When the San Francisco Giants were readying their postseason roster before the 2010 playoffs, the major point of contention was who their fourth starter would be. With Barry Zito faltering down the stretch, many fans were screaming for Madison Bumgarner, the then fresh-faced barely 21-year-old southpaw, to get that spot. Giants fans got their wish, and Bumgarner responded with three quality starts in three tries, including the most dominant performance in a World Series by a 21-year-old since Bret Saberhagen closed out the 1985 World Series, throwing eight shutout innings in San Francisco’s Game 4 victory against Texas.
With performances like that behind him, many people believed the sky was the limit for Bumgarner, who was touted as having stuff on par with the other big three arms in the Giants rotation. And even though he had only three wins going into Tuesday night’s start, his ERA was just above 3.00, and his peripherals and advanced metrics suggested that with only three wins on the year that he was the beneficiary of bad luck and a small amount of run support more than anything else, painting the picture of a successful starter in one of the most dominant rotations in baseball.
Then, Tuesday night happened.
In only 25 pitches, Bumgarner gave up nine hits in 10 batters, allowing eight earned runs in a 9-2 rout to the Minnesota Twins, who have made June their month of mammoth turnarounds. How bad was the performance? In the history of Major League Baseball, only two other pitchers had given up eight runs on 25 or less pitches, and they were relievers. Paul Wilson gave up the eight runs on five hits, including two homers, as the Dodgers routed the Reds, 13-6 on May 6, 2005. Before that, Blake Stein of Oakland allowed the Indians to destroy him for the eight runs on four hits and three walks, allowing inherited runners to score as well in a 13-6 loss back on August 31, 1998. So Bumgarner became the first starter in history to pull off the nefarious deed.
Bumgarner’s ERA rose almost an entire point to 4.06 and all of a sudden, his 3-9 record looks a little worse than it did. His metrics still look good considering he’s been counted on to be a fourth/fifth starter type, as he’s only allowed four homers in 84.1 innings and has an identical strikeout rate of 7 per 9 IP as he did in 2010. However, his walk rate has ticked up to 2.6 per 9 IP as opposed to 2.0 the year before and his hit rate is at 9.9 as opposed to 9.6. With those small increases not withstanding, there isn’t another team in baseball who can boast a pitcher in his age 22 season that has helped them win a World Series. So he has that going for him, which is nice.
The advanced metrics paint an even better picture for Bumgarner. His SIERA is at 3.92, right in line with his ERA and showing the pitcher who still has been the beneficiary of bad luck. He also has a 2.90 FIP and an xFIP of 3.47, which both play up thanks to those metrics. His .333 BABIP has been a thorn in his side considering his defense behind him hasn’t been the best. In fact, Ben Revere’s single that led off the first inning massacre could have (and probably should have) been considered an error as Miguel Tejada couldn’t come up with the hard hit ball that was hit just to the right of him. However, the majority of the balls the Twins hit were located right across the beltline for most of the hitters, and while he has tried to pitch to contact, he does have a tendency of getting hit around more often than not.
There is another bit of news that might be disconcerting to Giants fans: Zito, in another start for Triple-A Fresno as he rehabs from his ankle injury in mid-May, threw a two-hit shutout on Tuesday night, giving up two walks and striking out seven on 118 pitches. The timing of his start can’t be ignored, as his rest lines up with Bumgarner’s. The young lefty probably picked the worst time to have a start that bad, as now with Zito looking primed and ready to return, the Giants will have to figure out what to do with the man who was given the largest contract in team history, and since Bumgarner does still have options remaining, the average fan might think that his numbers and most recent performance make him prime for a return trip to Fresno.
Zito and his humongous salary ($57M left including his $7M buyout in 2014) would normally fit right back in to a situation on any other team, but the San Francisco starting rotation just doesn’t have any room for him right now. Bumgarner’s 2.0 WAR has been third best among starters behind Tim Lincecum (2.2) and Matt Cain (2.1), and with Ryan Vogelsong’s fantastic resurgence with 1.5 WAR as the fifth starter, the main reason the Giants are still in the NL West race is because of their starting pitching. This is even with Jonathan Sanchez’s 1.0 WAR and his 5.6 BB per 9 IP keeping things interesting every fifth day.
So while many people believe that Zito’s return might spell doom for the young lefty, Bumgarner’s advanced stats and his rates staying true to his 2010 season seem to keep in well in line to get the ball every fifth day going forward, relegating Zito to a bullpen role. And while many people will scoff at the idea of the highest paid player on the team being a reliever, the idea that someone like Zito is in the bullpen for the Giants has to make other teams realize just how good that starting rotation is. Zito is a pretty good option to have in case someone goes south, and considering the Giants seem to now have the Diamondbacks to worry about along with the Rockies in the NL West race, anything they can squeeze out of their pitching staff as their horrible offense continues to struggle will only help them.