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Giants' Madison Bumgarner Poised To Join MLB's Elite Pitchers

By Rich Arleo

CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

Madison Bumgarner, Starting Pitcher, San Francisco Giants

2013 season (majors): 31 G, 201 IP, 2.77 ERA, 1.033 WHIP, 13 W, 199 SO, 62 BB

Many baseball fans have been familiar with Madison Bumgarner since 2009, when he made his major league debut. The 6-foot-5 left-hander was 19 years old then, and had logged barely two seasons in the San Francisco Giants system. But now he's 24, entering his prime and coming off his most impressive season. His best is still yet to come.

With injuries so prevalent, few pitchers in the big leagues -- let alone 24-year-old pitchers in the big leagues -- can lay claim to having thrown over 200 innings in three straight seasons. But Bumgarner has done just that. And after his best year in the bigs, there's reason to believe his quality production will continue.

The 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft, Bumgarner debuted at Single-A Augusta as an 18-year-old, and it was evident right away that the Giants had a future ace on their hands. In 2008, he went 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA, 0.932 WHIP and 164 strikeouts in just 141.2 innings. He followed that up the next season with a 1.85 ERA and 1.020 WHIP in 131.1 innings pitched between High-A and Double-A. The Giants called him up in September for his first stint in the majors, which saw him pitch in just 10 innings over four games, striking out 10 and allowing two earned runs.

Bumgarner began 2010 at Triple-A, but he was brought up again in June of that year and has stuck ever since. In 18 starts that season, he struggled to rack up strikeouts (just 86 in 111 IP) but was effective overall, finishing with a 3.00 ERA and 1.306 WHIP. The next season -- his first full season in the majors -- Bumgarner took a step forward in all aspects of his game. Most notably, strikeouts and WHIP both improved. But the development process is rarely smooth, and in 2012, his growth plateaued. There were some concerns that he had hit a wall. With a 3.37 ERA and 1.114 WHIP, Bumgarner was still very effective. There just wasn’t much improvement.

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Those concerns quickly dissipated as Bumgarner tool another leap forward last season. On his way to becoming an ace, the lefty finished with career-bests in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and other important stats. And he did so by finally throwing his fastball effectively. The pitch only comes in at an average of 91 MPH, so it's never going to blow away batters. He needs to locate it to make batters miss. And last season, for the first time, he was able to do that consistently.

According to PITCHfx data, his fastball rated at 16.2 runs above average. After never having recorded a SwStr% (swinging-strike percentage) above 9.2 in his career, he managed to reach 11.1 percent last season -- an elite number. Along with his developing fastball, his slider -- his best pitch -- continued to dominate. The pitch comes in at 87 MPH, and he threw it more than any other pitch (36.8 percent of the time) and more than in previous years. It was rated at over 13 runs above average for the third straight year.

Bumgarner is well on his way to mastering his pitches and knowing what to throw and when. If he achieves that mastery in his sixth season, he'll become one of MLB’s elite pitchers.

Next up: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

Check out our Fantasy Baseball Preview, breaking down the top players at each position.

Rich Arleo is a Marist College alum who has been a professional writer and editor since graduating in 2010. Find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for more of his sports musings.

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