Madison Bumgarner is no different in the postseason than he is in the regular season, so stop making him out to be a superhuman.
Look, I have nothing against Madison Bumgarner. He’s a top fifteen pitcher in the majors and is coming off of an incredible season. I will also add that what he did in the 2014 postseason and in the 2016 Wild Card game was phenomenal. My problem is with the story being written, because it’s dead wrong.
By now, you have probably heard that when October rolls around, Bumgarner becomes the best pitcher ever to grace the mound with his presence. In reality, Bumgarner is the same pitcher in the postseason that he is in the regular season. In fact, his peripherals have actually been a little bit worse. Even in that magical 2014 run, his great play was largely influenced by luck.
Bumgarner’s final line that you have heard about for the 2014 playoffs: 4-1, 1.03 ERA, 1 Save, 52.2 IP
Bumgarner’s final line that you haven’t heard about for the 2014 playoffs: 3.40 xFIP, 7.69 K/9, .180 BABIP, 30.1 % GB rate, 4.6 HR/FB rate
Bumgarner’s career line for that last set of numbers: 3.28 xFIP, 8.89 K/9, .285 BABIP, 44.5 % GB Rate, 9.5 % HR/FB rate
OK, something has got to give here. Either he was the top line, or he was the second line in that postseason run. Well, the truth is that he was able to put up that top line despite somewhat average peripherals. In order to separate luck from skill, we look at the three true outcomes. Bumgarner did not strike out many batters in that postseason. Major League starters strike out 7.75 batters per nine innings. Bumgarner couldn’t even hit that mark.
Bumgarner was still good during that magical run. He was certainly above average. But when was the last time you heard someone call Bumgarner above average in the postseason? The story you hear is the one about him destroying everything in his path. You keep reading that nobody is as good as he is in the postseason. What you keep reading and hearing is not the truth.
— MLB (@MLB) October 6, 2016
Bumgarner countered a low strikeout rate with a minuscule walk rate. His control was phenomenal in that run. He just wasn’t as dominant as you hear. In fact, if not for a ridiculously low HR/FB rate, he wouldn’t have looked it. In small sample sizes, HR/FB ratios will deviate from the norm. It does not mean that a pitcher is doing better. It just means that a pitcher is getting lucky or unlucky. In this case, Bumgarner got extremely lucky. The major league average for starting pitchers this year was a 13.3 percent HR/FB rate. 4.6 percent is way too good to be sustainable. Give him more innings, and that number will go up.
The last part I want to tackle is the BABIP. Pitchers don’t have much control over what happens on a ball hit in play. The Giants had Brandon Crawford anchoring a really good defense, but they aren’t that good. Bumgarner got batters to keep hitting the ball right at his fielders, and that is not a skill. Even the best pitchers end up with a BABIP near league average. Again, Bumgarner’s incredible run had a lot more to do with luck than skill.
The rest of it
I keep saying that certain numbers should return to the norm or the average after a certain number of innings. Well, hasn’t Bumgarner pitched enough innings? The answer to that question is complicated. Even over the course of a full season, pitchers can get lucky in the categories that I just mentioned. What stabilizes will be the results in the three true outcomes.
FIP is a metric based on the three true outcomes, and Bumgarner fares well in it. His career regular season FIP is 3.12. But, as you know, he is so much better in the postseason. In postseason games, his FIP has fallen all the way to 3.10. He is really just the same guy.
In the regular season, Bumgarner gets 8.89 K/9, 2.07 BB/9, and .84 HR/9. In the postseason, those numbers are 7.65 K/9, 1.58 BB/9, and .70 HR/9. It makes sense that Bumgarner strikes out fewer batters in the postseason; the opponents are better. He is able to balance that out by walking fewer batters as well. That keeps him an effective pitcher, but he isn’t dominant. He just looks that way based on his ERA and the number of times he has pitched. If you want to make a case for how great his appearances have been and how incredible he has been, that’s fine. But enough with the stories about how he gets better and how he is suddenly one of the best of all time in October.
Switching to the Cardinals
So how does this relate to the Cardinals? Well, the Cardinals have certainly had their fair share of postseason heroes. Let’s analyze a recent one in David Freese. Freese won World Series MVP honors in 2011 for his heroic performances in that postseason. Over those 18 games, he posted a .397/.465/.794 slash line. That is an incredible 18-game stretch and well above his career line of .275/.345/.417. Freese only had 51 playoff games on his resume, so he’s had less time to regress back to his career numbers. For his playoff career, his slash line sits at .282/.357/.517.
Daniel Murphy: 17 RBI in 18 career postseason games.
Only NL player w/ more in 1st 18 playoff games is David Freese (21).
— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) October 12, 2016
The only difference in his slash line is that slugging percentage figure. His 8 home runs in those 51 games is way above his career homer rate. Of course, it doesn’t really mean that he’s more powerful in the postseason. Freese has a 21.6 percent HR/FB rate in the postseason, compared to 14.8 percent in the regular season. If you take out one-third of his postseason homers, he is right on track for his 162-game average. Freese had an incredible postseason series, but the player is still the same.
Albert Pujols is another one like this. On the surface, his postseason numbers appear to be greater than his regular season numbers. However, if we switch the rates that shouldn’t change (BABIP and HR/FB), we end up with a very similar slash line.
Yadier Molina has the most career postseason at-bats of any Cardinal. His regular season slash line is .285/.338/.400. His postseason slash line is .286/.339/.368. His average and OBP are separated by just one point! The difference in slugging comes from, you guessed it, HR/FB rate. If you increase his postseason HR/FB rate to his regular season HR/FB rate, the gap becomes much smaller.
The moral of the story is that players are the same in the postseason as they are in the regular season. Players rarely pitch enough innings or get enough at-bats to show it, though. Sometimes you have to look at those peripherals stats to find traces of the regular season players.
When a Cardinal does well in the playoffs, you should celebrate it. Love that player and cherish the moment. I am not trying to take away the joys of watching great performances. I just don’t like it when the narrative becomes a lie. Players go through highs and lows, and whether it is Madison Bumgarner or a St. Louis Cardinal, players don’t transform into new people depending on the time of the year. Celebrate the good, but don’t say he is some kind of superhuman because of a small sample size.
Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox – USA TODAY Sports