An anonymous, carnivorous FanGraphs reader exchanged the following with Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs this past Monday:
Szymborski’s response is telling; there’s no reason the Cleveland Indians need to keep Leonys Martin in the lineup. In fact, there’s good reason not to do so. The 31-year-old outfielder, who is in the last year of his contract, has hit a paltry .205/.283/.354, good for a 66 wRC+. It hasn’t just been bad luck, either. Martin’s Statcast information shows that he’s actually been fortunate when it comes to his batted ball performance. One would expect someone with his batted ball profile to have an even less impressive batting line. If he were contributing lots of value with the glove, his extensive playtime may be explicable, but he hasn’t exactly been Byron Buxton this year in centerfield.1 The various advanced metrics believe Martin’s defense has been somewhere between average and below-average, and while statistics like ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS) take years to truly be predictive of future value, Martin is a short-term piece, and his performance this season has been below replacement level. Why the Indians keeping him around is unclear. This article isn’t about Leonys Martin, but I figure I may as well share my thoughts: I can see four possible reasons why he remains an everyday player. One, the Indians remain confident that he can return to his 2018 performance level and help this team; two, Terry Francona and the front office are biased toward veterans or wary of relying on rookies; three, they’re succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy, as the prospect the Indians sent back to Detroit is currently tearing up Triple-A; four, when a player nearly dies, it’s probably a difficult PR move to let him go. My opinion is that Martin has been kept around thanks to a combination of all four options. Regardless, the reward of Martin performing like a league-average player, as he did in 2018, is not worth the negative value he continues to accrue, and his presence in the everyday lineup makes Terry Francona’s preseason comments all the more baffling.
The Major League Baseball season is long. Cleveland could still compete to win the AL Central, but playing a replacement-level centerfielder every day drains the already slim probability of victory. To top it off, Martin’s possession of a roster spot affects others: his heir apparent, Oscar Mercado, appears to be the superior defender but has been relegated to left field because of Martin’s ever-presence up the middle. Another affected individual is Jake Bauers, as Szymborski pointed out to Salami Steve. Martin’s roster spot makes it difficult to justify Bauers’s, whose struggles have been frustrating, but whose potential ceiling should encourage the Indians to prioritize his development highly. After all, Bauers is under team control through 2024, was included on most Top 100 Prospect lists coming into the both 2017 and 2018 seasons, and perhaps most crucial to the hearts of fans, he was the return for everyone’s favorite muscleman Yandy Diaz, who is now terrorizing the AL East. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on Bauers’s long-term success; Salami Steve is right to be concerned about his Major League struggles.
The Indians are Jake Bauers’ third Major League franchise: drafted out of high school in the seventh round of the 2013 Amateur Draft by the San Diego Padres, Bauers spent two years in their farm system before he was traded to Tampa Bay in the deal that sent Trea Turner to Washington and Wil Myers to San Diego (I bet the Padres wish they could have that one back). Despite the relocation, Jake Bauers did one thing and one thing only during his time in the minors: hit. Every season, the baseball analytics website Baseball Prospectus releases really great prospect lists for every team; I read them religiously. Jeffrey Paternostro, the lead prospect analyst, organizes each prospect’s blurb into the categories “The Good” and “The Bad,” medium-sized paragraphs that combine into thorough, realistic overviews of each prospect. Bauers was fourth on Tampa Bay’s 2017 list and sixth on the 2018 list. The entirety of Bauers’s 2018 “The Good” section, which, again, attempts to detail all of the prospect’s positive qualities, reads as follows: “Bauers can hit. Full Stop.” Other evaluations share similar, if more verbose sentiment. If Jake Bauers becomes a good Major League player, it’s going to be solely because of his prowess at the dish.
To their credit, Bauers’ minor league performance corroborates the evaluations of the scouts. His minor league career .276/.361/.414 batting line is good for a 124 wRC+, and every single one of his minor league seasons was better than the league average. That’s an enormous feat for anyone, but it was particularly impressive from Bauers, who was significantly younger than the average player at each of his levels. While he was hitting .274/.370/.420 (132 wRC+) in Double-A, he wasn’t even old enough to celebrate with a beer; meanwhile, the average player in the Southern League that season was 24. Bauers’s control of the strike zone was preternatural. For his minor league career, Bauers walked in 11.3% of his plate appearances while only striking out in 16.9%; both of these totals would be well above the MLB average in 2019.
At the time of this writing, Jake Bauers is exactly one full season into his MLB career, and his ability to reach base via the walk remains intact. At 12.2 percent, his walk-rate lies in the 85th percentile amongst players who have accrued at least 600 PAs since the beginning of last year. On the flipside, amongst that same group, only 19 players have struck out more frequently than Jake Bauers’s 26.7 percent. A massive leap in strikeout rate from the minors to the majors is concerning for anyone, but it’s downright distressing for Bauers, whose success mostly relies on his hit tool and ability to reach base. Consider, in 2015, he spent half his season in High-A ball in the Rays organization, accruing a near-identical amount of playing time as he has this season in the majors. His production in each of those years is eerily similar, with one very obvious difference:
|2015||Rays (A+)||59||249||6||11.6 %||13.3 %||0.166||0.291||0.267||0.357||0.433||0.374||142|
|2019||Indians||69||265||9||9.8 %||26.4 %||0.165||0.291||0.233||0.313||0.398||0.307||87|
Clearly, Bauers was much more productive in his A-ball stint than he has been in the MLB, with a 55-point difference in wRC+. Yet, in each of those seasons, Bauers earned an above-average amount of free passes, and he hit for the same batting average on balls in play and isolated power. The only element that separates his wildly successful 2015 from his crummy, disappointing 2019 is the obscene duplication of his strikeout rate.
If Bauers can figure out how to limit his strikeouts near his minor league levels, he could be a core piece for the Indians for several years, so trying to solve his woes should be a top priority. The first thought anyone should have in thinking about walks and strikeouts is to look at plate discipline numbers. If a player chases pitches out of the strike zone too often or isn’t very good at making contact, you’d expect him to rack up the strikeouts. Unfortunately, the Bauers case isn’t that simple—he rarely chases pitches out of the zone, having fallen for bad pitches 25% less often than average. His contact rate hovers right around league average, too. When he does chase pitches out of the zone, his ability to make contact has been a few percentage points below-average, but not enough to fuel his sky-high strikeout rate.
Since he doesn’t have broad issues with making contact or laying off pitches out of the zone, the next thought should be that Jake Bauers must have a poor two-strike approach at the plate. The problem is, a batter’s approach is their mental state; there’s no public database in which players record their inner monologues. Fortunately, there are certain characteristics of a two-strike approach that we can measure. For example, you’d expect hitters with good two-strike approaches to protect the plate by swinging at pitches in the strike zone, and you’d expect them to “shorten up” in order to more easily make contact. Jake Bauers, it turns out, doesn’t protect, nor does he shorten up.2
When there are two strikes on a hitter, pitchers tend to deliver the ball outside the strike zone, because those pitches are more likely to induce swings and misses or weak contact. Intuitively, then, you’d expect the average MLB hitter to swing and miss more often with two strikes as fewer pitches are in the ideal hitting zone. However, the average player changes their strategy—they put more emphasis on making contact and “staying alive” than they do punishing pitches. That’s why we see pictures like this one of Joey Votto choking up to the max with two strikes. I mentioned earlier that Bauers has near-average contact ability—when he swings, he misses 26.1% of the time, compared to 25.2% for the average MLB hitter. However, with two strikes, the average hitter improves their contact rate, only missing with 24.8% of swings. Compare that to Bauers, whose whiff rate jumps to 27.6%, a six-percent increase. In other words, overall, Bauers has been pretty close to league average at making contact, but with two strikes, Bauers gets worse while most of the league improves.
Likewise, Jake Bauers is among the least effective players when it comes to protecting the plate. If you’re a batter with two strikes and the pitcher delivers the ball into the strike zone, your choices are either to swing or sit down, which, as Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White might say, ain’t no real choice at all. Indeed, hitters swing at 89% of pitches in the strike zone with two strikes. But, Jake Bauers, for his career, has only swung at 82% of two-strike pitches in the zone, among the lowest in the league. By not protecting the plate, he’s already stockpiled 56 backward Ks, and only ten players (min. 500 PAs) have been rung up more frequently, a group made up mostly of Joey Gallo/Aaron Judge types. Overall, Jake Bauers seems to be a fairly disciplined hitter, but his propensity to fall apart with two strikes subtly drives his detrimental strikeout problem.
Even though strikeout numbers are rising all around the league, and evaluators are more willing to overlook some ugly strikeout totals than ever before, Bauers’s newfound proneness to being rung up is particularly difficult to swallow. For one, for having a beautiful left-handed swing, the Newport Beach native hasn’t hit for much power. While his career strikeout rate is 21% higher than average, Bauers’s slugging is eight-percent below-average. Guys like Gallo and Judge, they’ve essentially sacrificed striking out for hitting dingers. Bauers strikes out nearly as often, but with little of the power. Bauers also doesn’t earn any value with his glove. In fact, he’s been one of the worst defensive outfielders in all of baseball in 2019. Still, Jake Bauers is only 23 years old, he’s only played one full year in the major leagues, and is just experiencing professional failure for the first time. It is far too early to tell how the rest of his career will turn out, and the Indians will undoubtedly treat him with patience. Still, in order to live up to his promise and meet the sky-high expectations placed upon him, Jake Bauers must stop striking out so much and just hit. Full stop.