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Two Days of Madison Bumgarner

In the most recent edition of One Night Only, I previewed a Fresno/Portland Triple-A game that was due to feature, among others, the two most highly rated prospects in the San Francisco Giants system: 23-year-old catcher Buster Posey and 20-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Bumgarner’s start — which originally seemed set to take place on Saturday — was pushed back to Sunday. (The same thing happened to Portland’s Josh Geer, so let’s not call the Conspiracy Police quite yet.) As such, I ended up attending both the Saturday night game (i.e. the one I’d previewed) and the Sunday day game (i.e. the one that Bumgarner started).

Posey caught both games and, in nine plate appearances, went 2-for-8 with a walk. Two of those outs were strikeouts. Of his six balls in play, three of them were line drives. In general, he resembled a very good baseball player.

My observations on Bumgarner require more attention, I think — and, as it turns out, attending both games allowed for an interesting portrait of the young prospect.

Below, I’ve broken my analysis of Bumgarner into the two days I saw him, and the two sides of his story — performance and personality — that seem to demand attention.

Sunday
The main concern about Bumgarner, both during the second half of last season and the beginning of this one, has been his velocity. After throwing in the mid-90s as a prep star and in the low minors, Bumgarner — according to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook — pitched in the 88-90 mph range at Double-A and, per BIS and Pitchf/x data, averaged about 89 mph on his fastball in his 10 Major League innings (one start, three relief appearances).

Having been armed Sunday with a Jugs-brand radar gun — thanks to Bubblegum Baron/Hefty Lefty Rob Nelson and his “connections” — I’m able to announce with some certainty that Bumgarner was a tick or two higher in terms of fastball velocity, pitching in the 89-92 mph range for most of the game.

That’s not to say, however, that his outing was fantastic. Yes, he only allowed a single run on only four hits, but walked as many as he struck out (three of each) and conceded a couple of fly balls that, were they struck by anyone besides Sean Kazmar, might have been more damaging. Moreover, his fastball showed little in terms of movement, nor did his secondary pitches pose much of a challenge to the Portland batting order.

All of this conspired to net Bumgarner a mere five swing-and-misses on the day out of his 99 total pitches. (By comparison, Major League average for starters is somewhere around 8.0 – 8.5%.).

Physically, Bumgarner looks like a talented pitcher. He’s 6-foot-4 with a fluid motion. Also, there are signs from today’s performance that hint at the sort of general athleticism he possesses: not only did Bumgarner pick off two (two!) runners at first, he also fielded at least one bunt with what can only be described as “aplomb,” and even jacked a donger off Portland starter Josh Geer.

Saturday
No, I didn’t see Bumgarner pitch today, but here’s something I did do: sit mere feet away from the young prospect as he charted pitches for teammate Kevin Pucetas, Fresno’s starting pitcher.

And here’s another person who was there, too, sitting right behind Bumgarner: a young lady whom I’m presuming to be Bumgarner’s wife, Ali. (In fact, even if the young woman wasn’t his wife, the following points remain salient.)

Typically, I’d feel absolutely zero compulsion to discuss a player’s personal life. And the reader can rest assured: I’m not about to TMZ the frig outta this. I have no pictures of the couple going to Make Out City or freaking “all up” on each other, nor any reports to file about a domestic “incident” between the two.

Nor would it be necessary at all to invoke the newly wedded couple if it weren’t for the first three paragraphs of a recent article by Andrew Baggarly of the Mercury News — three paragraphs that read exactly like this:

SAN DIEGO — Conspiracy theories abound as to why left-hander Madison Bumgarner suddenly became so hittable at Triple-A Fresno.

According to Brian Sabean, there is nothing physically the matter with the 20-year-old. But the Giants’ general manager provided a frank assessment of where things went off track for the heralded prospect.

“It’s this simple: He was preoccupied this winter and it cost him,” Sabean said. “He had personal stuff to straighten out, getting married, and he was ill-prepared to come into spring training. I don’t know how much he threw to get ready.”

It’s peculiar to me — to any reader, I’d imagine — that getting married would be one of the personal things Madison Bumgarner had to “straighten out” this offseason. In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to say that I, myself, got married just this past August. Though my wife despises me and scowls visibly whenever I enter her line of sight, this is almost exactly the way she behaved before we got married. This is indicative of other married couples I know — i.e., that, for whatever else happens after the wedding ceremony, “straightening out” isn’t so much a part of it.

So that’s one thing.

The other thing is this, from another article by Baggarly back on February 20th, discussing the pace at which Bumgarner had moved through the Giants system:

Bumgarner is on the fast track in other areas, too. He and his girlfriend of four years, Ali, got married on Valentine’s Day.

“Oh, yeah, we were ready,” Bumgarner said. “We were very sure.”

Among my peer group — and among my social class, in general — to marry before the age of 25 is akin to personal failure. It’s as if one were admitting, “I have nowhere else to go and realize it. Might as well hand it off to the next generation and hope they do better.” Of course, I say this less to make a blanket statement about marriage and more to suggest that I might not be the person to comment on this. Still, to declare, as a 20-year-old, that one is “very sure” about his marriage — that sounds strange to these ears.

Beyond that, there’s this final consideration: Bumgarner’s half-sister died during spring training. That’s different than getting married, I recognize, but inasmuch as it concerns something called “emotions,” it seems relevant.

This is all sort of speculative, I understand, in terms of guessing what’s “wrong” with Madison Bumgarner. But here’s a larger point that isn’t: no matter how bad Dave Allen wants baseball players to be replaced by human-looking robots, it hasn’t happened yet. The thing we call “make-up” may not matter a ton at the Major League level — if a player has gotten that far, he’s done something right. For prospects, it probably means a bunch more, though. And for 20-year-old prospects, it means more still, I bet.

How does this relate to a site (i.e. FanGraphs) that’s made its reputation on providing white hot statistical analysis? It’s this (I think): the stats are only outputs. They describe what’s happened — sometimes on a more, sometimes on a less, granular level. As for the inputs, those are harder to understand, even with a scouting perspective. Certainly things like arm speed, strength of rotator cuff, and ability to repeat one’s release point — those are all important. But something like choice of mate might be another — not just for Bumgarner, but for any player.

It hurts my brain to think about — that is, the million and one uncontrolled variables that make up a prospect — so I won’t dwell on it. Best, probably, to (a) acknowledge that in these matters, there are both known unknowns and also some unknown unknowns, (b) accept that this is the case, and (c) turn one’s attention to problems of a more solvable nature.