Where does Bumgarner’s postseason performance rank among the elite?

Tuesday night, Madison Bumgarner took the mound in Game 1 of the World Series, and he did exactly what Giants fans expected; he dominated the Royals and gave his team a leg up on their quest for another championship. This is becoming old hat for Bumgarner, who is putting together a fantastic postseason track record, especially with his performances this year.

Game 1 was Bumgarner’s fifth start of the 2014 postseason; he has pitched at least seven innings in all five of them, totaling 38 2/3 innings overall. In doing so, Bumgarner became just the seventh pitcher in baseball history to have five starts of seven innings or more in a single postseason. Here’s how he stacks up against the other six who have done it.

Pitcher Season Innings Runs Allowed
Madison Bumgarner 2014 38.2 7
Cliff Lee 2009 40.1 10
Randy Johnson 2001 40.0 7
Curt Schilling 2001 48.2 6
Greg Maddux 1995 38.0 12
Orel Hershiser 1988 42.1 7
Deacon Phillippe 1903 44.0 19

Notice all of the pitchers — excluding one, who pitched five of the eight postseason games his team played — are from the modern era, as the expanded postseason makes it possible for a pitcher to make five starts in a postseason, something that generally wasn’t true before the addition of the wild card. Bumgarner has even an extra advantage, as the play-in game set him up to make six starts if the World Series goes at least five games; only Schilling in 2001 and Chris Carpenter in 2011 have made six starts in a postseason previously.

Being handed the ball in critical situations this often is, by itself, a marker of a pitcher’s greatness. There’s a reason there are no mediocre hurlers on the list above, and the fact that they were able to consistently complete seven innings weeds out pitchers who weren’t dominating when they were given the ball. Bumgarner has placed himself in some seriously elite company.

But we can go a little further than just looking at the raw numbers. After all, the game changed a lot from 1988 to 2001, and has changed a lot again since, so rather than looking at just innings and runs allowed, we should want to evaluate a pitcher against the norms of the era in which he was pitching. FanGraphs has several metrics that do just this, scaling performance to the league average for that year.

For this exercise, the focus is on two of these metrics: ERA- and FIP-. In both cases, the metric is an index stat, where 100 represents an exactly average performance, and each point above or below that is how far from the average the player performed. For instance, a pitcher with an ERA- of 50 would have posted an ERA exactly half of the league average, which is spectacular. FIP- is the same principle, but instead of judging a player on earned runs allowed, it measures the three outcomes that we are reasonably confident that the pitcher has a great deal of control over: walks, strikeouts, and home runs.

Here’s a look at those seven amazing postseason runs through the lens of ERA- and FIP-.

Pitcher Season ERA- FIP-
Curt Schilling 2001 25 43
Orel Hershiser 1988 32 68
Randy Johnson 2001 34 43
Cliff Lee 2009 37 44
Madison Bumgarner 2014 41 89
Greg Maddux 1995 67 98
Deacon Phillippe 1903 94 61

The primary takeaway is just how good Schilling’s 2001 postseason run was. One could make a case that it was the best single postseason any pitcher has ever had. It was just complete and utter domination, and the Schilling/Johnson combination put up performances that we may never see from another pair of teammates in October again.

But notice that by ERA-, Bumgarner isn’t that far off the pace here. OK, he’s not having a Schilling-in-2001 postseason, but that’s an unreasonable bar to clear. He is, however, nearly keeping up with all the guys not named Schilling, at least by ERA. His FIP is a bit worse, thanks primarily to the three home runs he’s allowed, though giving up solo homers when having a comfortable lead isn’t really a big deal. Based solely on walks, strikeouts, and homers, Bumgarner isn’t as dominant as the Schilling/Johnson tandem or the 2009 version of Lee. Even Hershiser’s 1988 season stacks up a bit better when focusing only on plays that don’t involve the defenders behind the pitcher, where credit for outs made can be a little complicated.

So, this isn’t the best postseason pitching performance in history, and Bumgarner isn’t quite pitching at unprecedented levels. But this is still a great run, one of the best baseball has seen, and worthy of all the adulation thrown his way. Bumgarner is one of the main reasons why the Giants are three wins away from the World Series title. If he gets a shot at a sixth start and keeps pitching the way he has so far, this will go down as one of the best postseason pitching performances in baseball history.