Over his eight-year MLB career, Madison Bumgarner has compiled a résumé that shimmers with accomplishments. He boasts a career ERA of 2.96, a record of 92-60 and over 1,200 strikeouts. He’s been crowned a World Series champ three times, and he was named MVP of the 2014 World Series, in which he was virtually unhittable against the Kansas City Royals.
Through 12 starts this season, Bumgarner has been his usual dominant self. He’s 7-2 with a 1.91 ERA; he will pitch in another All-Star Game; and the San Francisco Giants will surely make another deep run in the playoffs. Ho hum.
But despite his steady success, no one’s talking about Bumgarner’s pitching, and it’s not just because they’ve grown accustomed to his dominance. The area 60 feet, six inches from Bumgarner’s usual residence on the pitcher’s mound is what has grabbed everyone’s attention; and a bat, not a glove, is the implement he has used to do major damage.
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In just 32 at bats this season, Bumgarner has already hit two home runs. Last season he hit five. The year before that, in 2014, he hit four, two of which were grand slams—a feat no other pitcher has ever done in the same season. He’s hit 13 home runs in all, more than any active pitcher in the majors (and he didn’t hit a single dinger in his first three seasons).
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Bumgarner’s confidence with the bat has grown so great that, after a particularly enthralling bit of batting practice in St. Louis earlier this week—in which he bombed several home run to decks of Busch Stadium that are rarely hit even by the best power hitters—his latest priority has become entering the Home Run Derby. Giants manager Bruce Bochy has opposed that proposition so far, but there’s no denying Bumgarner’s sweet swing would be right at home with sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout.
Go back far enough in Bumgarner’s baseball history, and his ability to go yard turns out to be less of a surprise. In his final at bat as a senior for South Caldwell High School in North Carolina, Bumgarner clinched the 4A State Championship for his team by blasting a walkoff two-run home run.
Over the course of that 2007 season, Bumgarner hit .424 and belted 11 home runs. He was special at the plate but otherworldy on the mound, going a combined 23-4 with a sub-1.00 ERA in his junior and senior seasons. That summer he was selected by the Giants with the 10th overall pick in the MLB Draft, and back to the mound he went.
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Bumgarner hit his first major league home run in 2012. The ball landed in the right field bleachers, and the Giants’ television commentators remarked that he’d been doing that same thing in batting practice for years.
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At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Bumgarner is a load, and over the years he’s had plenty of batting practice to perfect his swing. But he’s also strong, the type of strong you get from spending your off-season chopping wood, moving hay, building fences and performing other farm work on his 100-acre property in Caldwell County, North Carolina. His farm-inspired workout routine became the basis for the Carhartt commercial above, which feels more like cameras documenting a normal weekday for Bumgarner than a commercial shoot.
While strength is half of the equation of how Bumgarner has become such a beast at the dish, his plate discipline plays a huge part as well. According to Fangraphs, Bumgarner likes his pitches high. This is where he hits most of his home runs, and when he sees a ball up in the zone, he tries to hit it. Hard.
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As talented as he is at hitting balls up in the zone, Bumgarner is just as good at laying off balls that are low. Statistically, from 2014 to the present, he has a swing rate of 69 percent with high pitches and just 40 percent with low pitches, a difference of 29 percent, tops in MLB. Essentially, Bumgarner waits for his pitch, and when it comes, he shoots for the moon.
Combine Bumgarner’s history as a power hitter, his immense strength and his superior plate discipline, and you have a pitcher who allows his manager to treat his lineup as if it were in the American League, where pitchers don’t even hit. That is a luxury that every team in baseball would absolutely kill to have.