Not many people are as passionate about their craft as Trevor Bauer. He devotes his life to studying pitching and the physics involved, leaving no stone unturned. This vested interest in scientific discovery is actually the reason the former third overall pick wound up in the Indians lap several years ago. The Diamondbacks were impatient with his desire to do things his way and an irreparable divide formed between organization and player, leading to the Indians acquiring him in the deal that shipped Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati.
Despite finding an organization accepting of his workout routines, Bauer continues to polarize. Fans clamored about his carelessness when he injured himself working on a drone mid-playoff run. Twitter users obsessed over his off-hand tweets referencing tense political matters. Followers of opposing teams frequently traded barbs with him on social media. All of these factors have combined to make it difficult to objectively analyze Bauer’s value to the Cleveland Indians. Objectively, he is a 26 year old with indisputable stuff, who has increased his fWAR output in each major league season and is only owed $3,550,000 in 2017 (per Spotrac).
Trevor Bauer is good and has the potential to be very good. He has yet to put it all together, but there are certainly identifiable trends indicating that he is getting closer. If I asked random Tribe fans to point out Bauer’s biggest issue, I’m fairly certain they’d point to his command, which has been erratic at times. However, it is clear that Bauer made a concerted effort to find the strike zone more often in 2016. Last season marked the first time in his brief career that he found the strike zone more often than the average pitcher.
Eclipsing the average zone percentage mark is an important milestone, but command involves more than just throwing strikes. Bauer showed a slight improvement in limiting walks, but not as much as the increase in strikes thrown would suggest. Additionally, living in the strike zone allowed opponents to take advantage. After allowing an average exit velocity of 88.6 miles per hour in 2015, Bauer relinquished much harder contact this past season which translated to an average of 90.4 miles per hour. This may not seem like a big jump, but in exit velocity terms, a 1.8 mile per hour increase to a pitcher’s allowed average can be catastrophic.
Trevor Bauer threw more strikes. He allowed more contact. Oh, and he threw a lot more curveballs. Throughout his first three years as an Indian, Bauer threw about 12% curveballs and 45-50% fastballs. In 2016, he threw curveballs nearly twice as much (19.5%) and cut the fastball percentage in half (26.1%). This speaks to his confidence level in the curveball, his most efficient pitch.
Assessing the value of individual pitches can be difficult, which is why my favorite tool for analyzing various offerings is pitch type linear weights. As Fangraphs explains, these weights are an accounting method for identifying the efficiency of each pitch, rather than a plate appearance. Though these values are not indicative of future success, Bauer has thrown a consistently above average curveball throughout his tenure with the Indians. Even with heavily increased reliance on the pitch, it ranked as the 7th most effective curveball among qualified pitchers.
The most interesting facet of Trevor Bauer’s 2016 was his newly discovered ability to induce groundballs. He essentially turned 10% of his fly balls allowed into ground balls. This marks an interesting shift in approach to opposing hitters and coincides with the dramatic shift in fastball/curveball usage.
As the Indians look to repeat as AL Central division champions, I will have my eye on Trevor Bauer. If he can find a way to mitigate hard contact while maintaining the ground ball to fly ball ratio from 2016, he will pitch at an All-Star level. This is much easier said than done, but if anyone has the makeup and tools to do it, it’s Trevor.