SAN FRANCISCO -- Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner may have picked a bad year to be excellent.
In many seasons, Bumgarner's performance would make him a National League Cy Young Award candidate, perhaps even the favorite. But the superlative efforts sustained by Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta and Los Angeles Dodgers co-aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke appear destined to eclipse the sturdy body of work assembled by Bumgarner, who's scheduled to start Friday night's series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks at AT&T Park.
Not that Bumgarner cares about individual glory. Playing to win drives him; playing for accolades interests him not one iota. Asked about the Cy Young Award, Bumgarner said, "It would be a huge honor, the biggest that a pitcher in the Major Leagues is going to have. But at the same time, I'm not necessarily pitching for that. ... The one thing I expect is to go out and compete."
Bumgarner's legend continues to grow with each of his appearances, on or off the mound. In his previous start last Saturday, he spun a one-hitter against San Diego, maintaining a perfect game for 7 2/3 innings. The last time he stepped on the field, he prompted wonder by pinch-hitting against Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman on Tuesday and drawing a walk, becoming the first pitcher to reach base against the imposing closer.
Bumgarner has assembled an enviable 2015 resume. He ranks near the top of multiple statistical categories, including victories (18), winning percentage (.720), strikeouts (212) and opponents' batting average (.227). He combines power and precision as few others can, ranking third in the NL in walks per nine innings (1.46) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (9.65).
Old-school observers would point out that Bumgarner's four complete games lead the league. Adherents of modern metrics would admire Bumgarner's 2.71 FIP, fifth-best in the league. FIP measures a pitcher's effectiveness based on factors excluding defense, such as strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs allowed.
"I think Bumgarner doesn't get mentioned enough [as a Cy Young contender]," Giants radio and television analyst Mike Krukow said. "The guy's been phenomenal this year -- as has Greinke, as has Kershaw, as has Arrieta. They've all been off-the-charts spectacular."
Greinke (17-3), Arrieta (19-6) and Kershaw (14-6) are indeed having magical seasons. In that order, they have recorded the NL's three lowest ERAs -- 1.61, 1.96 and 2.12, respectively. They also pace the NL in WHIP (walks and hits per inning). Greinke's at 0.85, followed by Kershaw (0.89) and Arrieta (0.92). Their occupation of the top three spots in other categories reflects their shared dominance. Entering Thursday, they also ranked 1-2-3, in some combination, in opponents' batting average, innings pitched and, most significantly, WAR -- wins above replacement. Kershaw has compiled a 7.4 WAR, followed by Arrieta at 6.2 and Greinke at 5.6. Bumgarner checks in at 5.2 in this category, fifth in the NL, according to FanGraphs.
Each one of them has separated themselves from the rest in some manner. Greinke owns an otherworldly .850 winning percentage. With 264 strikeouts, Kershaw has an outside chance of becoming the first pitcher to amass 300 since Arizona's Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) did so in 2002. Bumgarner's offensive skill, reflected by his five home runs, elevates his overall value. Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers on Aug. 30 and since has allowed two earned runs in 24 innings spanning three starts. He has also remained at the forefront of the Cubs' surge toward the postseason.
"Ultimately, the guys you look at are the ones who made the biggest difference for their club," said Jeff Brantley, the Cincinnati Reds radio analyst who pitched for the Giants and four other teams during a 14-year Major League career. Brantley added that though team performance shouldn't negatively affect an individual's candidacy, it inevitably creeps into the minds of many of the Baseball Writers' Association of America members who cast Cy Young Award votes.
Brantley praised Bumgarner for bolstering the Giants' rotation, which has been riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness.
"Every fifth day, he almost has to win," Brantley said. "There really hasn't been a supporting cast, especially the last month and a half. I know [Jake] Peavy's thrown OK, and [Chris] Heston was very good at the beginning of the year, but let's face it: Bumgarner's the lone ranger."