When Madison Bumgarner left San Francisco after the 2019 season, part of me wondered/feared if he would follow the path of fellow Giants legend Gaylord Perry. Perry is a Hall of Famer, and by bWAR, he ranks third among Giants starters in the San Francisco era. Perry’s best years didn’t come in San Francisco, though. The Giants traded Perry to Cleveland following the 1971 season, and over the next four years, Perry put up 32.9 bWAR which nearly matched what he accrued during his 10 years in a Giants uniform. Perry won his first of two Cy Young awards in 1972, the year after he was dealt.
Bumgarner thus far has not followed Gaylord Perry. Not even close. Bumgarner’s first year in Arizona, he was arguably the worst starter in baseball. In nine starts, Bumgarner posted a 6.48 ERA, a career low 15.8 strikeout rate, and his average fastball velocity dipped to 89.6 mph. He was the easiest pitcher in baseball to tee-up, ranking in the first percentile for xwOBA, xSLG, xERA, and Barrel%.
2020, of course, was a shortened season, and as troubling as the velocity loss was, the glass half full take was that it was all a small sample fluke. It’s just a little velocity dip, he’s still good, he’s still good.
Then Bumgarner began the 2021 season with three straight stinkers. He gave up six runs, then five runs, then six runs again and all the while, his fastball struggled to crack 90 mph. Since then, Bumgarner has given up just three runs in his last five starts which included a no-hitter that didn’t count and another seven-inning, shutout performance. He hasn’t just looked like vintage Bumgarner, he’s been better than that.
On the season (so including his wretched beginning), Bumgarner is currently sporting a 3.38 FIP and 27.5 percent strikeout rate. Both marks would be his best since 2016. Of course, it’s only May 13 and Bumgarner still has 20 or so starts to make. There’s plenty of time for things to change, but as of now, the worst appears to be behind him.
For one, his velocity has returned. Over his last five starts, Bumgarner has regained that lost tick of velo on all his pitches. In Bumgarner’s last start against Miami, his fastball averaged 92.6 mph which would be his fastest since May 23, 2019. The difference in results on this year’s fastball and last year’s is drastic. The 2021 fastball has generated whiffs on 18.9 percent of swings, which isn’t remarkable on its own, but 2020 only missed bats 8.4 percent of the time.
More velocity is always better, but even at his best, Bumgarner was never a flamethrower. His strength lies in his low three-quarter release and movement that zips away from lefties and explodes the thumbs of righties. When Bumgarner wasn’t throwing as hard, his pitches weren’t doing that. Bumgarner’s fastball didn’t just look unimpressive on a radar gun, it didn’t have any life. In his last five starts, the velocity has returned and so too has the horizontal movement.
That brings his fastball back to pre-2020 levels of movement. Of course, his fastball performing better lifts his other pitches as well, not to mention their own velocity increases. The curveball Bumgarner started throwing more often in 2018 is inducing 41 percent whiffs. The cutter continues to be a reliable weapon that he can throw in any count.
Bumgarner might not have two Cy Youngs waiting for him in the second half of his career like Perry did, but his last five outings have done much to squelch the freaking out about the remaining three and a half years on his deal. 2020 is in the rearview, and things are slowly getting back to normal. That includes Madison Bumgarner.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.