Meet Game 1 starter, Trevor Bauer. For the second straight year, the oddball who was too quirky for the Arizona Diamondbacks will start the Indians’ first playoff game. Bauer combated the polarity demons that had previously haunted him through divisive political rants and drone issues with a steady dose of success. The second half of 2017 was his coming out party, leaving speechless the detractors who once opined for his release.
Usage adjustments, combined with more fortunate sequencing luck, have vaulted Bauer to the forefront of the American League favorites’ playoff hopes. The righty relies upon his curveball approximately 30% of the time, fourth-most among qualified starters. Consequently, he throws his fastball less than 50% of the time – this is the new wave of success, though. Pitchers who join him on the less than 50% fastball movement include Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Zach Greinke, and Chris Archer, or, in other words, a roll call of the game’s top arms.
Fewer fastballs, more breaking balls. The postseason presents a unique spin on the breaking ball usage, too. One could reasonably expect even more breaking balls, approaching the 40% range, as there is a less pressing need to prolong outings and a more pressing need to be effective. Against the New York Yankees especially, the curveball could prove to be a crutch.
In 2017, the Yankees collectively mashed against fastballs. A wOBA of 0.370 against that pitch compared to a wOBA of 0.274 against curveballs indicates that pinstripe hitters were 35% more effective against fastballs – the analytically inclined Trevor Bauer is well aware of this and will seek to exploit it.
This season saw two Trevor Bauer versus New York Yankees showdowns. Although the Indians won both behind strong performances from Bauer, making judgments about his ability to be effective against the lineup in the postseason would be irresponsible. There is simply not enough data. You can be sure, though, that Mickey Callaway and Trevor Bauer are looking over pitch data from those two outings in order to identify what aided that effectiveness.
The Yankees, as a team, appear to be an above average home run team on the surface. They led the league in that mark. However, 140 of their 241 home runs came at home, a byproduct of the minuscule confines of Yankee stadium. They ranked middle of the pack in terms of home run volume in road games. Inflated home run totals are also a result of hitting the ball in the air.
Statistics show the validity of exchanging ground balls for fly balls, hence the Elevation Revelation. Line drives and fly balls made up 57.2% of the Yankees batted balls in the regular season, good for sixth in MLB. As Bauer attacks Yankee hitters, he will be focused primarily on limiting balls in play, but if balls are put in play, inducing as many ground balls as possible.
Limiting balls in play is a product of turning the Yankees into a free-swinging team, which they proved to be quite often throughout the regular season, with a 10.8% swinging strike percentage. Preying on this weakness will be critical to Bauer’s success. Don’t be surprised to see offspeed pitches, highlighted frequently, as they are the high-frequency whiff options in his repertoire.
If and when whiffs are not achieved, turning the Yankees into a ground ball machine is imperative. Hitters like Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, and Todd Frazier thrive from lifting the ball, so Bauer will look to force them to the ground. A subset of pitches similar to the ones that are successful at inducing whiffs will be utilized. The common theme among batted balls allowed by Bauer is that his breaking pitches are most effective at producing favorable results. Though sparingly thrown, his slider is best at avoiding line drives and fly balls. The curve creates a lot of ground contact, but its only drawback is its susceptibility to line drives. Throwing too many fastballs plays directly into the Yankees’ hands.
The common theme here is that breaking balls are good and fastballs are bad. Obviously, fastballs still serve a purpose and must be used to an extent. Predictability with fastballs is where the danger zone begins, so avoiding hitters counts is a necessity. The Yankees lineup presents a difficult obstacle for Bauer, but that obstacle can be mitigated by keeping hitters off-balance with intelligent pitch sequencing. The next step in the emergence of Bauer as a reliable starter is spinning four to five innings of one-run ball in a playoff game against a premier offense. His mental makeup, though maligned by some, provides a foundation for not letting the moment encapsulate him. The drive inside him creates a confident, maybe cocky, persona that is blissfully ignorant to any limitations that may inhibit him. This is the paradigm for a successful starting pitcher, especially on the big stage.