Photo via Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle
The last few years of free agency have seen teams more hesitant than ever to sign players to long-term deals. It seems that the age threshold at which teams stop giving long-term deals is getting lower every year. Gone are the days of giving $200 million to a pitcher after his age-31 season (see Zack Greinke)—teams sign players now for what they will do, not what they have done. With this in mind, we come to the interesting case of Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner is 30 years old, coming off of a stretch of three seasons in which he missed significant time to injury and saw his peripheral stats indicate a decline in pitching quality. On the other hand, he posted his 7th season of at least 200 innings pitched in 2019 and toed the rubber for 34 starts. Bumgarner is also known for his postseason heroics for the Giants during their three title runs, which cannot be overlooked when thinking about his free agency.
Giants beat writer Henry Schulman says that he doesn’t see the Bumgarner signing a 6-year deal, “that just doesn’t seem to be in the cards,” he said when discussing a possible long-term contract for Bumgarner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post predicted earlier this month that Bumgarner will sign with the Braves for $60 million over 3 years, and Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors sees Bumgarner signing with the Twins for $72 million over 4 years. The MLB free agency market is changing drastically, so how much is that going to affect Bumgarner’s contract? We know he won’t approach the dollar amount Gerrit Cole will command, but why is that? Bumgarner’s career statistics tell a different story than what most people think the market will give him this year, and this shows how important the years leading up to free agency are for a player’s wallet.
Comparing Bumgarner’s free agency and the attitude surrounding it to other pitchers who have received massive contracts is fascinating. No one thinks that Bumgarner will receive a contract worth close to $150 million, so let’s see how contracts handed out to pitchers with similar statistics compare to Bumgarner.
In 2015, Zack Greinke was entering his age-32 season when he signed a 6-year deal worth $206.5 million with the Diamondbacks. Over 11 full seasons, he had posted a career ERA of 3.35 and a FIP of 3.31 in 2094.2 innings. After ten seasons, Bumgarner has pitched his way to a 3.13 career ERA and a FIP of 3.32 through 1846 innings. No one expects Bumgarner to get $200 million, yet it was no surprise when Greinke received that contract. Bumgarner hasn’t reached the highs Greinke had when he signed, but Bumgarner might be the better investment—he has less mileage on his arm and he is left-handed.
So, how does Bumgarner’s career up until this point compare to another left-handed free agent pitcher going into his age-30 season? Greinke’s contract in 2015 was not the biggest of that offseason, as the Red Sox signed David Price to a contract worth $217 million over seven years. After the 2015 season, Price had a career ERA of 3.09 and a FIP of 3.19 over 1441.2 innings pitched. This is slightly better than Bumgarner, but not enough to account for a 3 year and $150 million difference in contracts.
More recently, Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs after the 2017 season for six years and $126 million. Darvish’s career stats were not quite as good as Bumgarner’s (3.42 ERA and 3.30 FIP), yet he still easily cleared $100 million coming off of his age-30 season. Two years into that contract, however, Darvish has not performed to expectations.
How could Bumgarner be looking at a contract around $60 to $80 million over 3 or 4 years with career stats similar to Greinke, Price, and Darvish? First, the last three seasons have not been Bumgarner’s best. While Greinke and Price both finished as the runner-up to the Cy Young Award in their contract years, Bumgarner produced a career-worst ERA of 3.90. Furthermore, the exit velocity of batted balls against him and his barrel percentage were both the worst of his career. This means that opposing hitters are squaring balls up against him more than ever. As a result, he allowed a career-high 30 home runs and higher WHIP than his career average. These aren’t good signs, although they don’t mean that Bumgarner has no value. He still eats innings and produces an ERA better than league average.
The main takeaway from Bumgarner’s last three seasons is how much they have affected his perceived value. Because Price and Greinke were entering free agency after masterful years, it was a no-brainer for teams to back up the money truck to sign them. Bumgarner, even with comparable career stats, will have to settle for a lower paycheck because he is showing signs of decline. Although the numbers don’t lie, Bumgarner has struggled the last three years, are they really enough alone to make teams see him as worth $140 million less than Price and Greinke? The short answer is no—there is more to this story.
Another significant factor in Bumgarner’s free agency is the changing market, especially for pitchers. The contracts handed out to Greinke, Price, and Darvish relied on them reproducing their career-best years multiple times over the length of the contract. None of them have done that, and teams are backing off of this thinking as a result. Bumgarner’s contract will be based on a more practical prediction of what he will provide over the next few years. Again, instead of paying players based on their production in the past, owners now seem to have a more pessimistic view of most players’ future production. Whether this thinking is justified or not is a topic for another article, but regardless it will have a big impact on the salaries for this year’s free agents. For Bumgarner, the combination of his declining stats and the new attitude surrounding free agents produces the prediction of a contract of 3 to 4 years for around $60 to $80 million.