Madison Bumgarner and the Best Hitting Pitchers Ever
DH? What DH?
Madison Bumgarner is a beast. There’s no other way to say it. In addition to consistently being one of the best pitchers in the league, Bumgarner can do this:
He can also do this:
Did we mention that he can do this?
That last one was off of Clayton Kershaw, who is the best pitcher in the game, and possibly the best pitcher of the 21st century.
In 2014, Bumgarner was already an elite pitcher — the 2.77 ERA and top-ten Cy Young finish could tell you that much. But Bumgarner decided that wasn’t enough, and suddenly — he became an elite hitter*.
*Elite for a pitcher. Bumgarner’s 2014 slashline, .258/.286/.470, pales in comparison with the actual elites — Mike Trout slashed .287/.377/.561 that same season. Regardless, those are passable numbers for an everyday player. Billy Hamilton only managed .250/.292/.355 in 2014!
Bumgarner has been the modern model of excellence at the plate for players whose job doesn’t include being excellent at the plate. But where does he stack up in the annals of history? Surely Bumgarner can’t be the best hitting pitcher ever…
This is the obvious comparison, so we’re going to get it out of the way early.
Babe Ruth is long remembered as “The Sultan of Swat”, possibly the greatest homerun hitter of all time. But before he slugged 714 long balls, he was also a pretty good pitcher — before he switched to the outfield full time, he logged a career 122 ERA+, one shy of Bumgarners’ career figure of 123+.
Because including his stats as a full-time outfielder and calling him a pitcher would be cheating, let’s look only at his numbers from 1915–1917, when he was only a pitcher:
Over that span, 161 games — about a full season by today’s standards — Ruth batted .302/.359/.479 with 9 HR, 48 RBIs, and was worth 3.7 fWAR. Wowza. That .479 SLG would have placed him 3rd on the leaderboards in 1917, just behind Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Rogers Hornsby — quite the feat for a deadball era pitcher.
So yeah — Babe is basically the standard. But there’s a huge caveat here — Ruth had to play against talent that was far worse than today’s, which means that the Great Bambino likely wouldn’t have put up such amazing numbers against today’s pros, who have lived and breathed baseball since they were born.
The same goes for pitchers like Red Ruffing, Wes Ferrel, and Red Lucas — pitchers who raked, but raked in the 1930s and 1940s, when the overall talent of the MLB was far lower. This isn’t to say that what they accomplished meant nothing, but the game has changed dramatically since they last played — it wouldn’t be fair to compare Bumgarner to them.
How about we find a more modern comparison for Bumgarner?
Bob Gibson is nothing if not a competitor. I once met him at a baseball clinic in Norfolk, VA, and despite him being 71 years old at the time, he still struck me as fierce as hell.
So it should make sense that he brought a similar intensity with him in the batters box as he did on the mound. Gibson finished out his career with a .206/.243/.301 slashline, which, while seeming unimpressive, was incredible for the era of dominant pitching.
Gibson had a season for the ages as a pitcher in 1970, when he slashed .303/.347/.404 for a 102 wRC+ — yes, he was better than most of the players in the league despite it not being his job to hit. He also hit 5 HR in a season — twice! Considering most pitchers are lucky to get 100 PA in a season, that’s mindblowing, especially considering the era.
Gibson helped bring about one of the most pitching dominated eras of baseball — but at the same time, he spat in its face as a batter, and slugged away.
In Madison Bumgarners’ single best season, he slashed .258/.286/.470, was worth 1.2 batting fWAR in 78 PA, and even had a wRC+ of 114. That’s a damn fine season for a pitcher, and excellent pace in terms of fWAR for a pitcher.
But not even that, and not any season by a pitcher since 1960, comes remotely close to Don Drysdale’s godly 1965 season. .300/.331/.508 slashline, a wRC+ of 144, and he was worth 2.5 fWAR. What the hell.
This is a list of all seasons by pitchers with 50 PA, charting their wRC+ and their WAR. Most pitchers fall around the 0 wRC+/0 fWAR range, without outliers gradually spread about. But that little dot up there is Drysdale’s 1965. Bumgarner’s 2014 is terrific, and among the best of all time — but it’s barely half the season that Drysdale had.
How was it so good? Drysdale hit a lot of homeruns — 7 in only 138 PA. In a full season pace, that extrapolates to ~30 HR in a season. He was also in top form defensively according to Fangraphs’ defensive metrics — padding his fWAR total — but take that with a grain of salt, as defensive metrics from older seasons aren’t necessarily extremely accurate.
Regardless, Drysdale had a season for the ages in 1965, and was overall an offensive force throughout his career — in addition to being a top-tier, if not quite elite, starting pitcher.
Bumgarner is undoubtedly in elite company with his ability to balance pitching and hitting and succeed at both. What all of the above have in common is that they’re athletes and competitors — driven to win in all aspects of the game. Bumgarner is just another in a long line of guys willing to do whatever it takes, on the mound or in the box, to win the game.
Bonus: Bartolo Colon
But let’s be real: everyone pales in comparison to the Bart.