Billy Madison Bumgarner

by Eno Sarris //

Like Billy Madison in the movie of the same name, Madison Bumgarner had to go back to school to get his millions. After a lightning-quick ascension through the ranks and up the prospect ladder, Bumgarner had a rude awakening in the upper levels of the minor leagues as well as the major leagues last year. Now he’s gone back to school, spending much of the first half of this season in the minors. So far, so good back in the majors in 2010 as the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs show. What can we expect going forward?

BumgarnerGrab.jpgLast year, Bumgarner was the #9 prospect in baseball and had finished two-and-a-half-years at Single-A with a strikeout rate above one per inning and a booming mid-90s fastball. It almost didn’t seem like he needed any more fine-tuning in the minor leagues, but he went to Double-A anyway because that’s what young pitchers do.

That’s when things began to go south. Reports of diminished velocity started coming through, and the results showed that something was off. His strikeout rate fell precipitously, down to 5.8 per nine in AA. The shine was off. The whispers started. A penguin was spotted. Even Bob Barker started talking trash.

The Giants called him up for a cup of coffee anyway, and in four games, his strikeout rate looked great (9.00 K/9), and you’d have been forgiven for thinking that maybe this velocity thing was overblown. Bumgarner would graduate with honors if he could put up a strikeout rate like that, even with the caveat that he was relieving, and that relievers usually enjoy a slightly higher strikeout rate. Unfortunately, his K rate masked a still-diminished velocity (89.3 MPH on his fastball), and batters teed up on him often, with a 1.80 HR/9 number that would have to change for him to be successful at the major league level.

This year, in Bumgarner’s return to school, he performed adequately but did not recover his former glory on the gun or in his peripherals. His 6.4 K/9 at Triple-A this year wouldn’t qualify him for notice on any prospect list without giving him heavy extra credit for his young age (he’s still only 20 years old). The reason he was able to contribute a 3.16 ERA was the fact that he still doesn’t walk people (2.4 BB/9 in Triple-A and 1.9 career in minor leagues). And while some reports had him regaining velocity with a change in mechanics, his re-found ability to hit 90 on the gun from time to time was not a full recovery. The scouting reports had him as hitting the mid-90s before the mysterious dip. Another way his reduced ineffectiveness was obvious was in the number of hits Bumgarner gave up per nine innings: 9.6. That was a full two hits per nine worse than his previous numbers.

So now he’s back in the majors, diploma in hand. His fastball is averaging 90.3 MPH compared to last year’s 89.2 MPH, and he’s only striking out 6.75 batters per nine innings. His 47.6% groundball percentage is OK, but not good enough to mitigate his poor strikeout numbers. He’s not walking anyone (1.61 BB/9), but that’s about the best thing that can be send for him right now… other than his 2.57 ERA. The worst part about his current numbers is that he’s been lucky. He has a .266 BABIP and a 82.7% strand rate, numbers which trend towards .300 and 70% across baseball every year. A few more dinks and dunks should fall in, and a few more baserunners will hit home plate. In short, he has graduated, but not with honors. He looks like a pitcher who can put up an ERA in the low fours and lock down the back of a rotation by not walking batters and having just enough stuff.

Needless to say, this isn’t what the Giants expected out of their prized arm. At 20 years old, it’s possible that he fills in his frame or finds some arm slot that works better for him. He’s still young. But if someone values his upside like he was still the super-prospect of old, then managers should go ahead and sell. His ‘real’ velocity is just not back. Or, as Billy Madison might have said, “OK, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.”

For more on Madison Bumgarner and other quacktastic young pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

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