Trevor Bauer – From 4.20 to All-Star in one Year

At the start of this season I attended a UK fan meet up organised by Baseball by Committee group, it was great fun and I cannot wait for the next one. One of the things that occurred on that night was a predictions wall, people were asked for a longshot prediction for the season on a post-it note and then the BFAN team rated them and put them up in order. My prediction for the season was that Trevor Bauer would be in the top 5 for the AL Cy Young at the end of the season.

This prediction was placed near the top of all the predictions below Noah Syndergaard winning the NL MVP but above Corey Seager winning the NL MVP and Rhys Hoskins out homering Aaron Judge. So the main BFAN guys though I was going a bit wild with my prediction. The 2011 no. 3 pick hadn’t had a season with an ERA below 4 and in qualified pitchers for 2017 was 37th in ERA (4.19) so maybe their position was slightly justified. As we are just over half the way through the season let us see how he is doing.

At the time of writing Bauer just picked up his 8th win from 18 games started, which at initial glance would not look that good but some of the advanced numbers behind his performance have been nothing short of phenomenal. When interviewed after the game in Kansas this is what he had to say about his season so far – “I should be an All-Star. I’d imagine I will be and if I’m not, they didn’t get it right, whoever they is. I’m glad I’m pitching well. That’s been the goal, I feel like I should be an All-Star every year. That’s the standard I hold myself to.”

The stats below are for 2018 up to 4th July, there were 87 qualified starters at that point.

He is tied for first with Max Scherzer for fWAR, having both played 18 games, and he has achieved this by pitching the most innings and pitching with the best FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching). He has actually been let down by the Cleveland defence which moves him down to 10th if you were to look at ERA. The more advanced pitching metric, xFIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) and SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA), suggest that he is getting some ‘luck’ go his way and that you would expect some regression but they both in the range of excellence.

This is due to his very low home run per fly ball rate, 4.9%, only 5 qualified starters have had a lower rate over a season since 2000. With the league average being 12.6% and Bauer’s career average being 11.1%. That being said, last season he was ‘unlucky’ in this area with 16.1% going for home runs so this could already be the regression. But how did Trevor Bauer get into the position where he is challenging for the Cy Young Award?

Trevor was drafted 3rd in 2011 by the Arizona Diamondbacks, two places behind his UCLA team mate Gerrit Cole, both were highlighted as future aces and for large parts of their careers they have been compared to each other. By the end of 2012 season Trevor had earned his MLB debut with terrific numbers in AA and AAA. This had moved him to 5th on the MLB prospect list two ahead of his former team mate Cole.  Then in December of 2012 he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in a 9 man, 3 team trade, Cincinnati Reds being the other, which included Bryan Shaw, Didi Gregorius, Matt Albers, Tony Sipp and Shin-Soo Choo.

Both Bauer and Cole started 2013 in AAA but the end of the year people would be thinking they are a different class. Bauer struggled in AAA, an ERA of 4.15 and WHIP of 1.58 meant he was only given 4 spot starts during the season and the last of which he didn’t even get out of the first inning. Cole on the other hand posted a 2.91 ERA in AAA and by mid-June was in the Pirates rotation, he finished the season with 19 starts and a 3.22 ERA and 2.5 fWAR. By the end of 2013 Cole was no longer on the prospect list due to his time in the majors and Bauer had fallen to 38th.

2014 started with Trevor in AAA once again but by the end of May he was in the Cleveland rotation and hasn’t left it since then. If you had taken a cursory glace at his numbers since then until before this year you might have thought that he hadn’t made too much of an improvement over those four years.

His record has improved but ERA and WHIP (Walks and Hits Per Innings Pitched) are pretty much similar throughout, so some might say that it is due to the team hitting better and not his pitching getting better that he has more wins. And that Bauer is just stagnating as a pitcher. But the more advanced metrics underneath don’t back those two lines of thought.

His FIP is down, he is striking people out more while walking less and inducing more ground balls.  These are all factors that are showing that he is actually improving as that is why he WAR for the last 4 year has continued to rise. His ERA for his starts in 2017, removing one relief performance, was 4.20 a fact which will have made him chuckle even if he won’t have appreciated the value (It will become clear why later). This man wasn’t resting on his loreals he was working on improving himself when asked last year on his performance he said he wasn’t happy as he wasn’t the Cy Young winner. So that shows you where he is aiming.

Throughout his entire life Trevor Bauer has been trying to improve himself, in this article from 2012 he talks about his process “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.” & on trying to throw multiple types of pitches  “Honestly, throwing more pitches requires more practice on all of them. If you think about the 10,000-hour rule — you have to put 10,000 hours on a specific endeavour to be considered great at it — I’m never going to have great command of all of them; there’s not that much time.”

That was over 5 years ago and his mentality to the sport hasn’t changed since then, he posts videos on his YouTube channel showing his mechanics in slow motion. By now some of those pitches he has been working on are much closer to 10,000 hours and this tireless effort and scientific approach is really starting to pay off. Since 2015 MLB Statcast have been recording data on a wider variety of things about including velocity and spin rate of the pitch. Here we can see the improvement Bauer has made from his efforts.

He has upped his spin rate on all his pitches and his average speed on most of them, apart from his slider which he redesigned by slightly dropping the velocity but significantly increasing the spin rate. This is all significant for one reason it increases the swing and miss rate of batters. Since this additional data has become available numerous studies have shown that increasing both velocity and spin rate decrease the likelihood that the batter will make contact when they swing at a pitch.

This increased swing and miss rate for Bauer that you can see above has transferred directly into and increase strikeout rate, up from 22.9% in 2015 to 31.3% in 2018. Also his walk rate has dropped as well from 10.6% to 7.4%. He hasn’t just improved his pitches he has been consistently changing his pitch usage to maximise the pitches which are having the greatest effect.

To me players like Trevor Bauer are the future of baseball, his analytical and scientific approach to his improvement is the logical conclusion to sabermetrics influence on baseball. I don’t believe he ever stop attempting to improve himself and even if this is his plateau MLB batters have a few more years of impressive pitching to come.

As much as Bauer is making these changes it is going to take a while until the whole sport changes while there is still so much old school thinking out there.  Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman said “people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like mind believers.” And to that endeavor I hope to continue help educate people in the data behind baseball.

Other things to like about Trevor.

He wears his heart on his sleeve. In an age where players are careful about what they say or do, he just says what he wants to. Padraig wrote a great article about it on this site.

His charity work, he started out this year with 69 days of giving.  Which came about after differences in his 2018 salary in arbitration and Cleveland unwillingness to pay him $6,420,969.69. The figure was in part him trolling because of his dislike of the arbitration process, more in depth read here.

Due to his scientific and innovative approach he been branded as a loner or conceited due to his draft pick, but in trying to find out why he found out that people though he was too quite. That left him to remark – “’When I didn’t say anything, I was bad. But now that I tell you how much you suck, I’m good.’ How does that make any sense?”.

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