Jake Bauers entered the 2019 season a kind of wide-awake sleeper to many fantasy analysts looking to target cheap value at first base or in the outfield. Per National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) average draft position (ADP) data, Bauers was drafted, on average, 230th overall, 24th among first basemen, and 66th among outfielders — effectively your last corner infielder or outfielder, or your first bench bat. You weren’t depending on him too gravely for production; the cost to acquire Bauers was typically low, making any sunk costs a bit easier to swallow.
Still, it has been disappointing to see Bauers follow up 2018’s 11-homer, 6-steal half-season with mediocrity. Yes, his rookie campaign featured a miserable .201/.316/.384 line, but it was marred by a meager .252 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a 26.8% strikeout rate (K%) that seemed far out of whack relative to his roughly league-average 11.0% swinging strike rate (SwStr%). It stood to reason, at first glance, Bauers would cash in on some positive regression to post a fairly solid slash line while posting double-digit home runs and stolen bases — and it didn’t seem altogether far-fetched to hope so.
Ultimately, it never came to fruition. In almost an identical number of plate appearances, Bauers replicated his home run tally but with a lower isolated power (.146 ISO to .183 ISO), a feeble stolen base rate (two steals on five attempts, versus six on 12 last year), and worse plate discipline despite a better whiff rate. Cleveland had enough and eventually optioned Bauers with his career line standing at 22 homers, eight steals, and a .218/.312/.381 line in 771 plate appearances.
At this point, I’m torn on how to approach Bauers in 2020 (for redraft purposes) and beyond (in keeper and dynasty leagues). The easy approach is to say, yeah, he’ll be an interesting buy-low next year. It probably goes without saying. After a miserable 2019 and his team effectively quitting on him, Bauers’ stock can hardly sink lower.
Credit where it’s due: it’s evident, on the basis of swinging strike rate alone (but also on contact rate (Contact%)), that Bauers’ plate discipline improved without the gains to show for it. I calculated expected strikeout rates for all qualified hitters in 2019 by applying the methodology outlined here. Bauers has had the worst strikeout luck of any qualified hitter in 2019:
O-Miss = (1 – Zone%) * O-Swing% * (1 – O-Contact%)
Z-Con = Zone% * Z-Swing% * Z-Contact%
Z-Miss = Zone% * Z-Swing% * (1 – Z-Contact%)
O-None = (1 – Zone%) * (1 – O-Swing%)
Z-None = Zone% * (1 – Z-Swing%)
These six columns sum to 100% for every hitter.
It’s defensible to use the same methodology to derive a deserved walk rate (adjusted r2 = 0.76), which shows how Bauers has also been pretty unlucky via walks, too:
Alas, Bauers’ plate discipline, in which he made legitimate strides in 2019, paints the portrait of a hitter whose strikeout-minus-walk rate (K-BB%) as a hitter should have been nearly 10 points better. That’s nearly 10 percentage points’ worth of plate appearances (almost 40!) with higher expected values attached to them.
What I think we, as a community, may have overlooked is lackluster batted ball quality. As a Minor Leaguer, Bauers never hit better than .279 in a full season above Single-A, routinely turning in BABIPs around the Major League average — a feat significantly less impressive on the farm. His above-average plate discipline would help any deficiencies play up, but a .150 ISO and .300 BABIP is paltry from a prospect, especially a corner infielder.
In other words, Bauers lacked batted ball efficacy, a deficiency that may have been hard to see without squinting but was very probably there. In evaluating his time with Tampa Bay and Cleveland, Statcast generally concurs, rating his expected weighted on-base average on contact (xwOBAcon) a lackluster .351, which rates 185th of 265 hitters with at least 350 batted ball events (BBEs) since the start of 2018.
Granted, Bauers was 22 at the time of his debut and is still just 23 when facing his first bout of hardship. Should Cleveland give him another chance to shine, he may catch a break in the plate discipline department and deliver strikeout and walk rates in the teens, bringing his strikeout-minus-walk differential into the single digits (as opposed 12.9% in 2018 and 17.5% in 2019). Those gains alone would be enough to push his batting average into the league-average .250 range.
Unfortunately, it seems unwise to expect superior batted ball quality from Bauers, at least until further notice. Again, he’s young with plenty of time to figure things out, but he also has a long history of modest batted ball quality. His one redeeming characteristic is his baserunning acumen, but Cleveland (or maybe Bauers himself) had no interest in taking advantage of it. (I’m inclined to place the blame on Bauers, however, given Cleveland ranks fourth in steals in Major League Baseball this year. Or, perhaps, they aren’t thrilled with his career sub-50% success rate.)
Without any substantial gains in batted ball quality but with his deserved plate discipline metrics, Bauers looks something like a .250/.350/.400 hitter next year with 18 home runs in 600 plate appearances. That’s not bad, but it would certainly be better with some improvement in contact quality and/or a reinvigoration on the basepaths. Otherwise, it’s an empty 18-5-.250 line which falls incredibly flat in the current juiced-ball context. And it’s still not even a guarantee: maybe Bauers simply underperforms his deserved strikeout and walk rates by virtue of suboptimal approaches by ball-strike count.
The FanGraphs’ scouting department grades out Bauers’ future game and raw power as 50 and 55, respectively, and it might be best not to let impatience interfere with that possible outcome. A hitter finding his power stroke at 24 might be the least surprising improvement in terms of all possible player development arcs. However, until we reach that future, in which those future grades become reality, it’s hard to bank on more.
Unless he returns in September and absolutely terrorizes opposing pitchers, Bauers will likely be an afterthought in 2020 drafts. That’s good, in theory, but there doesn’t seem to be as much upside here as previously thought, at least until that elusive future power emerges. In other words, Bauers seems like a low-cost, but also low-profit, 2020 investment.