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Madison Bumgarner: Shadow MVP candidate?

Could Madison Bumgarner be worth consideration on the MVP ballot, despite being outclassed on the Cy Young front? (Probably not, but still!)

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the playoffs in full swing, it's only a matter of time before we step into awards season. Every year we have to play the game of determining the best players in the league -- officially for the BBWAA, unofficially for the fans and armchair analysts -- and every year we grasp for anything we can use to try and rank one player ahead of another.

So much of the time, even the savviest fans will simply default to one of the wins above replacement (WAR) metrics. They're great, and an exceptional way to figure out player value relative to the league-wide competition, but they don't always tell the whole story. With three different common flavors of WAR (there are ones found at Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus) it can also be a little confusing to pick a particular one to use.

What do I do when I'm looking to try and come up with a way of looking at a player's overall contribution? Well, I try and look at all three metrics, try to see what each of them captures and why, and use that as the starting point (certainly not the end point) for my analysis. There are certain things I value more than others in each metric ... for example BP's DRA-based pitching metric is most appealing to me, as is FanGraphs' view of positional player value.

But, when we look at pitcher value ... most people (myself included) tend to just focus on the player's pitching stats. That makes sense, of course, because most pitchers don't either gain or lose massive value thanks to their participation on the field as fielders or hitters. However, as I detailed last year, there are enough pitchers on the margins -- exceptional hitters, one way or the other -- where examining their offensive contributions can give us a little more idea of how much value they bring to the table.

Let's talk about Madison Bumgarner.

Madison Bumgarner is many things: playoff ace, All-Star starting pitcher, beer guzzler, pants salesman. As you may have heard, he's also a damn fine hitter ... especially for a pitcher. He led baseball with five home runs this season, and his .468 slugging percentage is higher than Prince Fielder's (.463). Before taking into account his hitting ability, Bumgarner is a great pitcher. Different metrics judge him differently, but he's posted a 5.1 fWAR, a 4.8 bWAR, and a 3.8 WARP -- all of which peg him at or around an All-Star level of performance. He's an ace.

However, those holistic numbers are considerably lower than other starters in the stacked NL Cy Young and MVP races. Look no further than guys like Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta -- pitchers who trounce his numbers due to their exceptional seasons. Even though wins above replacement metrics have some serious error bars, it seems like the other players in the league absolutely out-class Bumgarner -- so much so that between all the talented hitters (hi, Bryce Harper) and pitchers (hi, Zack Greinke), Bumgarner barely deserves consideration on MVP ballots based on the strength of his pitching alone.

But what if we factor in his offensive game? What can that tell us?

To find out, I threw together the leaderboards for all pitchers in both offensive bWAR and fWAR. I've done this previously -- Bumgarner was an offensive star back then too. Please note that fWAR certainly takes into account some measure of fielding ability and position, while bWAR does not appear to.

FanGraphs Composite WAR Upgrades

Name Pitching fWAR Positional fWAR Composite fWAR
Madison Bumgarner 5.1 1.2 6.3
Tyson Ross 4.4 0.8 5.2
Zack Greinke 5.9 0.7 6.6
Taylor Jungmann 1.6 0.4 2.0
Noah Syndergaard 3.1 0.4 3.5
Max Scherzer 6.4 0.4 6.8

Baseball-Reference Composite WAR Upgrades

Name Pitching bWAR Positional bWAR Composite bWAR
Madison Bumgarner 4.8 1.1 5.9
Tyson Ross 3.1 0.7 3.8
Zack Greinke 9.3 0.6 9.9
Jon Niese 0.2 0.5 0.7
Max Scherzer 7.1 0.5 7.6
Michael Lorenzen -0.6 0.4 -0.2
Noah Syndergaard 2.1 0.4 2.5
Taylor Jungmann 1.5 0.4 1.9
Jake Peavy 1.5 0.4 1.9

So these are the pitchers who had the biggest "position player" WAR upgrades ... and it just happens to include a few of the best in the league. Cy Young favorite (?) Zack Greinke, down-ballot candidates Bumgarner and Scherzer ... plus Tyson Ross and Noah Syndergaard.

Bumgarner gets a not-insubstantial boost from his hitting and fielding numbers: in each case it lifts up his overall value by over a win, which is more than any other pitcher in baseball. In my opinion ... and especially if you rely on FanGraphs-style WAR metrics, this pulls him up to a much closer comparison to the overall value of pitchers like Greinke and Scherzer. It even allows him to pass pitchers like Jacob deGrom (composite fWAR of 5.5) and legit MVP candidates such as Andrew McCutchen (5.8 fWAR) and Anthony Rizzo (5.5 fWAR).

As I mentioned earlier -- the error bars on any flavor of WAR are simply too high to use this metric as an end-all, be-all decider of overall value. You have to dig deeper, use other stats, and -- ultimately -- be prepared to make a judgement call. (That judgement call will likely be vilified by some fraction of the baseball community, so good luck!)

But I think the exercise of building out composite WAR is good for two things:

(1) It reminds us that, until they add the designated hitter to the National League, what a pitcher does as a hitter is still going to count for something. And while it may not be a Cy Young decider, or something that shows up in contract negotiations, there is a legitimate value add for good-hitting pitchers. And that's worth rewarding and recognizing.

(2) The three different flavors of WAR are fabulous metrics ... and they're also something we can play with. So long as we use good math and statistical methods, we can adapt them to include any factors we deem important. We can index them, use RE24 as a measure of offense, change up the defensive side, or create a version based on a different pitching stat. For good analysis, WAR can be a lovely starting point, and catapult us to something new, different, and exciting.

In this case, building a simple composite WAR lets us recognize that Madison Bumgarner (and Zack Greinke, Tyson Ross, etc.) are even better than their pitching stats tell us. Maybe Madison Bumgarner is a down-ballot MVP candidate?Maybe Zack Greinke should be legitimately considered the NL MVP, even if he's not the Cy Young winner? Maybe Matt Garza should have been DFA'd?*

If nothing else, it's fun to see how things change when we examine pitchers from a slightly different angle.

[ * - Yikes, Matt Garza. For a little bonus here are the laggard boards for the guys who lost the most value due to offensive and defensive ineptitude.]

FanGraphs Composite WAR Downgrades:

Name Pitching fWAR Positional fWAR Composite fWAR
Kyle Hendricks 1.7 -0.5 1.2
Jorge de la Rosa 3.4 -0.5 2.9
Charlie Morton 0.9 -0.4 0.5
Mike Bolsinger 1.2 -0.4 0.8
Jon Lester 5.0 -0.4 4.6
Joe Ross 1.4 -0.4 1.0
Rubby de la Rosa 0.3 -0.4 -0.1

[It's kind of interesting that Tyson Ross makes the Upgrade leaderboard, while his little brother makes the Downgrade board, right?]

Baseball-Reference Composite WAR Downgrades

Name Pitching bWAR Positional bWAR Composite bWAR
Rubby de la Rosa 0.0 -0.4 -0.4
Mike Bolsinger 1.2 -0.4 0.8
Kyle Hendricks 1.8 -0.4 1.4
Matt Garza -1.7 -0.4 -2.1
Charlie Morton -0.8 -0.4 -1.2
Eddie Butler -0.5 -0.4 -0.9

* * *

Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a columnist at Baseball Prospectus - Boston. Also, Jon Niese? Really!?