It would seem the Yankees truly are all-in on their pursuit of top-flight starting pitching. They traded for James Paxton, engaged Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ in free agency, and even tried to snag one of Cleveland’s potentially available starters. Paxton’s already boosted the ceiling of New York’s rotation, and adding Corbin or someone like Trevor Bauer would do the same.
There’s one name that’s been bounced around that the Yankees should steer well clear of, and that’s Madison Bumgarner. The Giants lefty is just 29, we all know his postseason resume, and he’s rumored to be on the trading block as San Francisco stares down the barrel of a long and painful rebuild. The piper is coming to collect for winning three World Series in the last eight years.
Even though it’s a very real possibility that Bumgarner is traded, he’s someone the Yankees should stay far away from. Jeff Sullivan detailed last week how the cost for Bumgarner would be less than most fans would assume, given his stature in Giants’ history, but for right now I don’t care about cost. There are very frightening trends in his game that indicate he’s about to crater as a starting pitcher.
To start, let’s talk spin rate. If you’re unfamiliar, here are a couple really great primers on what spin rate is, how it affects the movement of pitches, and how it’s measured. In general, a high spin rate fastball will drop less over its flight path – perceived as a “rising” or “live” fastball by hitters. A high spin rate breaking ball will move more over its flightpath, except maybe for sliders, but sliders are nonsense pitches that defy explanation. While you can make lower spin rates work, what you want to avoid as a pitcher is a declining trend.
Madison Bumgarner has not been able to avoid that decline. His pitches have, in general, gotten less and less deceptive over the past two years, casting doubt on his ability to improve — even if he’s healthy for a full season.
Compare that to another pitcher who struggled with health issues and then returned to form:
Again, it’s not the absolute values; it’s the trend. Justin Verlander’s spin rates either held steady and from 2016 on, actually increased. It’s one of the biggest reasons why, once Verlander was healthy again, he regained his status as one of the premier pitchers in baseball. The trends were in Verlander’s favor, and the same can’t be said for Bumgarner.
Bumgarner’s pitches are less deceptive in general, and that’s led to a real crisis in his process. We talk about the difference between process and results all the time, but when discussing a player’s movement from team to team, process almost always wins out. This is especially true when you factor in a hypothetical move from probably the best pitcher’s park in baseball to one of the best hitter’s parks.
That loss of deception has led to worse command of the strike zone and better contact against. Intuitively, this makes sense. Hitters are doing less guesswork at the plate, and it’s easier to lay off balls and make contact with strikes. That contact is then progressively harder and harder, and that combination is deadly for a pitcher.
The worst part of all is that this decline looks to be fairly sustainable. The trend in lower K-BB%, higher Barrel% and lower spin rates all track together fairly closely, and as we saw above, it’s possible for a pitcher to keep spin rates roughly constant even when playing hurt. It’s not likely a sudden, completely healthy season from Bumgarner would be enough to reverse all three trends.
Madison Bumgarner has carved out a place for himself in baseball history already. He’s entering a contract year, and in terms of total run suppression, is probably going to be worth his $12 million salary. His inability to deceive hitters and their rising ability to make scary contact against him, however, just bakes too much risk in his 2019 for me to be interested. If he comes cheap, you can talk yourself into the possibility of him staving off the crater for another year. I can’t get there, though, and would prefer the Yankees pass altogether.