team he signs with. But there are still some very good options on the free-agent market, even past Cole and Strasburg — who, it should be noted, the White Sox haven’t been tied to much at all, with MLB Network’s Jon Heyman going as far to say there’s “no belief” the White Sox would be in on either.
And the White Sox, if they’re indeed pursuing Bumgarner already, are likely to face steep competition, just like they did in the Wheeler sweepstakes. The Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to the lefty, too.
There are reasons to question the pursuit of any player, Bumgarner included. But he can provide so much for a young rotation and a young team. Plus, he’s still a damn good pitcher. We’ll see if the White Sox willingness to spend the biggest bucks on Wheeler applies to their next target, too.