Bauer, Swisher, and a theory on baseball aesthetics

Jon is in a bit of a writing rut, so he’s asking the WFNY gang to help him get out of it. After circulating some juicy topics around WFNY Headquarters, Craig said he was interested in talking Trevor Bauer, Nick Swisher, Travis Hafner, and what it means to like some players more than others.  So we did that. We’ve got some more of these in the hopper and we’ll try to keep the discussion going in the comments as well.


Craig – I obviously root for anyone wearing an Indians uniform, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Even as a young, impressionable baseball fan, I knew the dangers of standing up for Albert Belle. I cut my teeth as a co-dependent sports fan when I tried to defend Belle’s plastering of Fernando Vina.

I know better now, but as a 17-year-old, I defended that play. It’s embarrassing to me now. This current Indians team doesn’t have that kind of personality, but I don’t find all current Indians players easy to root for. Two current examples for me are Nick Swisher and Trevor Bauer.

It’s weird too because they both have value and are helping the Cleveland Indians. Bauer disappointed last season, but by all accounts worked hard to figure some things out. Swisher has disappointed in each of his two years with the Tribe as a box score contributor, but there’s little doubt that he adds value in the locker room and makes his teammates better. There’s just something about these two, between Bauer’s incoming reputation as a bit of a punk, and Swisher’s incessant frat boy “Bro” style that he is happy to portray loudly that makes them a bit difficult for me to root for.

Jon – I appreciate your bigger point about the difference between “rooting for” and “liking”.  I root for the team to do well, which means, almost by default, I root for its constituent members to do the same. But man, there are I players I have some trouble warming to.

What’s interesting to me is why I like some guys less than others. I hope it’s not personal/personality related, as that would make me a prejudicial jerk (reminder: I have not actually met any of these guys). I like to think more that there are “types” of players I find difficult to like—something a bit closer to a theory of baseball player aesthetics. What sort of ballplayer do like?

Let me talk about Bauer here first, as I think he’s ultimately the more interesting case.

If you would have asked me last year to describe my favorite sort of pitcher, it would likely have included these words, in no particular order: “young”, “cost-controlled”, “strikeouts”, “upside”.  Bauer has all of those and yet….  Well, and yet something is missing for me.  Is it that he’s just not Danny Salazar, for whom I maintain copious stashes of undeserved love? Is Bauer just a bit…cold? Maybe, but I don’t quite think so.

What Bauer lacks for me is probably best described as “efficiency”.  Consider: for his career Trevor Bauer has averaged 4.06 pitches per plate appearance.  For reference, league average is around 3.82 and Corey Kluber, one of my absolute favorites, is at 3.70 this season.

Now, you can be a very successful pitcher and be inefficient.  Strikeouts, after all, often require longer at bats than plate appearances ending with a batted ball.  But on the aggregate inefficient pitchers don’t pitch deep into games, and their games take longer to complete—both things I tend not to enjoy. Bauer has averaged more than 104 pitches per start this year, has lasted six or fewer innings in seven of his starts, and has completed seven innings only once.

Am I being nitpicky here?  Yes, I probably am. We’re lucky to have landed a pitcher with as much talent as Bauer for one year of Choo. But more interestingly, I learned that I care about pitcher efficiency in ways I didn’t know I did.

As for Nick Swisher, I too don’t much care for his over-the-top ebullience.  But I also don’t enjoy OPS’s that start with a “6” from my nominal DH. Applying a similar template to Swish as we did for Bauer, I tend not to love players who are: “on the wrong side of 30”; “making eight figures”; “defensively challenged”, or “generally declining”.  It’s not that players like this can’t be useful, either. Derek Jeter has been all of these things for 12 years and he’s been quite valuable during that time.  I just find these guys a little hard in general to get warm and fuzzy about.

Which is really a shame, because if anybody wants—NEEDS—people to feel warm and fuzzy about him, it’s Nick Swisher.

Craig – And that’s one of the major things that makes me feel good about Swisher even as I simultaneously despise “BROhio.” I don’t have to feel warm and fuzzy about him. His teammates and manager on the other hand do.

In another email you referred to a comparison of Swisher and Hafner due to cost and productivity. It’s an interesting comparison because it’s worth discussing how much of a drag a guy’s contract places on a team like the Cleveland Indians, but the intangibles that Swisher brings to the club shine above and beyond those of Travis Hafner. Don’t get me wrong, I think Tribe players had Hafner’s back and he was one of the guys in the locker room, but I don’t know that he had much in the way of contagious spirit. I always feel a little bit squirrely talking about something as nebulous and incalculable as the contagiousness of positivity and how it impacts a team performance. It gives me post-war flashbacks to arguing with Yankees fans about the intangibles of Scott Brosious back in the late 90’s. However, I think it’s instructive when comparing someone like Nick Swisher to Travis Hafner. Baseball is a chemistry game and Nick Swisher is a world class teammate if nothing else.

As for Bauer, I think you assigned some actual statistics to describe why I am not totally in love with him as a player yet. Those efficiency marks for pitchers seem to be closely aligned with the entertainment values of watching their games.

Jon – The parallels I draw between a guy like Swisher and a guy like Hafner probably have more to do with a snake-bitten fan base than any real-world similarities between the two guys.  As you point out, Hafner was a quiet leader, seemingly shy and aloof. The next time someone calls Nick Swisher shy and aloof will be the first.  The guy who does it will also get a high five, because SWISH LIKES LEARNING NEW WORDS, YO!

The reason they strike similar chords for me is more about what both represent to the fanbase, and how they’ll be perceived because of it.  Both Hafner and Swisher signed four-year deals that would’ve appeared very reasonable if they’d been able to perform in the future as they had in the past. Both were big swings for the franchise–large allocations of the budget spent on a single player arguably past his prime.  Both saw their offensive and defensive production decline precipitously in the years following their contracts.

I find it interesting, though, mostly because the sort of decline Hafner had is not supposed to be typical.  From 2004-2006 Hafner was arguably the best hitter in the American League. Then from 2008 through 2012 he was among the 12 worst.  This is not an aging “curve”; it’s an aging cliff.  And it’s supposed to be a freak occurrence.

But we’re Cleveland fans, and gosh if it doesn’t feel like it’s happening all over again.  For Nick Swisher’s entire career he’s never had an OBP below .300 or a slugging percentage below .400, and then, the year after signing a franchise record contract in Cleveland (breaking the record Hafner had set six years before), Swish is below both those figures.  His defensive versatility–once adequate in right and above average at first–seems to have disappeared entirely.  If things don’t change soon, we’ll be left with an overpriced, aging DH who can’t hit, which, on my list of aesthetically pleasing attributes exists somewhere below “Tomo Ohka”.

None of this is to say that either contract was necessarily stupid at the time, or that Shapiro is a villian or that Paul Dolan swims through piles of YOUR HARD EARNED MONEY ala Scrooge McDuck.  It’s only that, not unlike me, the Indians appear to have a weakness for a certain brand of baseball player.