Is Madison Bumgarner the New Barry Zito?

Disclaimer: I'm a huge Barry Zito fan and am eternally grateful that he signed with the San Francisco Giants, regardless of his shortcomings on the field.

One of the recent storylines in Major League Baseball is the continued struggle of forever Giant Madison Bumgarner in Arizona, which might be painful to watch for his die-hard fans in San Francisco. I can't help but notice the parallels with another former Giant, Barry Zito.

In both cases, the pitcher had an outstanding peak that may be a tad overrated in hindsight, followed by immediate struggles upon signing for big money with a new franchise. The Giants got great results with Bumgarner, and paid for past performance with Zito.

While Bumgarner still has plenty of time to turn his Diamondbacks career around, I think the similarities go deeper than being two left-handed starters with Giants ties and struggles on the mound.

Early MLB Success

Both Bumgarner and Zito were originally drafted as teenagers, but Bumgarner was taken in the first round in 2007 while Zito was drafted in the 59th in 1996. Bumgarner opted out of a commitment to University of North Carolina to sign with the Giants, while Zito spent three years in college (at three different schools), played in the Cape Cod Baseball League, and eventually earned his first round bonus in 1999.

This allowed Bumgarner to join The Show at age 19, whereas Zito debuted at age 22. Both players showed promise immediately, but While Zito opted for the quickest path to free agency, the Giants signed Bumgarner to an early extension that bought out two years of free agency via team options.

Regardless, both players reached free agency while in their prime (Zito was 28, Bumgarner was 30). Here's a look at their statistics pre-free agency:

Player Franchise Seasons IP Avg. W-L% ERA+ SO9 BB9 HR9 rWAR* Awards
Madison Bumgarner Giants 11 168 .564 120 8.7 2.1 .9 31.2 4x AS, 2x SS, LCS MVP, WS MVP
Barry Zito Athletics 7 204 .618 125 6.9 3.5 .9 31.0 3x AS, 1x CYA

*I only counted their WAR on the mound, since Zito had few plate appearances while in Oakland. But given that Bumgarner adds a ton of value with his bat, it should be noted that he earns an additional 4.6 rWAR at the plate, while Zito loses .4 rWAR.

Both pitchers fit the traditional definition of an ace, pitching lots of innings, winning games, making All-Star teams, and getting multiple Game 1 starts in the playoffs. While Bumgarner had the better peripherals, Zito used the ample foul territory in Oakland and higher-offense league to accrue more wins, black ink, and over a win more value per season (part of this because Bumgarner had more injuries and partial seasons).

Bumgarner and Zito also shone bright in the postseason. Giants fans need no reminder of Bumgarner's playoff success, but Zito had plenty of highlights outside of 2012.

  • He had two dominant playoff performances in Oakland, 2001 ALDS Game 3 against the Yankees (Jeremy Giambi slide game) and 2006 ALDS Game 1 against the Twins. In both games he threw eight innings while allowing 1 run.
  • In seven postseason starts for the A's, he only had one "bad" start (2006 ALCS Game 1 against the Tigers; 3.2 IP and 5 ER). In every other start he went at least five innings, with five quality starts.

Off-Field Interests

In addition to their similar stat lines, it's hard to find two pitchers in recent memory who received more notoriety for their hobbies off the diamond.

Zito started playing guitar early in his career, and while he waited until retirement to release an album and join The Masked Singer, he claimed on the ESPN2 game show Teammates that his guitar was a more important possession than his Cy Young Award.

He also became a fashion model, guest starred on the TV show JAG (not as himself), and enjoyed surfing and yoga. He was the true Californian.

Alternatively, Bumgarner is the ultimate country boy. He entered rodeo events under the alias Mason Saunders, injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident, and his Sportsman of the Year article was almost entirely dedicated to his crazy stories on the actual farm (and dating a girl with the same name).

In other words, it's pretty clear that while baseball is important to both of these guys, it's by no means the only thing that defines them. Both seem perfectly content living a life without baseball.

Road to Mediocrity

Bumgarner and Zito entered free agency amid Hall of Fame discussions, even after multiple years of declining performance. Their walk years both showed a resurgence, as each led their respective leagues in starts while posting a sub-4.00 ERA. Zito made the All-Star team and playoffs, while Bumgarner's peripheral stats (FIP, SO9, BB9) actually backed up his performance.

However, they each showed indicators that decline may be on the horizon. Bumgarner's 2019 saw career highs in home runs allowed, exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit percentage, and he threw his fewest percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

Meanwhile, 2006 for Barry Zito saw his ERA outperform his FIP by over a run, he had his lowest career SO/W, he threw his best pitch (curveball) at a career low rate (18.6% vs. 26.7% in his Cy Young season), and his fastball velocity was steadily decreasing.

Basically, both of these pitchers had the appearance of an ace, but newer stats were predicting trouble on the horizon. While many free agent pitchers have some moderate success in the first year or two of the contract, these guys struggled right away.

In his first season in San Francisco, Zito threw 196.2 innings with a 99 ERA+, .458 W-L%, and 2.0 rWAR. Many Giants fans probably don't remember him being that close to average given the emergence of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. It only got worse from there, as he compiled only .4 rWAR over his remaining six years in orange and black. We'll always have the 2012 postseason, though.

Thirteen years later, Bumgarner's first season in Arizona was much worse. He pitched 41.2 innings with a 71 ERA+, and -.3 rWAR. Due to a shortened schedule, the innings pitched seems more reasonable, but he didn't even average five innings per start. So far in 2021, he leads MLB in earned runs allowed and losses, with a 38 ERA+.

Bumgarner still has almost four seasons to turn the tide in Arizona, or he could even become the next Pablo Sandoval and return to the Giants following a Diamondbacks release. But I imagine A's fans everywhere can relate to Bumgarner's current performance, as they've seen it play out before.

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