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Bumgarner 2031

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There have been only 30 left-handed starters in MLB history to pitch at age 41. Can Madison Bumgarner be one of them?

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

We just debuted “McDeep Dive”, our new series that will spotlight one Giants player every day for a week. We’ll move backwards and forwards through time, look at on the field stuff, off the field stuff, and see if we can learn something new about them. Here’s part 5 of our look at Madison Bumgarner.

More than a third of the lefties to pitch at age 41 have done so in the 21st century, which feels like a strong rebuke of the idea that players today are “soft”. No one would ever think to call Madison Bumgarner soft but neither would they consider him to be like one of today’s players; and yet, he very much is a pitcher of his time.

He loves to play baseball. That seems to be a forgotten part of his legend, pushed aside by the red-ass, axe-wielding, be-flanneled woodsman image the national media eats up. They need easy narratives because they’re lazy and incurious. Bumgarner takes his job seriously because he loves what he does. Chopping down trees and chopping open snake bellies aren’t the only things he’s into. He loves to pitch, and he’s willing to use any tool at his disposal to get even better at it.

Remember the bit from yesterday’s McDeep Dive where I mentioned his interest in pitch tracking? That showed this side of him I’m talking about:

Some team officials were surprised that Bumgarner, known for an old-school approach to reading a hitter’s swing during an at-bat, would want the machines set up. But he did look at the results after his bullpen session.

“I was trying it out. I was just curious about it, really,” Bumgarner said. “It tracks everything. Where the ball goes through the zone, release point, it gets your hand coming through in super slow motion. You can adjust if you need to. You’re not going to get a better look at (your pitches). It’s info to have, and that’s what I was curious about.”

Curiosity is a precursor to wisdom. Maybe you’ll never see an easily provoked snot-rocketeer as “wise”, but wisdom doesn’t have to be universal. Sometimes, you can just be a wise starting pitcher who simply knows enough to keep pitching.

That stretches all the way back to this second start of the 2015 season, through the dirt bike accident and the broken pinkie. It’s unlikely he’ll run that streak well beyond 100, but that sort of durability is exactly why you’re reading this.

What will Madison Bumgarner be like in 2031? Will he be pitching in a recognizable version of Major League Baseball or will Rob Manfred’s clone have outlawed flesh and blood pitchers in favor of pitching machines? Will strikeouts be considered felonies along with defensive shifts? Will there still be players from other countries or will America finally be the closed circuit it so blood-thirstily craves?

Only 30 left-handed pitchers in MLB history have age-41 seasons, and 6 of the 11 to have theirs in the 21st century were starters, so even though it’s a long shot that Bumgarner might still be pitching in 2031, it’s not impossible that he could be and as a starter.

28 year old Madison Bumgarner’s closest Hall of Fame comp is Steve Carlton, whose age-28 season is memorable for being a 20-loss season (13-20 record) that followed an age-27 Cy Young Award-winning 27-10 season. Baseball is a weird sport, my dudes, and pitching wins and losses don’t really tell us anything.

Carlton pitched 346.1 innings in that 27-win season with an ERA+ of 182, tied for 93rd all-time in single season ERA+. It was his very best season. Bumgarner spent the bulk of his age-27 season rehabbing a career-threatening shoulder injury, and his best season was 2016’s 146 OPS+. Carlton had six seasons that were better than Bumgarner’s best (although 3 came in his mid-30s), so, the Carlton comp is off the mark for now.

Again, Carlton is the closest Hall of Fame comp by age, but here’s the rest of that list:

  1. Bill Bailey (990.4) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  2. Ledell Titcomb (984.3) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  3. Bret Saberhagen (965.8) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  4. Clayton Kershaw (959.2) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  5. Vida Blue (950.4) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  6. Frank Tanana (948.1) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C
  7. Frank Tanana (946.6) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 C

Bill Bailey died in 1926 at age 38, just four years after he threw his final major league pitch. Bumgarner has already said he plans to cut back on the dirt biking. But he does have a big farm.

Ledell Titcomb, who’s name I can’t even say without giggling like a schoolgirl, pitched from 1886-1890, which means he never got to use computers to sort out his pitching mechanics or even pitch at night. Some of Bumgarner’s best games have been by stadium light.

Neither Vida Blue nor Frank Tanana pitched into their forties. Neither did Saberhagen. All three of them made it to the majors at either 19 or 20 years old. Debut age is a crucial component in all this, which makes sense. It’s hard to play professional baseball for 20+ years, regardless of the era.

Most of the lefties who were starters into their forties didn’t become Major League starters until around 24. Kershaw and Bumgarner both pitched their first full MLB seasons at 20 years old. But! There are exceptions.

Warren Spahn is one of them. He debuted at age 21 and pitched 15.2 innings, but then went off to fight in World War II for three years before returning for his first full season at age 25. So, he’s an exception, but not really.

Carlton debuted at 20, too, but again, he’s not a good comp for Bumgarner. Tom Glavine began at 21, but he’s also not nearly the same kind of pitcher as Bumgarner and of a much higher pedigree than Bumgarner is right now. Tommy John also came up at 20, but they developed an entire surgery around prolonging his career, so he feels like a completely different kind of exception. Everyone else you think might fit here (David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Kenny Rogers) all debuted in that 23-24 range.

Even Jamie Moyer — who had Tommy John surgery at 47 years old in 2010 and came back to pitch in 2012 at 49 — didn’t make it to the majors until he was 23. He also had only 41.1 postseason innings on his soft-tossing left arm. But we know that Madison Bumgarner isn’t Jamie Moyer and he won’t suddenly become Jamie Moyer.

But could he be Randy Johnson? Well, Johnson also made his debut in that 23-24 range, but he also didn’t become Randy Johnson until his age-29 season. Until that point, he had an ERA+ of 101 and 818 strikeouts in 818 innings pitched and 0 postseason innings. His numbers from 29-41 made him one of the greatest pitchers of all-time (160 ERA+, 3,554 strikeouts in 2,775.2 innings pitched; no need for postseason innings; that seems pretty clear).

No, Bumgarner isn’t Randy Johnson and he won’t suddenly become Randy Johnson. At best, he could be a Randy Johnson lite, aided by technological advancement and a high strikeout era to maximize his skill set.

The closest comp I can think of who might fit, then, is C.C. Sabathia, who made a late-career adjustment to hang around. But he’s still 4 seasons off from reaching his age-41 season, when the consensus is that he’s a season or two away from retirement.

So there’s no clear future for Madison Bumgarner. The odds are overwhelmingly against him making it to 2031, but he’s one of the only pitchers currently working you’d put money on to defy them.