2019 MLB Preview: Trevor Bauer and his ever-changing arsenal

Image result for trevor bauer
Trevor Bauer had a fantastic 2018 for Cleveland.

Before we dig into what the future might hold for Cleveland Indians righty Trevor Bauer, a bit of housekeeping. I’ll be doing a lot of preview content for the 2019 Major League Baseball season, including division by division breakdowns as Spring Training rolls on. You’ll get award and playoff predictions, too.

Every Monday, I’m also going to spotlight some individual players I find interesting. The reasons will vary and each post will explain further, but I think this will make for a nice break from the usual stuff we all digest each spring. Baseball is fun, so let’s have fun.

Opening Day is on the way …

***

Oh, Trevor Bauer. When he’s not making waves for his Twitter … personality (Feel free to do your own Googling), he’s probably researching new ways to increase his spin rates or break ground in some other way. From a performance standpoint, Bauer is one of the game’s more intriguing creatures; deeply analytical, he spends each offseason tooling around with the Driveline guys in their magical cave.

The stuff is just incredible, as you surely already know.  His fastball is hard and comes with truly elite spin, ranking in the 83rd percentile last season. Give a pitcher a fastball this good and you’ve set him well onto the path of excellence. Last year, Bauer broke into that class of pitcher; he finished with 6.1 fWAR (sixth best in baseball) and struck out 30.8% (also sixth best) of the batters he faced.

Suddenly the Cleveland Indians had a triumvirate of aces, coupling Bauer with two-time AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and the incredibly underrated Carlos Carrasco. Plus, Mike Clevinger — another, shall we say, eccentric personality — developed into a really nice back of the rotation starter too.

But is Bauer’s growth sustainable or a blip?

I think it’s sustainable. Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and a highly-touted prospect as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Indians, so the pedigree is hardly an issue here. He’s been around and steadily improving, but in 2018 he became great.

There’s nothing terribly fluky about his 2018 season, either — the BABIP is normal and while he gave up fewer home runs, he also developed some of his other offerings enough to mitigate the bounce-back concern. He’ll give up more bombs in 2019, but it won’t kneecap his value. The strikeout rate saw a healthy bounce, but might that also be explained by improved pitches?

Year to year, the slider is what really changed. By Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, his slider was essentially average or right around that every year in his career except 2018 when it suddenly became a really good pitch. The story here is pretty amusing, by the way. Bauer decided last offseason he didn’t like his slider (and it shows — he barely threw it in 2017), so he spent a lot of time studying pitchers who did it better, namely Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bauer selected Stroman’s slider, because he considers it one of the elite breaking balls in baseball based on the pitch’s results on balls in play and in generating swings and misses. Although Bauer is listed as five inches taller than Stroman, he thought their arm angles were similar enough for it to work.

“I diagrammed that out in my head, how it has to spin in order to accomplish that,” Bauer said. “I went to video and checked to make sure I had a theory lined up with the actual [results]. I tried to get as much slow-mo video of [Stroman’s slider] as I could, there’s not a lot of it. I looked at what I could, and then I went in the lab and started using high-speed video of myself just iterating the axis that I wanted. Then it was pretty much about commanding it.”

First off, wow. See what I mean about Bauer and being analytical? It worked, by the way. Let’s have some fun with how hitters fared against Bauer’s new and improved slider last season:

  • Batters swung and missed 41.8% of the time against it
  • Batters produced a paltry .123 wOBA and a .171 xSLG, which for you non-stats folks means they did nothing against it

And, of course, the visual evidence:

Bauer slider

Pretty nasty. Bauer relied on the fastball (36.9%) and curve (26.7%) more, but perhaps that will change. Both remain above-average pitches, and the rising tide lifts all boats.

We’d be doing him a disservice to not mention the growth in his changeup, too. While perhaps not as dramatic as the slider, the changeup improved by leaps and bounds:

Stat 2017 2018
Pitch % 7.7 7.0
wOBA .370 .153
Whiff % 25.4 36.0
Avg Spin Rate 1646 1852
Pitch Value -4.6 4.0

So he used it a bit less — remember, the slider stole reps from most of Bauer’s arsenal — but it was a considerably better pitch year over year. That difference in wOBA is incredible. Whether he continues to develop it or not, I can’t say, but again considering Bauer’s aptitude I suspect he’s well aware.

If Bauer, 29, expands upon the improvements he made in 2018, I think he’s certainly capable of establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the world. He’s young enough to still be considered in his peak and injuries aren’t a major concern (he’s thrown at least 175 innings the last four seasons — a good example of how times have changed when that’s considered more than acceptable).

Then again, if the slider and changeup don’t hold their newfound performance, maybe that leads to a strikeout and home run rate more in line with his 2017 record. He’d still be valuable, but not necessarily excellent. Maybe he ends up throwing less than 150 innings. There’s certainly some volatility with Bauer — that’s kind of why he’s so interesting to me.

Advertisements