While so much has been made of the Kansas City Royals' improbable run to 2014 World Series, perhaps the biggest story of the Fall Classic hasn't been a team, but rather a player. Madison Bumgarner has been masterful for much of the postseason, but the burgeoning superstar may have been at his best in Game 5 on Sunday night, leading the San Francisco Giants to within a victory of their third title since 2010.
Any baseball fan who was unfamiliar with the lanky southpaw sure knows plenty about him now. Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was widely regarded as MLB’s best pitcher at the end of the regular season, but Bumgarner has taken the top spot with a postseason for the ages. Sunday's nine-inning shutout against a baffled Royals lineup gave him four playoff wins this year with a 1.13 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP. Not only did Bumgarner strike out eight and not allow a walk, but he also allowed just one extra base hit, using a commanding fastball that is effective almost anywhere near the plate.
"He's cold-blooded,'' said Juan Marichal, the Hall of Fame Giants pitcher. "When he's on the mound he dominates everybody. Everybody."
The Game 5 effort was certainly not an anomaly. Bumgarner has seemed almost unhittable since he kept San Francisco's World Series hopes alive in the National League wild-card game, going all nine innings, allowing five baserunners and no runs. In six starts, he’s never failed to pitch at least seven innings, surrendering three runs just once. Three times he hasn’t given up any runs, and his 47.2 innings pitched are the second-most ever in a single postseason.
A dominant postseason is nothing new for the North Carolina native. As a 21-year-old, Bumgarner was a key factor in bringing the Giants their first World Series title in 56 years. He pitched in four playoff games, posting a 2.18 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.
It’s difficult to overstate how good Bumgarner has been in the playoffs. The first official World Series was played in 1903, and since then, no player has pitched better than his 0.29 ERA in the Fall Classic.
Bumgarner was San Francisco’s ace during the season, but he isn’t a legitimate threat to win the Cy Young award. Twenty pitchers made at least 26 starts and had a better ERA, and 12 starters had a better WHIP. His ability to rise to the occasion, though, has separated him from the rest of the league.
Many of the league’s top pitchers have performed their worst when the pressure has been at its highest. Kershaw, who had one of the best regular seasons of all time, has a career playoff ERA of 5.12, losing twice in the 2014 NL Divisional Series. David Price, who is consistently a Cy Young candidate in the American League, has a 4.50 ERA in 40 career postseason innings.
In recent memory, only a few starters have had a single postseason that comes close to matching what Bumgarner has done in 2014.
Curt Schilling’s run 13 years ago was eerily similar to that of Bumgarner’s. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks starter had a historic postseason, posting a 1.12 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP in a record 48.1 innings.
Schilling’s numbers are almost identical to Bumgarner’s, but they might be more extraordinary because of the competition that he faced. The right-hander pitched in the heart of the steroid era, and in a year that saw teams average 4.78 runs per game. In the 2014 regular season, MLB teams scored just 4.07 runs per game, marking the worst offensive year for the league since 1981.
Randy Johnson and Josh Beckett also had memorable playoff runs in the 21st century. The Big Unit was almost as good as his Arizona teammate in 2001, posting a 1.52 ERA in 41.1 innings, as well as winning both Game 6 and Game 7 in the World Series. Beckett was dominant in his first two playoff tries, leading both the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins to championships, posting a 1.73 ERA and 0.74 WHIP in 72.2 total innings.
While a handful of pitchers have arguably had postseasons that measure up to what Bumgarner has done this season, Orel Hershiser’s 1988 season might rank as the best the league has ever seen. No pitcher has ever been so good during a stretch of meaningful games as the Los Angeles Dodgers starter was that year.
Hershiser’s 1.07 playoff ERA was even better than that of Bumgarner and Schilling. His numbers in the final month of the regular season, though, dwarf anything that happened in October. As his team was in the final month of a pennant race, Hershiser ended the season with a record 59 shutout innings.
While the careers of those who had postseason runs like Bumgarner are over, the Giants ace still has a lot of time to add to his legacy. At just 25 years old, he there's no limit to the amount of success he can achieve in MLB. During an eight-inning at-bat in Game 5, Bumgarner heard the crowd at AT&T Park chant "M-V-P," an appropriate response to his efforts in recent games.
"That was pretty cool, actually," said Bumgarner. "That was really neat to hear."
As impressive as Bumgarner has been in 2014, his postseason might not be done. With the series heading back to Kansas City for Game 6, he could be made available in relief if the Royals force a Game 7.
"He would have two days off," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after Sunday’s win. "He's a strong kid. We wouldn't mind pushing him one time. He'll make himself available, I know."
Game 6: Tuesday, Oct. 28 at Kansas City, 8:07 p.m. ET, FOX
Game 7*: Wednesday, Oct. 29 at Kansas City, 8:07 p.m. ET, FOX
* If necessary