The Madison Bumgarners That Once Were

We have a Madison Bumgarner, right now. He just put a whole team on his shoulders and blew our minds last October, even. And with that Paul Bunyanesque workmanlike yet fiery demeanor, he seems a snowflake. Unique and alone. But maybe we have we seen pitchers like him before?

Using a query that asks for all lefties taller than 75 inches and heavier than 225 pounds — Bumgarner clocks in at 77 inches and 235 pounds in our database, respectively — you do get two active lefties that had nice starts to their careers, just like Bumgarner did. Here are the numbers they collected until their age 26 season.

CC Sabathia 100 219 1406.1 7.31 2.97 0.84 0.290 71.8% 44.0% 8.6% 3.83 3.74 3.96 27.8
Madison Bumgarner 70 154 991.1 8.43 2.13 0.79 0.290 75.7% 46.0% 9.0% 3.06 3.15 3.30 18.6
Jon Lester 61 123 766 8.37 3.37 0.76 0.302 76.0% 47.1% 8.9% 3.55 3.60 3.74 15.6

It looks like CC Sabathia is out in front because of his innings advantage, but by WAR per 200 innings, both CC and Jon Lester outpaced Bumgarner by decimal points. They were all about four-win pitchers until they turned 26, though, so it’s a fair grouping. They’re all big. And they actually all have about eight or nine inches between their height and their vertical release point, so to varying degrees, they all sling it similarly.

But CC lacks the early signature success. Lester, on the other hand, won the final game of the World Series for his team once. Since we have PITCHf/x for the two, lets’ compare their arsenals and release points from Brooks Baseball through their age 26 seasons.

Jon Lester Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 37% 94 5.0 9.5 2.7 6.0
Sinker 17% 92 9.1 4.6 2.8 6.0
Change 7% 85 9.3 5.2 2.7 6.0
Curve 18% 77 -4.5 -5.3 2.7 6.1
Cutter 21% 89 -0.7 4.5 2.8 6.0

And the Giant.

Bumgarner Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 47% 92 5.9 8.8 3.3 5.9
Change 7% 85 8.4 4.6 3.3 5.8
Curve 12% 77 -5.6 -3.9 3.3 5.8
Cutter 33% 88 0.1 4.2 3.3 5.8

These two are strikingly similar — big fastball/cutter/slider/curve lefties with the occasional change from a low-slung arm slot. The biggest difference is that Bumgarner’s release point is lower (a little more than these numbers suggest, since he’s also an inch taller). This comp makes it interesting when we read that Lester is more Horse than Ace, while we don’t usually hear that sort of qualification for Bumgarner. Maybe we’ve seen a Bumgarner very recently?

The first retired pitcher that leaps off the comp list is Randy Johnson. After Bumgarner yelled at Alex Guerrero, you might think they were both tall, fiery lefthanders that sling from a three-quarters-esque arm slot. But do you really remember how Johnson’s career started? He wasn’t The Big Unit from conception, as he struggled with command at first. In fact, through their age-26 seasons, the comparison doesn’t hold a great deal of water:

Madison Bumgarner 70 50 157 991.1 8.43 2.13 0.79 0.290 3.06 3.15 18.6
Randy Johnson 24 24 66 406.1 7.73 4.94 0.93 0.264 4.03 4.12 4.2

In terms of quantity and quality, Bumgarner’s early career has far outpaced Johnson’s. In terms of body type, he looks like he’s about one and a half Units, too. And how about that release point, was it really so similar?

First, watch Johnson for a refresher.

And Bumgarner from this week.

We actually have PITCHf/x data for Johnson, so we can compare them graphically. He’s on the left, Bumgarner’s release points are on the right.

chart (51)chart (52)

At first glance, they’re right in line. Except that Johnson was five inches taller than Bumgarner, meaning that his arm angle was about five inches lower than Bumgarner’s once you adjust for height.

Still, you’ve got two tall fastball/slider lefties that have shown dominance recently. Could you really find a closer comp for Bumgarner? Maybe.

Check out how Bumgarner’s career so far looks compared to this player of yore, once league context is accounted for. This lefty’s early career stacks up with Bumgarner’s.

Name W L G IP K/9+ BB/9+ HR/9+ BABIP+ ERA+ FIP WAR
Madison Bumgarner 70 50 157 991.1 113 70 84 99 86 86 18.6
X 81 52 181 1200.2 101 65 116 92 85 97 16.5

This six-foot seven lefty took his team to the World Series, and even won a pivotal game. (It was Game Six, but still.) And his team was even the last team to win a World Series Game Seven on the road before Bumgarner’s team managed the same.

Got it now? Here’s what he looks like:

John Candelaria was about two inches taller than Bumgarner, and since he’s listed at about the same weight, he might have been relatively more skinny. He started out as fast as Bumgarner, had the same mid-90s velocity on a standout fastball, he led his team to a World Series victory, and he’s roughly the same size and shape. Not a bad comp.

Let’s freeze the release points as best we can:


Looks like Candelaria was a little more upright with the body and had a bit of a lower release point. And when it came to temperament, they might have been a little different. The Candy Man once called his General Manager a “Bozo” and may have cost himself a shot at being signed by the Dodgers with his choice in T-Shirts. From Wikipedia (unsourced):

At the age of 15, Candelaria attended a baseball tryout where a Los Angeles Dodgers scout called him the best he had ever seen. The tryout catcher had to be replaced with a major league catcher for fear of injuring the stand-in. By the account of this same scout, Candelaria was in line to sign with the Dodgers before he appeared at a later tryout wearing a shirt that featured a marijuana leaf with the caption “try some, you’ll like it.” The Dodger executives at the tryout were so appalled by this lighthearted display that they declined to sign him.

To be 15 with a 95 mph fastball and no care for what the old people think.

No comp is going to be perfect, especially once you bring in release points and temperament. Jon Lester, Randy Johnson, and John Candelaria aren’t exactly Madison Bumgarner, but they are close. And none of this is meant to take away from the Giants’ lefty — his 2014 World Series run is basically unmatched.

But maybe when people talk of soft-tossing crafty lefties, you’ll remind them that there are at least three flame-tossing big old crazy side-winding left-handers that have played the game, too.

Thanks to the excellent Manolo Hernández Douen for the Jon Candelaria comp that inspired this post.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Candelaria was also a pretty decent hitter, about the same career wRC+ as Bumgarner.

Of course, neither of them hit as well as another good comp, Dontrelle Willis.