Giants ace Madison Bumgarner is renowned for his power at the plate, but is a spot in the Home Run Derby realistic? Jay Jaffe on why it's unlikely to happen.
Will they let just any bum into the Home Run Derby? Or more specifically, will they let Madison Bumgarner, the longball king among current pitchers, participate? It's a fun idea to contemplate, but don't hold your breath.
Last Thursday, the Giants' 26-year-old ace clubbed the 13th home run of his big league career, pushing him past Yovani Gallardo for the active lead among hurlers. With Gallardo, the longtime Brewers ace, having spent the past two seasons in American League with the Rangers and Orioles, respectively, the lefty-throwing, righty-swinging Bumgarner is only likely to widen his advantage on the field.
In the wake of the home run, meanwhile, stathead Ryan Spaeder noticed an amazing coincidence:
Of course, before anyone starts lobbying for Bumgarner to make a Babe Ruth-like conversion to position play, it's worth noting that his overall batting line (.180/.219/.304 for a 46 OPS+) hardly suggests he's the offensive equal of the two young superstars, though he remains an outstanding pitcher. Thus far, he has posted a 1.88 ERA (third in the league) with 10.4 strikeouts per nine—numbers that represent career bests—in 86 innings en route to 2.6 WAR.
Prior to Sunday night's ESPN-televised game between the Giants and Cardinals, Bumgarner put on a show in batting practice at Busch Stadium, hitting more than a dozen homers, including two into the third deck and one into the uppermost fourth deck. A groundskeeper told ESPN's Buster Olney that Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz is the only other player he can recall reaching such rarefied territory.
Could dingers like those be coming to the fans in San Diego for All-Star week in July? Bumgarner told Olney that he "absolutely" wants to compete in the Derby, which will be held at Petco Park on July 11; coincidentally, that’s the park at which Bumgarner has the most plate appearances (27) without homering. Such participation would, of course, be unprecedented in the annals of the contest, which has been a staple of pre-All-Star Game festivities since 1985.
As ESPN's Jonathan Costa pointed out, Bumgarmer's average home run distance (399.9 feet since 2012, presumably using ESPN Home Run tracker rather than Statcast, which didn't debut until last year) ranks 158th out of 453 among players with at least 10 homers in that span. Meanwhile, his 6.0% rate of home runs per plate appearance over the past two seasons (incorporating five homers last year plus two this year) exceeds all but 14 players with at least 100 PA in that span, not to mention every participant in last year's field, with both Todd Frazier (who beat Joc Pederson in the final round) and Edwin Encarnacion tops at 5.8%.
The point, however, isn't whether Bumgarner could win while going up against what is generally an incomplete selection of the game's top sluggers, but just what kind of entertainment he can provide. If he produces a barrage of homers like he did in St. Louis, it will add to the growing lore of a pitcher who once rescued a baby jackrabbit that had been swallowed by a snake. It's not tough to imagine that his participation would goose television ratings and be a net plus for a contest that can become a slog to watch, though last year's format change—with head-to-head contests, timed rounds and a simplified bonus time structure from what was initially planned due to concerns about rain washing away the event—resulted in the most entertaining Derby in years.
Alas, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy put his foot down with regards to Bumgarner's participation. "No, to be serious, I couldn't let him do it," he told reporters earlier this week. "And Bum, he's convinced he could win it. I think he would wear himself down in the first round, he'd try to hit it so hard."
Bochy's concern at least seems plausible, considering the tendency of so many early-round Derby heroes fizzling in the later rounds because the event is actually quite physically taxing. It's worth noting the long-held belief that participating in the contest can have longer-term ramifications for performance has been explored multiple times and largely debunked, with regression to the mean the most likely culprit for why certain sluggers seem to lose power in the second half. Even so, the nosedives of last year's finalists keep such theories alive. Frazier slumped from 25 homers with a .992 OPS in the first half to 10 homers and a .664 mark in the second, and Pederson collapsed from 20 homers with an .851 OPS before to six homers and a .617 OPS after.
Of course, the Giants are less worried about the decline of Bumgarner's offensive stats than they are the threat to his mound work, even if the hurler has said he's not worried about injury and has pointed out that riding a horse onto the field at AT&T Park while carrying the team's 2014 championship banner probably posed a bigger health risk. Bochy did concede that he would at least discuss the issue with vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean and general manager Bobby Evans, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Still, like Mariano Rivera's long-held wish of playing centerfield for at least one inning before his 2013 retirement, the deck appears stacked against Bumgarner participating in the Derby, at least this year. If that's the case, we can still hope it’s something he checks off his bucket list before he retires.