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Why It’s Worth the Risk to Have Bumgarner in the Home Run Derby

Pitchers want in on MLB’s annual home run hitting contest

Bumgarner, Home Run Derby, Baseball, Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, now has 11 home runs since the start of the 2014 season.

Justin K. Aller/Getty

There are a lot of remarkable Madison Bumgarner stories, but the one I kept coming back to is the tale of the rabbits. Vin Scully told it the way only Vin Scully could earlier this season, in the midst of a Giants-Dodgers game, slowly unfolding the tale of Bumgarner and his wife rescuing a baby jackrabbit from the belly of a snake they hacked to pieces on their property. Scully, ageless and wondrous bard that he is, framed it as a fable about perseverance. This seems appropriate, since Bumgarner’s entire existence is essentially a Bunyan-esque legend; if baseball still held the primacy it did in Babe Ruth’s era, he would be a household name.

Bumgarner is already one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, but as is often the case with larger-than-life figures, this is not enough to contain him anymore. This is the kind of dude who chops down trees for fun and profit and bought his wife a cow as a wedding gift and rode a police horse just because he could and grew up in a log cabin his father built with his bare hands. So when an amateur stathead tweeted last week that Bumgarner had the same number of home runs in his previous 190 plate appearances (11) as both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout – and then more than 5,000 people retweeted it – the momentum built for the notion that Bumgarner should be permitted to participate in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game. Which, of course, he should be, because it would be a boon for both Bumgarner and for baseball itself.

There’s something primitive and beautiful about the way Bumgarner clubs at a baseball when he reaches the plate. He is not seeking anything but the longball, and if an opposing pitcher is dumb enough to throw him a fastball in an easily accessible spot, he is capable of inadvertently embarrassing them by delivering a ball deep into the stands. He is not a great nor a versatile hitter, but he is an intimidating hitter, and this is what the Home Run Derby is all about.

And yet it may not happen – although other pitchers, including Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard and Adam Wainwright, also want in on the fun. And it may not happen because Bumgarner might be held back by the same man who allowed him to flourish as a superhuman in the first place.

Asked about the idea by ESPN’s Buster Olney, Giants manager Bruce Bochy immediately expressed hesitation, which is probably the smart and overly cautious thing to do. But let us note that Bochy – arguably the best manager of his generation – is also the guy who burnished Bumgarner’s legend in the first place by allowing him to pitch five shutout innings of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series on two days’ rest. This decision appears to have had no long-term effect on Bumgarner’s arm at all; so why would it make a difference if Bochy allowed Bumgarner to essentially take a few extra batting-practice swings in front of a national audience?

Obviously, there is a worst-case scenario to be considered here, and the Giants would not have become the most efficient franchise in baseball this decade if they ignored the notion that Bumgarner would have everything to risk and very little to gain, at least from a competitive standpoint. But here’s the thing: At its heart, baseball is also an entertainment product, and the All-Star game in particular is meant to sell the sport to people – particularly children – who might otherwise be indifferent toward it. When ESPN’s Olney asked his 11-year-old son how he would feel about Bumgarner hitting in the Home Run Derby, his eyes lit up.

This is the kind of thing baseball needs to prove that it still possesses a sense of whimsy and possibility. In an era when the numbers and the analytics can often prove daunting to casual fans, there is something to be said for the primal notion of Bumgarner clubbing at pitches and proving that baseball is not the soft and overanalytical sport some imagine it to be. If baseball were bigger, Bumgarner would be a bigger name, and as a guy who spends his offseason working on a farm, I imagine that doesn’t interest him much. But it should interest the Giants as they ponder their own image, and it should interest the people who preside over the image of baseball itself, because Bumgarner might be their best selling point to fans who might otherwise tune out All-Star weekend.

“If they ask me to do it, I’ll do it,” Bumgarner said recently, and here’s hoping he perseveres despite the hazards surrounding him, the way that rabbit once did.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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