Baseball leaves a lot to the imagination. Anticipation highlights the most enticing parts of adoring the sport. Amidst fervent discussions regarding the pace of play, some purists kick back and enjoy the breathless moments waiting for the full count offering in the bottom half of the ninth inning. Sitting on pins and needles waiting for the big hit or strikeout leaves a door open for the mind to run wild.
Trevor Bauer’s career has mirrored this arc, both on and off the field. The off-field shenanigans run their news cycle course, followed by lulls of varying lengths, only to be rekindled in the form of a filterless tweet or remark about a beat reporter or a Cy Young-winning teammate. Instead of droning on about ridiculous comments or tweets, the 2018 focus should reside on Bauer’s career.
Some pundits were quick to bury his skill set, determining the command woes too big an obstacle. Other pundits could not let go of his sweeping breaking ball and darting fastball that seems to wind up in righties’ laps as they’re hacking away. The latter group’s relentless faith proved to be well-placed. Bauer used the summer of ’18 to vault himself into a bona fide ace that warranted mention in any valid Cy Young award discussion. An untimely and unfortunate line drive cut a stellar season short, but not before the righty amassed 6.1 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) – finishing ahead of teammates Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco on that particular leaderboard.
Those of us who are hell-bent on analyzing every number behind America’s pastime casually toss about the term regression, hoping to highlight some paths in which luck exploited or boosted a player’s season. The same term could be applied to the last two years of Trevor Bauer. He was quite effective in 2017 despite poor results compared to input. A surging home run to fly ball ratio accompanied by tough sequencing with runners on base reduced his numbers to merely above average. 2018, however, featured the regression to the mean. An unsustainably low home run to fly ball ratio bolstered a profile shift that was more representative of his toolset as a pitcher, yet still clouded in some uncertainty.
The peripherals buoyed the breakout into ace form. Better writers than I have chronicled Bauer’s infusion of a wicked slider into his repertoire. Of course, the addition of this pitch played a significant role in the breakout, but there is a little more to it than pitch mix. After years of displaying swing and miss stuff, Bauer finally found the right recipe for inducing whiffs. That recipe included about two-fifths breaking balls and two-fifths fastballs, with the remaining fifth a variety plate of cutters, sinkers, and changeups. The results were a 45 percent increase in swing and miss from previous years. This translated to a career high in strikeouts per nine innings.
On the other side of that coin, Bauer posted a career-low walk rate. More strikeouts and fewer walks equaled a simple recipe for success. The walks were down so one might think he was around the strike zone more often, which isn’t the case. Only 42 percent of his offerings found the strike zone, his lowest ratio in that category since 2013. It could be argued, though, that he had better command despite lower strike totals. The unlock happened on pitches that were out of the zone. Opposing hitters chased six percent more pitches out of the zone against him. Combine that with a career low contact percentage allowed on pitches in the zone, and we can draw a simple conclusion – Bauer’s “stuff” was just better, backed by this data and the eye test.
Simple reasoning could be the incorporation of the slider. Bauer’s tenacious thirst for knowledge landed him at the center of the “tunneling” fad. The simple explanation for tunneling reveals a pitcher trying to make every pitch look identical to the others up to a certain point in the delivery. For example, making it appear to hitters as though all pitches are coming out of the same tunnel until a certain point prior to the plate. His slider, curveball, and fastball look nearly identical until just a few feet prior to the plate, as evidenced by some advanced offseason footage by the folks over at Driveline. While they look very similar just a few feet away, the bottom falls out of the curveball, the slider features similar spins but darts on a horizontal axis rather than vertical, and the fastball gets to hitters at a seemingly fast-forwarded clip. Deception goes beyond wind-up in today’s game.
Tunneling only explains part of the story of a suddenly effective fastball. In previous years, weighted pitch values showed net losses on behalf of Bauer’s heater, despite above-average velocity marks. In 2018, Bauer nearly ditched his two-seamer altogether, translating to a spike in overall fastball effectiveness. As an athlete who prides himself on understanding the data and morphing that knowledge into success, Bauer noticed an alarming trend relating to the two-seamers. Hitters were jumping on and driving it more in each successive year, while the four-seam counterpart yielded consistent outputs. So, the solution became to rely on the stagnant fastball rather than the unpredictable one. Not only did this help his overall fastball profile from a value standpoint, but it also greatly increased the effectiveness of the two-seamers by limiting its exposure and capitalizing on it when utilized.
A breakout season, indeed. Peripherals backed his career low ERA. More importantly, Indians fans can now feel confident in his ace status, along with his alternatively effective counterparts on a loaded Cleveland Indians rotation. As trade rumors swirl regarding Corey Kluber, the Indians front office can thank Trevor Bauer for putting them in a place where they can even consider dealing an ace to allocate talent to other spots on the roster. His relentless drive to make himself better through hard work and a thirst for knowledge, in addition to an organization allowing him to be himself in that capacity, has revealed a mound superstar at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.