Going Deep: Jake Bauers has 24 hours to save the Indians’ offseason
Well, technically he has more than 24 hours — and Jake Bauers isn’t going to have disarm any nuclear bombs — but still, you get the idea.
There is a lot on the line for the 23-year-old Bauers in 2019, and there’s really no way around that. Acquired earlier this offseason by the Cleveland Indians from the Tampa Bay Rays to fill Edwin Encarnacion‘s spot as the likely No. 5 hitter in their lineup, the Indians are going to need Bauers to produce.
Here’s the thing, though: There’s a decent chance, despite lacking an invisible parrot friend, he might be able to fill those shoes. It all depends on which Bauers shows up. The real reason I’m confident Bauers is going to be just fine in 2019 has a ton to do with the Indians and their skill at developing power and ability in players that match Bauers’ hitting style. I believe that he has ended up in the best place to possibly take advantage of what he does best and to develop into a steal on draft day.
Bauers had a tale of two rookie years. (Didn’t think you’d find both a Jack Bauer AND a Charles Dickens reference in the same place, did you?) First called up last year on June 7, Bauers had a true roller-coaster season that resulted in the following stat line:
Welcome to the majors, kid. That’s a pretty rough season. So why are we talking about a guy who hit .201 last year? Let’s expand that to a full season of 550 AB:
Still not anything I’m going write home about, but he is starting to pique my interest especially as a potential 20 HR/10 SB hitter who could put at least 90 runs/90 RBI.
Even with that abysmal batting average looming large, I hope to convince you there’s still room for hope. Let’s take a look at some of the underlying stats that go along with his season:
That walk rate looks really nice, doesn’t it? If Bauers had amassed enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, that would have been tied for the 12th-best BB% in the league. The K% was certainly elevated and his wOBA was terrible, but in AAA last year, he had a K% of 21.2% and a wOBA of .354. That K% had never risen above 20% in any year before then and his wOBA always hovered between .330 and .375, so I’m thinking there’s definitely potential for positive regression there.
The notoriously conservative Steamer projection system over a Fangraphs agrees with me as it projects Bauers for a 22.8 K% and a .330 wOBA, both of which would represent massive improvements in his value. That HR/FB% is a career high (and in the top 70 leaguewide) but not outrageously so, and Bauers certainly wouldn’t be the first recent minor leaguer to hit the majors and immediately start hitting for more power.
For perspective, here are the hitters who are right around that range in HR/FB%:
These are almost all players who we value to one degree or another for their potential home run contributions, and Bauers is square in the middle of them. He’s only 23, so he has a ton of room to keep growing into his power.
I do finally want to point out his wRC+. Despite that godawful .201 Avg., Bauers was nearly a league-average hitter this past year. It’s pretty easy to see how with some positive regression Bauers could climb back to being an above-average hitter.
Let’s talk about that batting average: Here is Bauers’ BABIP over his minor league career and first year in the majors as well as the batting average that went along with them:
Clearly, there is a huge gap between his 2018 major league BABIP (note league-average BABIP is right around .300) and his minor league track record (average BABIP of .320 in the minors) — but how much of a gap? Should we have expected a 1:1 translation of that minor league track record to the majors? Of course not.
But how close should it get? Check out this incredible piece by projections expert Mike Podhorzer over at Fangraphs on the subject. In the article, he lays out the factors by which we can multiply a player’s BABIP at each level in order to adjust that number to a major league equivalent. Here are the factors and what comes out when they’ve been applied to his historical BABIP:
Taking a look at this, I draw two conclusions right off the bat: First, it seems that, aside from a few outliers, we should expect Bauers to have a roughly league-average BABIP. Second, that .295 or so BABIP would have been about 40 points higher than what he ended up getting in 2018. No guarantee, but it seems reasonable based on this information to expect much better BABIP luck and therefore a much better batting average in 2018.
I mentioned before that Bauers had a bit of a roller-coaster season, and let me tell you it was the Millenium Force (shoutout to Sandusky, Ohio!) of roller-coaster seasons, complete with an incredible uphill first half and a rapid decline in the second half.
Take a look at his first- and second-half splits:
The two halves couldn’t be more different. The first half BABIP though is much more in line with those adjusted BABIPs we were seeing a few paragraphs ago. To go along with that, the K% looks way more in line with his career norms as well. On the other hand, look at that putrid .215 BABIP in the second half. That definitely reeks of some pretty bad luck, especially because a lot of the supporting stats for the first half match up with his minor league track record. I don’t expect a .244 ISO or anything, but I think an average in the .250 range makes sense along with something like a 105 to 115 wRC+.
This is all very encouraging but not exactly overwhelmingly exciting. Where’s the big reveal?
The real reason I’m excited about Bauers in 2019 is his new team, the Cleveland Indians. Here’s a side-by-side comparison between where the Indians offense ranked leaguewide versus the Rays:
The two offenses aren’t even close to each other. Assuming he’ll be hitting behind MVP candidates Fransico Lindor (129 runs) and Jose Ramirez (110 runs in 2018), he will have ample RBI opportunities hitting out of the 4- or 5-hole. For perspective, CJ Cron led the Rays with 68 runs in 2018, and Bauers still managed an 80-plus-RBI pace. It’s not that hard to see a path to at least 90-plus RBI.
The other reason I am excited about Bauers coming over to the Indians is the team’s hitting philosophy. Back in August, a fivethirtyeight.com article by the excellent Travis Sawchik caught my eye. Definitely check out the entire article, but the main salient argument is that the Indians have taken a different approach to the question of “What is the most effective way to score runs?” It goes further than embracing the fly ball revolution, which no matter what they claim, they have. It has a ton to do with the unique dimensions of Progressive Field and how they feel lefties can best take advantage of them.
Here’s a map of Progressive Field. This image comes courtesy of BaseballSavant.com:
See those dimensions at the corners? One thing to note if you’ve never been to Progressive Field: The left field wall, affectionately known as “The Little Green Monster” is 19 feet tall, which is great for doubles but not so much for home runs. On the other hand, the right field wall is only 9 feet tall. So when the Indians get a leftie bat with some pop, their theory is that the easiest (read: shortest) path to a home run or an extra-base hit is a pulled ball in the air down the right field line, and they want to get you to hit as many of them as possible. It sounds so simple when put that way, right?
Well, so far that approach has paid huge dividends. Take a look at how this has affected both Lindor and Ramirez as their power grew over the past 3 years.
|Player||Year||Pull% as LHB||FB% as LHB||% of HR as LHB||Total HR|
You can see a huge spike in both Pull% as an LHB (left-handed batter) and FB% as an LHB from year to year, and it’s easy to see the positive results. The Indians have clearly gotten their two best young players on board with pulling the ball in the air to right field as much as possible. Each year, their home run totals took major leaps, and it pretty tightly corresponds with a greater percentage of their home runs coming as an LHB and increasing their rate of fly balls they pull to right field. The FiveThirtyEight article above posits that the Indians started heavily making this shift in approach going into the 2017 season, and again the data seems to support that change.
Let’s see where Bauers shook out last year in these categories:
|Player||Year||Pull% as LHB||FB% as LHB||% of HR as LHB||Total HR|
First, obviously, I don’t think that Bauers is on the same level as Lindor or Ramirez, but you can see that he is perfectly positioned to make a similar leap himself if the Indians can help him make the same adjustments. Earlier, I showed that Bauers was on pace to hit 18 home runs if he had gotten 600 ABs. Once introduced to the Indians’ hitting philosophy, Lindor and Ramirez more than doubled their home run totals from the previous year. Could Bauers do the same and hit 30-plus HRs next year? I think that’s perhaps his highest of ceilings, but I don’t think 25-plus seems that crazy given that the Indians are able to help him increase his fly ball rate the way they did with Ramirez and Lindor.
I also want to talk park factors for a moment. Here are Fangraphs’ park factors for most of the major hitting categories, including five-year and three-year overall park factors. Note that 100 means the park is neutral in that category; every point below 100 means a percentage worse for hitters in that park, and every point above 100 means the opposite.
These park factors further reinforce that the move from the Rays to the Indians can only help boost his offensive numbers simply by being in a better hitting environment for the things that he does best. This is especially true when it comes to home runs (six-point net difference) and doubles (12-point difference) and overall offense (seven-point difference), which can only lead to more runs and RBI. Again, I just can’t help but feel like with the switch to a better offense and a more hitter-friendly park, 90-plus RBI is well within reach for Bauers, if not more.
Let’s talk fantasy. Based on the last average draft position I saw, Bauers was going around the 253rd pick on average — or the 21st round in 12-team leagues. Given all the evidence I just laid out, I can’t imagine Bauers ever falling that far in any draft I’m in, and he shouldn’t in any of yours either.
When I do projections, I like to present three different sets of data:, a floor, what I suspect is likely and the player’s ceiling. Here’s what I’ve come up with for the five major roto categories. Note that the runs and RBI are assuming he bats fifth in 2018:
A 20 HR/10 SB season out of first baseman is already pretty solid but nothing earthshaking. Let’s take a look at the ceiling now.
I didn’t quite double his home runs like Lindor and Ramirez, but I think 27 HRs is pretty much his ceiling for 2019. As for the stolen bases, that’s what Steamer projects for him, and I think that makes a lot of sense. So a first baseman who might hit 25-plus HR and steal 15-plus bases? That’s almost Paul Goldschmidt without the batting average. Do I think this is what is going to happen? No, not necessarily, but when considering his Pull%, if the Indians can continue to demonstrate a talent for getting young players to greatly increase their FB%, then it’s certainly in play. What do I really think is going to happen? For the most part somewhere in between those two.
Most Likely Scenario
I actually agree with Steamer’s stolen base projection of 16 SBs as the Indians led the league last year in stolen bases and have shown a willingness in the past to let youngsters learn on the fly when it comes to stolen bases. By the way, 16 stolen bases would have been second in the MLB among first basemen (only three first basemen put up double-digit steals). In that spirit, I’d like to do one last comparison for fantasy purposes and perhaps to give some idea of where Bauers’ value might end up versus what several first basemen did in 2018 if he hits the marks I expect him to.
Obviously, I expect Cody Bellinger to be much better in 2019, but I thought it useful to see that just how close my projections for Bauers are to what Bellinger did last year. The other two players are the comparisons on which I really want to focus. See where we’re currently taking Eric Hosmer and Ian Desmond? I have Bauers projected to be roughly as valuable as either of them, but he’s going on average almost 100 picks later. That’s an incredible value.
Let’s not forget: Much like Bellinger and Desmond, he’s OF eligible as well in most leagues. It’s also worth noting that 16 stolen bases would tie him for 12th among outfielders. Let’s take a peek at some values there as well.
Again, I grabbed one higher-value player (Tommy Pham) so we could see how many of his stats line up with Bauers’. But he matches Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen almost perfectly, and we’re taking them again almost 100 picks before Bauers.
In the end, don’t let an ugly second half by a rookie who had some real nasty batted ball luck scare you away from a player who might end up one of the biggest draft day steals of the season.
Now if only we could get Bauers to somehow use the 24 countdown clock as his walk-up music, and my work here would be done.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire