We collectively scratched our heads when the Diamondbacks traded top prospect Trevor Bauer to the Indians after the 2012 season. But after he posted a suspect 4.15 ERA at Triple-A with the Tribe and then a 5.29 ERA over four starts with the Major League club, we thought that perhaps the team didn’t act as silly as we originally thought. A turnaround at Triple-A resulted in his second chance with the big club, but a 4.25 ERA remains a mild disappointment.
Bauer’s bugaboo has always been his control. Prior to 2014, he had never posted a walk rate below 10% at any level. And in those four starts with the Indians last year, he walked 16 batters in 17 innings and posted a negative K-BB%! Another issue he had dealt with was his fastball velocity. In 2012 and 2013, he peaked at 95 mph and 96 mph, respectively, averaging just 92 mph and change. Scouting reports suggested he was capable of better than that.
Over the offseason, the Indians worked on his delivery. For GIFtastic fun, you can even check out those changes in action. Although his strikeout rate didn’t jump back to anywhere close to the marks he was posting in 2011 and 2012, all of a sudden he was displaying control he had never flashed before.
Sure, it was a relatively small sample size, but in seven starts, his walk rate dropped below 10% for the first time, to 7.7%, which is quite the impressive leap forward. And that’s carried over into the big leagues, as his walk rate is only a smidgen higher at 8.0%. And if we look at his overall strike percentage, we immediately learn what’s driving the improved walk rate. In 2012, just about 58% of his pitches were strikes, versus a league average around 64%. Last year he was even worse, throwing strikes just 56% of the time. This year, though, about 63% of his pitches have been strikes. While still slightly below the league average, it’s a significant spike.
Given the changes he made to his delivery and the progress he showed at Triple-A, it would seem reasonable to believe that the improvement in his control is real and sustainable. So that’s one piece of good news. The other? His velocity has returned. His fastball velocity has jumped over a mile per hour and now sits around 94 on average. That has likely contributed to the pitch generating swinging strikes nearly triple the rate as it did last year, and almost double what it induced in 2012.
Aside from the better fastball, his curveball has been a true swing and miss pitch, while also generating ground balls over 50% of the time. Unfortunately, the majority of his other pitches result in fly balls far too often, as he has been an extreme fly baller throughout his short career. That led to a deadly combination when paired with his poor control, but it’s not so terrible now with that improved control.
Overall, his SwStk% is still below the league average, which is rather surprising given what we thought we knew about the quality of his stuff. And of course based on his minor league strikeout rates. He’s still punching out batters at a solid clip, but that’s being driven by a better than average rate of foul strikes. Will those continue, become balls put into play or some other strike type? It’s the riskiest type of strike to rely on to prop up your strikeout rate.
Bauer has been a victim of the weak Indians defense, suffering from an inflated .331 BABIP, which has pushed his ERA above 4.00, despite a 3.86 SIERA. It hides the fact that he’s made some serious strides as a pitcher and his future looks much better than it did heading into the year. I worry about all the fly balls and still question why a 94 mph fastball isn’t inducing more swings and misses. But he has an expansive repertoire, high octane velocity, and much improved control that looks to stay. Depending on how he finishes the season, he could end up being everyone’s favorite sleeper next year.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.