Trevor Bauer Did Find a Road Map to Another Level

Back after an intriguing May 30th start, I wondered if the talented enigma that is Trevor Bauer had found a road map to another level.

Entering that start — by the end of which he’d struck out a career-best 14 against the Oakland A’s — Bauer had an MLB-worst 6.30 ERA. He’d frustrated many in Cleveland with his unconventional training techniques and analytical approach. I documented earlier this year for The Athletic how Bauer is perhaps one of the more misunderstood and interesting players in the game.

But no one was more frustrated with Bauer’s performance than Bauer himself. He lamented at various times how his fastball was being crushed, about how his strikeout and K-BB% rates were at career best marks but that his BABIP “was out of control.” While part of it was poor luck, his fastball was not performing well according to metrics, like expected wOBA, that better represent underlying batted-ball skills.

Bauer said that his curveball had always been his best pitch, dating back to when he was Tim Lincecum 2.0 at UCLA, striking out the world en route to becoming the third-overall pick in 2011. Despite the quality of that pitch, he’d always utilized a rather deep repertoire. He was always reading and experimenting and searching for a better way. But there was an argument that from simplifying he might come better performance.

And on May 30th it was if Bauer said “screw it” and just started throwing his best pitch, the curveball, more often.

Over his first five seasons in the majors — full and partial campaigns — Bauer threw his curveball at a 14.0% rate. He increased his usage to 19.4% last season. But since May 30, when he threw a career-high 43 curveballs against the A’s, he’s thrown curveballs at a 32.3% rate.

To think about this another way: from 2012 to -16, he had thrown curveballs at a 30% rate or greater in just one start. He’s reached that mark in 14 of his 19 starts since May 30.

And since May 30, he’s gone 12-4 with a 3.42 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 108 innings. In the second half of the season, he ranks 20th among all MLB starting pitchers in WAR (1.4) and has a 3.06 ERA. In his last 10 starts, he’s 9-0 with a 2.51 ERA.

Bauer is making a pretty convincing case he should slot in third behind Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco in the Indians’ postseason rotation.

After leading Cleveland to a franchise-best 18th consecutive win on Sunday night — and to a one-game lead over Astros for the No. 1 seed in the AL entering play Monday — Bauer appears to have become another top-of-rotation arm for what is possibly the best pitching staff ever.

Not only is the curveball a bat-missing weapon, but Bauer trails only Drew Pomeranz, Alex Cobb, and Stephen Strasburg in called strikes (172) with the pitch, as well. It ranks 14th in swings and misses.

After struggling early with command of the pitch on Sunday night, Bauer found it again. The following is a three-pitch sequence that illustrates the curve’s ability both to freeze hitters and miss bats. Chris Davis is reduced a defenseless, helpless actor:

And Bauer appears to be building upon his new, simplified approach.

After reducing the depth of his pitch mix, Bauer has begun to work in his slider on occasion. The two-seam fastball, however, remains almost entirely absent. Over his last 10 starts, his performance has reached another level.

In some ways, this approach isn’t so different than that of Kluber, who keeps throwing his breaking ball more often in the second half — when he’s been the game’s best starting pitcher — with the opposition unwilling or unable to adjust.

The curveball might usage might be opening up the ability for Bauer’s fastball to play at a higher level. Bauer, once an enthusiastic proponent of pitch tunneling (and perhaps still a student of it), likes to work his fastball up in the zone, ostensibly to pair with his big-breaking, fall-off-a-cliff curve. The average height of Bauer’s fastball at the plate is 2.73 feet, which ranks 46th among all pitchers, according to Baseball Savant.

And the more batters sit on his breaking stuff, the greater his ability to perhaps generate swing and miss with his fastball.

In an eight-pitch sequence Sunday, when Manny Machado saw five curves and one slider from Bauer on Sunday, all the former could do is smile when Bauer appeared to surprise him with a 96 mph fastball in the middle of the zone:

Bauer’s fastball swing-and-miss rate has spiked in September, perhaps an indication that opponents are sitting more and more on his breaking stuff. Consider the fastball’s swing-and-miss trends via Brooks Baseball:

This experiment with elevated curveball usage, with the reintroduction of the slider, suggests Bauer is learning, is adapting.

Many had given up on Bauer. The Diamondbacks gave up on Bauer. Many a fantasy player, many a fan in Cleveland gave up on Bauer. But it’s quite possible that after the uneven, frustrating opening chapters of Bauer’s career, we are just now getting to the good part of the story. And with an Indians’ starting staff that has already separated itself to help the club to emerge as the best team in the majors, it might be developing another weapon.

It looks like Bauer followed a road map to another level. It looks like Bauer is no longer an enigma.

We hoped you liked reading Trevor Bauer Did Find a Road Map to Another Level by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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ARodTheGOAT
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ARodTheGOAT

I’ve never understood why this is such a novel concept. “Throwing my best pitch more often will yield better results! Gee, who would’ve thought?”

But good for Bauer for not only recognizing this, but actually acting on it

EonADS
Member
EonADS

As somebody who threw a lot of curvevballs in college (I’d say 40%), the problem came with finding and maintaining my arm slot. If I overused the curve, I’d lose my command of my sinker and flatten my changeup. My coach made much of that. It also strains the arm to throw more breaking balls, so a lot of times it’s discouraged for the sake of arm health.

But all in all, the likely reason is because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom (that you have to pitch off of and establish your fastball). And we know how little coaches liked that, at least from a development standpoint, until fairly recently.

jdbolick
Member

In addition to what EonADS noted, there is a concern about diminishing returns for increased usage of breaking balls. The more hitters see it, the more likely they are to hit it, and increased usage may also negatively affect the degree of movement as well as command.

ARodTheGOAT
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ARodTheGOAT

Fair point, and I have no data to back this up, but I would imagine diminishing returns don’t start to outweigh the marginal benefit of increased usage when the increase is from 14% to 32%.

Also, one of the Fangraphs writers (maybe Eno?) wrote a couple articles this year arguing the claim that a pitcher should try throwing 80% breaking balls. I won’t try to synthesize the arguments or reasoning, only bringing it up because it’s definitely worth a read and relevant to this topic

ARodTheGOAT
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ARodTheGOAT

Or I guess I should say the marginal cost wouldn’t outweigh the marginal benefit, not diminishing returns outweighing marginal benefit.

Good thing my old macro professor isn’t a baseball fan