Trevor Bauer has always commanded attention on the diamond. In high school, he dominated opposing hitters, particularly during an undefeated (12-0) junior season that saw him strike out 106 batters in 70.2 IP. That type of elite production elicited strong interest for his services from college programs across the country, including UCLA, where Bauer ended up attending college. Few Bruin pitchers have reached any of the heights that Bauer did during his collegiate career; his accolades are numerous.
In 2009, he was named National Freshman Pitcher of the Year. 2010 saw him lead the nation in strikeouts (165), making him the first UCLA player to achieve that honor. He repeated as strikeout king the following season, whiffing 203 batters and scoring another first for the UCLA baseball program with his selection as the Golden Spikes Award winner for 2011. Bauer entered the MLB draft as the top-rated arm for many, ultimately going third overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It was after his selection in the draft that interest in Bauer’s personal life started to peak. Many found it odd that the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team with the number one overall pick, passed on Bauer to select his college teammate Gerrit Cole. Information on his unusual training methods piqued the interest of many, especially given Bauer’s own admission in an interview with MiLB.com’s David Heck that “…I don’t work out in the weight room…I do mostly strength and conditioning stuff that’s focused on moving quick and body mass…all of my workouts are focused on that.”
While many found his workout routine interesting, it was his throwing plan that stood out as a reason why he may have fallen to Arizona in the draft. In that same interview, Bauer noted that he followed a very complex throwing program where he threw every day, including long toss on the day after a start. Bauer communicated his reluctance to shift from his chosen approach to potential teams leading up to the draft, noting reluctance on the part of some organizations to embrace his unique approach.
The road to the majors was short, starting with a cup of coffee in 2012. Despite the immense talent he showed, consistent success at the big-league level evaded Bauer. Issues between Bauer and his Arizona teammates and a purported unwillingness to deviate from his chosen approach culminated with his trade to Cleveland the offseason after being named the Diamondbacks’ minor league pitcher of the year. Bauer reached the majors for good in 2014, but struggled for the next few seasons, making many wonder if he would ever reach the heights his amateur career promised.
Bauer finally put it all together in 2018, gifting owners everywhere with the season they all expected since his third overall selection in the 2011 MLB draft. The Cleveland right-hander posted a glittering 2.21 ERA (3.21 SIERA) and 1.09 WHIP in 27 starts last season, striking out batters with impunity (30.8% K) and staking his claim as a Cy Young Award candidate until a stress fracture shortened his season. His emergence really began the previous year, when he posted a 3.01 ERA and struck out 93 batters over 14 starts.
More than one season of continued success made Bauer a popular target in drafts this offseason and his first two starts (14 IP, 1 ER, 17 SO, 7 BB) only fanned the flames of his rising fantasy popularity. Since then, however, Bauer has faltered. His overall numbers (3.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 27.5% K) are not horrible, but they are skewing closer than is comfortable to what Bauer posted in 2017, rather than his breakout 2018 season. So, the question is, which Bauer will we see the rest of the way? What is behind his recent struggles and is it something he can overcome?
Let’s start with the biggest issue Bauer is having as compared to his 2018 season: control. After two straight seasons walking 8% of batters faced, Bauer is handing out free passes to 11.3% of those who step in the box. He already has five games with four or more walks (he had only three all of last year), has issued two walks or fewer in only four of his twelve starts, and has already matched last season’s total number of hit-by-pitches (9).
This increase in walks is partially due to an inability to get ahead of the hitter. Bauer is struggling in that respect, posting a 55.3% F-Strike so far on the season (-8.4% in 2019). Falling behind early puts him in more difficult counts, limiting the likelihood of his success in those at bats:
Bauer was very effective in limiting quality contact last season, ranking in the top 9% of the league with his 29.1% Hard-Hit rate and 11th overall with a stingy 4.4% Barrel rate (of those with at least 250 batted ball events). The script has flipped in 2019. Hitters are generating a 38.5% Hard-Hit against the right-hander and barreling the ball 10.7% of the time, good for 15th worst among pitchers with at least 100 batted ball events. Bauer’s batted-ball profile has also changed a good bit as compared to last season.
His ground balls are way down (-7.9% in 2019) and he has seen an uptick in both his line-drive rate (+2%) and fly-ball rate (+5.9%). His allowance of more fly balls has meant more home runs, 10 in fact—one more than he allowed all of last season. Bauer was unlikely to continue limiting the long ball to the extent that he did last year (6.2% HR/FB%, 0.46 HR/9), so a step back in that regard is unsurprising. Unfortunately, his current rates (13.3% HR/FB%, 1.17 HR/9) are within the range of what he posted in previous seasons, so the additional home runs allowed are likely here to stay.
Bauer is striking out 27.5% of batters faced in 2019. While this is down as compared to 2018 (30.8%), it still rates as the 18th-best mark in all of MLB. His average CSW rate is 30.7%, behind arms such as Caleb Smith (32.2%) and Noah Syndergaard (31%), but ahead of guys such as Jacob DeGrom (29.3%) and Patrick Corbin (29.8%). His two-strike percentage (read more on that from Nick Gerli) is above average at 25.7%. Mostly, things look good, though a dip in in his chase rates (-3.9% O-Swing%, -1.5% SwStr%) bears watching.
Unless Bauer can improve his control, I do not see him as a fantasy ace the rest of the way. Even if he were able to get back to the walk rates of the previous two years, his elevated hard-contact and lowered chase rates this season all work to limit the returns he will offer moving forward. This is not to say that Bauer will not provide good value. He is an immensely talented starter and has the ability to perform despite some of the issues I mentioned in this article. The likelihood of him providing upper-tier value without a major improvement in his control, however, is low. Since 2015, here is the full list of starting pitchers who have met the minimum qualified innings limit while striking out more than 26% of batters and walking them at a 10% or higher clip:
That is it. If we include the current season, here are the other starters posting similar strikeout and walk rates to Bauer:
Is there value within that group? Certainly. But not a lot of aces like we expected from Bauer.
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)