Trevor Bauer Has Reinvented Himself And Is Having a Career Year
The author and political activist George Bernard Shaw once said that "progress is impossible without change."
He wasn't referring to baseball, but his thought is nonetheless applicable to America's Pastime (do people still call it that?), and we have to look no further than Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer for proof.
Bauer, a former number-three overall draft pick in 2011, made his Major League debut with the team who selected him, the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012, throwing 16 1/3 innings. He was later traded to the Indians and threw 17 innings for them in 2013. Considering the tiny sample sizes of each of these seasons, were largely going to ignore them.
Bauer's first real taste of a full season in the big leagues came in 2014, making 26 starts over 153 innings pitched, and posting a 4.18 ERA and 4.14 Expected Fielder Independent Pitching (xFIP). He followed-up that performance with a 4.55 ERA and 4.28 xFIP in 176 innings pitched (30 starts) in 2015.
His ERA and xFIP in both seasons were worse than league average, and Bauer's performance suggested he was nothing more than just another guy.
However, what Bauer has done so far this season suggests he's exactly what this entertaining clip from his most recent start states: better than you thought.
When you’re better than you thought. pic.twitter.com/bwXrHUDRKg
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) June 23, 2016
Bauer faced the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday and threw a gem of a game. He limited the Rays to just three hits and one run, while striking out 10 hitters to only one walk, on his way to a complete game victory. Considering Bauer's struggles over the past two seasons, and that he began this season in the bullpen, his recent success is even more unexpected.
Despite a strong showing in spring training, Cleveland elected to send Bauer to the bullpen to begin the year and he did not perform well. In six relief appearances (11 1/3 innings) he posted a 4.76 ERA and a 4.12 xFIP. The only reason he eventually cracked the starting rotation was because of an injury to teammate Carlos Carrasco.
Bauer made his first start of 2016 on April 30 in place of Carrasco, and his performance since then now has him firmly entrenched Cleveland's rotation. In 11 starts (73 innings pitched), Bauer has posted a 2.96 ERA and a 3.81 xFIP, helping lower his overall numbers on the season to a 3.20 ERA and a 3.85 xFIP, both of which would be new career bests.
Is there a reason why Bauer struggled in his first two full seasons in the big leagues and yet is now finding success on the mound?
A New Repertoire
In case the header wasn't a dead giveaway, Bauer has reinvented himself this season and the results have been promising. He's basically eliminated the slider from his pitch repertoire and has instead become a sinkerball pitcher.
Check out the chart below of Bauer's pitch selection from 2014, 2015, and this season (numbers via Brooks Baseball). The last column is his ground ball percentage (GB%).
As you can see, the pitch Bauer throws most frequently this season has been his sinker, up almost 19 percentage points since last season and a pitch he basically didn't throw in 2014. The average velocity on this pitch is just 0.75 miles per hour slower than his fourseam fastball, hence the decrease in percentage of straight fastballs he's throwing this season.
He's only thrown three sliders the entire season and has replaced it with a cutter, while also throwing more curves and changeups. Batters are only hitting .067 against his curve this year, and to steal another clip from Bauer's dominance of the Rays on Wednesday, it's easy to see why.
.@BauerOutage with that FILTHY hook. #FitKitchenhttps://t.co/ZHVCScBL2j
— MLB (@MLB) June 23, 2016
In addition to a deadly curve, the increase in sinkerballs has had two supremely positive outcomes for Bauer. First, it's helped increase his ground ball rate almost 10 percentage points from last season to this season, and his current 48.9 percent ranks 29th-best. Ground balls tend to go for hits more frequently than fly balls, but they also tend to have a significantly lower Isolated Power and Weighted On-Base Average attached to them.
This proves to be true with Bauer, as the second positive outcome is that his home runs allowed per nine innings this season is the lowest of his career. Bauer entered 2016 with a 1.11 homers per nine for his career, but his 0.64 mark this season is 11th-best. It's difficult to hit sinkers for home runs, and Bauer is a prime example of this.
In addition to a revamped repertoire, Bauer has also improved his control. His walk percentage in 2014 was 9.1 percent, it jumped to 10.6 percent last season, and it is currently 7.8 percent, which is better than league average (8.2 percent). Even more encouragingly, he's also maintained his strikeout rate.
Bauer's K-rate was a career best 22.9 percent last season, and it's currently sitting at 22.8 percent, above the league average of 21.1 percent. By keeping the ball in the yard with a new favorite pitch, reducing his walk percentage, and maintaining his strikeout rate, Bauer has accumulated a 1.8 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) this season. This is the same total he had in 2015, despite throwing 91 2/3 fewer innings.
If Bauer throws 160 innings this season, which was roughly the amount qualified starters threw in 2015, then he would be on pace for 3.4 fWAR, something only 27 pitchers did last season. Just for fun, if he makes it to 200 innings pitched this season, that puts his pace at 4.3, something only 17 pitchers reached in 2015.
Bauer has a 2.35 nERD this season, and our projections don't expect him to slow down much, forecasting a 3.77 ERA and a 20.0 percent strikeout rate over the remaining course of the season. He can thank his forward way of thinking for his newfound success.
Bauer was interviewed in 2012, still a Diamondbacks prospect at the time, and was quoted as saying, "I'm very passionate about my craft and I've always been into science and discovery and all that stuff, so I'm always trying to find a way to get better from season to season."
While he may not have seen the results he wanted until four years later, Bauer is living proof that change is needed in order to progress.