Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Madison Bumgarner May Be Closer to Matt Cain than Tim Lincecum

Madison Bumgarner is going to start the year in Triple-A Fresno, and isn't going to be lining the chalk line with his Giants teammates this Opening Day in Houston.

As a Giants fan, it is disappointing because Bumgarner started out as the leading candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation after having a solid, short stint in the Majors last season. In 10 IP, Bumgarner posted a strikeout rate of nine, a K/BB ratio of 3.33, a WHIP of 1.10, and an ERA of 1.80. While some numbers of Bumgarner's were a bit startling (4.60 FIP, .248 BABIP) for the most part, you couldn't ask for anything more from Bumgarner in his Major League debut.

Despite the solid September and the vote of confidence by Giants management this off-season, Bumgarner didn't exactly duplicate his minor league and September success this Spring, posting a 6.43 ERA and walked eight batters in 11 innings pitched. While his velocity was concerning (Bumgarner's fastball ranged from 87-89 MPH throughout the Spring), his walk numbers were particularly alarming considering that hasn't been a problem so far in Bumgarner's professional career.

So, what is the verdict now on Bumgarner? It's safe to say that his value has dropped, but should the Giants being throwing the towel in on the promise Bumgarner showed back in 2008 when he was dominating the South Atlantic League?

Absolutely not, and for two reasons.

1.) He's only 20-years-old.
2.) Comparing him to Tim Lincecum is unfair.

In terms of the first point, you can't really argue with that. 20-years-old is that 20-years-old. Bumgarner has a lot of time to develop, and there is no rush to bring him up to the Majors right away. Thus, you can't argue much with that point.

Point number two, however, I'm sure will generate a lot of debate.

As a Giants fan, the common person to compare Bumgarner to is Lincecum. It's natural. Lincecum has been the best pitcher on the Giants the last two years (as evidenced by his two Cy Youngs); Bumgarner has been best pitcher in the Giants' minor leagues the past two years.

After that though the comparisons end.

For starters, Lincecum broke into the Majors a lot older than Bumgarner mainly because Lincecum played three years of college baseball at the University of Washington (Bumgarner started playing professionally right out of high school). So, when Lincecum broke into the Majors by 2007, Lincecum was an already developed pitcher at the age of 23.

Comparing Lincecum to Bumgarner is comparing red apples to green apples. They are similar, but they are not the same thing.

Once you get past that Bumgarner isn't Lincecum and shouldn't be compared or held to the standard of Lincecum, then things get better for Bumgarner.

Especially when you compare him to Matt Cain.

First off, Cain is a good pitcher. You can make the argument that he was lucky last year, that he's not a sub-three ERA pitcher by nature, whatever. However, Cain certainly belongs on this Giants roster and he definitely was worth the contract extension he received a week ago.

Yet when you look at Cain's Single-A to Double-A stints in the minors and compare it to Bumgarner's (and it makes more sense because Cain, like Bumgarner, entered professional ball right out of high school), the comparison isn't all that farfetched like the Lincecum one.

First off, Cain's K/9 rates are more promising than Bumgarner's, not to mention more consistent. In his first three stints, Cain posted rates of 10.9, 11.0 and 7.5 (Single-A, Advanced Single-A, Double-A, respectively). Bumgarner posted rates of 10.42, 8.51, and 5.80 (Single-A, Advanced Single-A, Double-A, respectively).

As you can see, Bumgarner suffered dramatic drops in terms of striking guys out as he advanced through the Giants system. Cain on the other hand suffered a drop from San Jose to Norwich (Double-A), but for the most part, his rates remained solid (and they have remained solid in the Majors as well, as evidenced by his 7.5 K/9 average in four-and-a-half Major League seasons).

Despite the difference is strikeouts, Bumgarner has shown better control in the minors so far than Cain did from Single-A to Double-A.

Cain's BB/9 rates were 2.9, 2.1 and 4.2 from Single-A to Double-A. Bumgarner posted rates of 1.33, 1.48 and 2.52. And if that isn't enough, Bumgarner has posted  better K/BB ratios than Cain did in the minors despite the relative disadvantage in K/9 rates in comparison to Cain (Single-A: 3.75 for Cain, 7.81 for Bumgarner; Advanced Single-A: 5.24 for Cain, 5.75 for Bumgarner; Double-A: 1.80 for Cain, 2.30 for Bumgarner).

Also, in terms of WHIP, Bumgarner posted better numbers in that category (0.93, 0.99, 1.03) than Cain (1.10, 1.03, 1.31) from Single-A to Double-A.

Why is this important? Because Cain and Bumgarner may be very similar pitchers. Cain, despite starting out as a strikeout pitcher early in his professional career, has developed a knack for control (3.02 BB/9 rate last year) as well as getting ahead of batters early (61.2 percent first-strike percentage). Bumgarner pitches very similarly. He doesn't walk guys and he doesn't allow a lot of hits, despite not having incredible strikeout percentages, much like Cain.

Of course, this is going to have its disadvantages. Much like Cain, Bumgarner will be very susceptible to having fluctuating BABIP and FIP numbers from season to season (mainly because he allows the ball to be put in play so much), which could effect his other numbers. So, it wouldn't be surprising to see Bumgarner in the Majors have seasons where he's winning 10-plus games and posting an ERA in the two-range, and other seasons where he's losing 10-plus and has an ERA in the high-three to four range as well. It all depends on how lucky Bumgarner is and how solid the defense is behind him (What Cain has experienced in his tenure as a Giant).

Bumgarner not being the next Lincecum is not necessarily a bad thing. To be honest, that is an echelon very few pitchers ever reach in their lifetimes. However, as evidenced by the incredible control and command Bumgarner has shown in the minors, there is not doubt that he could at the very least be the next Cain, if not better.

And considering Cain was an All-Star and a Cy Young candidate for most of the season last year, I don't think a lot of Giants fans can argue with that.

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