We, as followers of the Cleveland Indians, have become accustomed to a certain level of pitching dominance—to complain about Cleveland’s pitching performance is essentially the baseball version of “first world problems.” And yet, here we are. The rotation is no longer the embarrassment of riches it has been the last several years, with Corey Kluber suffering from ineffectiveness and then a broken ulna and Mike Clevinger straining his teres major after a hot start to the season. The Indians came into the season with arguably the most complete rotation in MLB; no team would be able to emerge from the loss of two star-level pitchers unscathed, but the Indians at least have replacements at the top of the rotation in Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber, and most importantly, Trevor Bauer, the breakout star of the 2018 squad. In the face of attrition, the Indians will need its healthy trio of above-average starters to perform at the level of their highest capabilities in order to maintain what has been a strength of the team for as long it has been successful. Unfortunately, in 2019, Trevor Bauer has failed to match his performance from last year, and at a time during which his team needs him most.
|2018||Trevor Bauer||12||6||175.1||30.8%||8.0%||0.46||0.297||79.5 %||44.5 %||6.2 %||2.21||2.44||5.8|
|2019*||Trevor Bauer||4||2||64.2||28.3%||11.7%||1.11||0.245||72.3 %||38.3 %||13.6 %||3.76||4.02||1.1|
*as of May 21, 2019
Bauer has regressed in essentially every meaningful statistic. He’s striking out fewer batters, walking more, allowing more homers per fly ball, and inducing fewer grounders. It’s no surprise, then, to see that his ERA has ballooned from 2.21 to 3.76 this season. Some of this shouldn’t be surprising; per FanGraphs’ extremely handy glossary, “the difference between a ball clearing the fence and dying on the warning track is largely out of [pitchers’] control…HR/FB matters because it tells us if the pitcher is allowing more home runs than we might expect given their batted ball profile.” In other words, pitchers tend to have lots of control over their grounder vs. flyball tendencies, but far less control over where they’re hit or how far they travel. Seeing as Bauer’s 2018 HR/FB ratio was well below his career norms, regression to the mean was to be expected, and indeed, regression, along with the effects of the new, aerodynamic ball, has hit him like a freight train. Consider this 2018 flyout off the bat of Abraham Almonte……
and compare it to Thursday’s homer by Trey Mancini:
These balls were similarly struck in terms of exit velocity and launch angle, traveled nearly identical distances, and each was hit off of a poorly executed pitch. Nonetheless, the former resulted in a warning track out while the other, a three-run blast, results over which the Tribe pitcher had little control. Bauer is currently allowing fly balls to reach the seats at a rate far greater than usual, meaning statistically speaking, one may expect that future flyballs will more often find leather. This would be the case under normal circumstances, but in 2019, the circumstances pertaining to the baseball itself are anything but normal. Last season, 12.8% of fly balls were home runs league-wide, the fourth highest percentage of all-time. That’s an alarming statistic, or at least it would be if it didn’t mark a sharp decrease from 2016’s 13.7%. And that would be alarming if it weren’t dwarfed by this season’s 14.4%. Indeed, balls are flying out of parks with unprecedented frequency; Bauer’s rate of homers per fly ball, which initially looks flukily high, is actually better than average. One should suspect, therefore, that the UCLA product’s HR/FB suppression in 2018 is the outlier, and 2019 marks a return to the norm.
But, there’s another way for him to effectively limit his home run allowance, a method over which he has some actual control. Every home run has one thing in common: crazy bunts notwithstanding, home runs (well, extra-base hits in general) tend not to be ground balls, but liners and flies. Luckily, unlike flyball distance, pitchers do have significant influence over whether or not the ball is put in the air in the first place. In this regard, Trevor Bauer’s 2019 has been an off-year: from 2016-2018, 46.8% of balls put in play off of Bauer were grounders. This young season, he’s down to 38%, and that’s a huge problem. Fewer ground balls mean more fly balls, which usually means more extra-base hits.
The question is: where have all the groundballs gone? Feast your eyes on Bauer’s offspeed and breaking ball trends over the last four years:
|Pitch||2016-2018 Pitch%||2019 Pitch%||2016-2018 GB%||2019 GB%|
*N.B. Bauer remodeled his slider after the 2017 season, so I only included 2018.
Bauer has thrown fewer curveballs, his old reliable, and sliders, his shiny new toy from 2018, in favor of the newly remodeled change-up. The problem is, the new change-up isn’t producing groundballs as often as the old one did, particularly in 2018, when over three-quarters of balls put in play off that pitch were on the ground. But that’s funny, it’s not just the change-up that’s producing fewer grounders. All of his offspeed and breaking pitches are producing fewer grounders. Perhaps it’s a matter of pitch location.
There’s a difference in shape here, but there’s no reason the location on the left should necessarily lead to more grounders than the one on the right. This is where I admit defeat—I have no clue why Bauer is producing fewer grounders on his offspeed and breakers this year. However, the pitch Bauer throws most often aren’t any of these; it’s the four-seam fastball that he throws the most frequently, and in 2019, he’s thrown it 41% of the time, more often than any year since 2015, and at the same rate as all of his breaking and offspeed pitches combined. Bauer has always thrown more fastballs when he’s behind in the count, so it’s no surprise to see that compared to last year, he’s starting off at-bats with a strike 16% less frequently, which means he’s throwing more fastballs. That is to say, by not getting ahead of batters, Trevor Bauer is forcing himself into a corner and needs the fastball to bail him out. Of course, this comes at the cost of grounders—over his career, just a third of his fastballs put in play have been grounders. In 2019, the year in which he’s throwing the most fastballs in recent memory, his groundball percentage has plummetted.
Throwing first-pitch strikes, of course, has other benefits. When behind in the count, pitchers are more likely to walk batters, less likely to strike them out, and more likely to give up hard contact. Batters are more likely to wait for their pitch. Indeed, Bauer has been unable to fool hitters into chasing pitches out of the zone this year, and hitters have been more aggressive against pitches in the zone this year. There’s no way to be positive, but this is quite likely due to falling behind in counts. Pay attention to first-pitch strikes next time Bauer takes the mound; this one fix could solve almost all of Trevor Bauer’s problems this year. If only the MLB would fix the damn ball.