August 15, 2014

Trevor Bauer’s Troubles

Trevor BauerYou can forgive me for missing Trevor Bauer’s most recent start.  I left work a little after 5:00 PM on Friday, and by the time I was home Bauer’s day was done and the longest doubleheader in the history of Major League Baseball (sans extra innings) was underway.

Of course, we shouldn’t mistake the brevity of Bauer’s outing for effectiveness.  He pitched two-thirds of an inning, allowed six hits, five runs, two home runs, one walk and one hit batsman while striking out no one.  He faced 10 batters and threw 49 pitches before being removed, nearly 40 minutes after his first pitch.  In a move that seems to me odder with each passing day, Bauer eschewed his windup for the start, choosing to throw only from the stretch.  From postgame interviews, it seems that Francona had not been entirely aware that this was going to happen.  The whole thing was as train-wrecky as things like this get, at least in games the team ends up actually winning.

Bauer came to Cleveland as part of the deal that sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds last winter.  It would be fair to say that, for a system as starved for starting pitching prospects as Cleveland’s, Bauer was the biggest part of the deal—no disrespect to Drew Stubbs.  The Indians desperately need him to become a meaningful part of their future rotation, and that last start wasn’t such a great sign.

To be sure, he’s got some decent history on his side.  Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks after dominating his junior season at UCLA.  In his three college seasons, Bauer went 34-8 with a 2.36 ERA and 460 strikeouts in 373.1 innings pitched (11.1 K/9).  He raced through the minors, starting 29 games at three different levels over 2011 and 2012.  For his MiLB career he’s 16-6 with a 3.33 ERA and 267 strikeouts in 221.1 innings pitched (10.9 K/9).  Those are some pretty excellent numbers, especially for a guy who hasn’t played a full season at 22 years old yet.  Oh, and he can also touch 98 with his fastball, which is roundly considered his second best pitch, behind a knee-buckling 12-6 curveball.

None of that’s not to say there haven’t been a few warning signs accompanying Bauer’s performance to date.  Looking a bit closer at Bauer’s pro career, we see a conspicuous lack of command, and it’s moving in the wrong direction:

LEVEL K/9 BB/9 K/BB
A 17.0 4.0 4.25
AA 11.9 4.7 2.53
AAA 10.0 4.3 2.31
MLB 7.6 7.8 0.97

 

It’s pretty easy to look at that progression—from high A all the way to the majors—and get out our jump-to-conclusions mat.  When Bauer was facing lesser competition he was able to induce more strikeouts (and limit walks) because hitters couldn’t lay off his pitches out of the zone.  But as he moved up the system, the strikezone gets a little tighter and the hitters have a bit more plate discipline and all of a sudden he’s walking more guys than he’s striking out at the Big League level.

But even ignoring his MLB numbers for the time being, there’s still some cause for concern there.  That AAA strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.3 isn’t very good, nor is the 2.5 he posted in AA.  If—and that’s a big, giant ‘if’—Bauer could replicate a 2.3 K/BB ratio in the Majors, it would make him a perfectly average pitcher, somewhere in the neighborhood of Jose Quintana and Jerome Williams.  That’s assuming he can carry over his AAA numbers to the big leagues, which almost never happens.  Just ask David Huff and Jeremy Sowers.

The point here isn’t that Bauer is destined for failure; rather it’s that he has never really demonstrated an ability to pitch efficiently within the strikezone, and that has to change.  His swing-and-miss ability has always masked his relatively stand-offish relationship with throwing strikes.  And now that opposing batters are learning to lay off his nasty pitches out of the zone, he’s (hopefully) learning that he must throw more strikes if he hopes to find any success at this level.  That is, if he’s amenable to learning lessons.  And despite occasionally giving us some reason to think he’s a bit set in his ways, I believe he wants to learn and get better.  He certainly has the skills to improve—at this point it’s a matter of development and work.  There aren’t sure things when it comes to pitching prospects, but if you had to bet on a kid turning it around, you’d like to bet on someone with Bauer’s raw potential.

In a futile attempt to make myself feel a better after Bauer’s implosion Friday night, I went digging for some consolation.  Maybe Justin Verlander struggled with control in the minors and only figured it out years later? Nope—he had a 5+ K/BB upon his call up.  What about Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens?  Relative studs, both, and from early in their pro careers.

I was bereft.  Who could I use as an example to make me feel better about Bauer’s future?  Who had gone from having relatively mediocre command to downright nasty dominance?  Hasn’t anybody in the history of baseball developed a sense command after some initial struggles?

And then it hit me: how could I forget?

Trevor Bauer’s MiLB K/BB ratio is 2.45.

Cliff Lee’s is 2.43.

Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Great stuff, Jon. Especially loved this: “His swing-and-miss ability has always masked his relatively stand-offish relationship with throwing strikes.”

    He’s a very smart kid. Lets hope this manifests into improvement with regard to location et al.

  • humboldt

    Scott, you may be right that he’s smart, but the media narrative about him being a prodigy is potentially destructive to his development as it justifies all manner of eccentricities.

    This isn’t Mozart composing brilliant sonatas at age 6 – there are certain conventions in baseball (starters pitching out of the stretch, for instance) that exist because they are objectively the correct practice. Other players – who aren’t granted the turgid “prodigy” storylines – adhere to these conventions because they ensure the highest chances for success, and have done so for over a century.

  • Steve

    Quintana and Williams haven’t been “perfectly average” pitchers this year. The average SP has an ERA+ of 96, Quintana is at 110, Williams at 120. Both guys are pitching much better than average.

    For the other comparables, Verlander pitched in AA at 22, while Bauer did at 20/21. I’m not sure you’ll find any pitchers who can compare favorably with Clemens and Maddux, even if you look at other HoF pitchers. But if you want the poster boy for having great stuff early but little command – Randy Johnson. Sub 2 k/bb in the minors, and through age 28 of his major league career.

    My concern from his last outing wasn’t his control ( at least until the very end when he hit Flowers than walked De Aza on four straight). I think the White Sox hit some pitches that were located pretty well, included some off the plate. My problem was one swinging strike in 49 pitches. The White Sox aren’t notorious hackers, but at 12th in MLB in swinging strike %, do swing and miss quite a bit. Bauer has to be able to generate swings and misses, and he didn’t, and in his, albeit short, time up in the majors is currently last on the roster with a 5.4% swinging strike rate, which would only beat out one qualified pitcher in the majors. He is not blowing guys away, nor fooling anyone.

  • Steve

    The “pitching from the stretch” issue is only an issue because it didn’t work. If Kluber had done it in one of his spot starts, it would have been treated as a guy just going with whats comfortable for him. Maybe Bauer has to recognize he’s going to be over-scrutinized.

    And I think we can present the awareness of the coaching staff a bit more fairly. Francona may not have known, but Callaway knew, and the AAA pitching coach had said that Bauer was uncomfortable with his delivery and the two had discussed pitching from the stretch to simplify things. It seems that Francona didn’t know because he doesn’t want to get involved with in-game pitching tactics, and not because Bauer went rogue.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I still miss Cliff Lee. :-(

  • gct

    Why all pitchers don’t pitch from the stretch exclusively is beyond me. No data anywhere (to my knowledge) suggests that the windup has any advantage whatsoever, perhaps aside from the psychological (having a weird or long windup makes hitters annoyed, etc).

  • Harv 21

    Two quick things:

    - K/9 = 17.0 … how is this possible? This means at single-A he averaged (averaged!) 2 strike outs per inning?

    - “And despite occasionally giving us some reason to think he’s a bit set in his ways, I believe he wants to learn and get better.”

    I think you have it wrong here, Jon. He’s not set at all. What he appears to have is an uber-developed anti-authority streak, He doesn’t have to listen to everybody, but it appears he relishes not listening to anybody. Major experimentation when the club brings you up for a special start and asks you to eat innings smacks more of adolescent boundary testing than some restless search for improvement. Francona’s early statements about him seemed designed to convince him this org is on his side. Now Francona better move toward “your ticket to the bigs is making your stuff really work at AAA, whether its using your method or ours. “

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Orioles traded for Feldman from the Cubs let the arms race begin!

  • woofersus

    Yeah, I thought that on this particular occasion his stuff just wasn’t that good. His velocity was down, his curve didn’t have that Paul Shuey-esque movement, and his slider looked like a weak cutter. On his two previous starts I thought his stuff looked pretty great, except he couldn’t establish his fastball for strikes and induce swings at bad pitches. (lots of very good pitchers spend time outside the strike zone – they’re all strikes when the guy swings)
    Bauer has had an incredibly inconsistent year in Columbus. He’s gone several outings and been uhittable, followed by a couple of outings where he gets roughed up and looks downright pedestrian. I think that for whatever reason he is really a little lost in his mechanics and is searching for repeatability. Given his youth and lack of professional experience I’m still optimistic he’ll get it figured out. I think the best advice his coaches can give him is to stop tinkering constantly and dance with the one that brought him. He needs to stop letting a bad outing make him rethink how he throws the baseball.

  • jmgatskiejr

    Cliff Lee never risked his bullpen in game 1 of a DH with a stunt like that either. Bauer also is a small framed righty who doesn’t hit 98 anymore while Lee is a lefty who has always cared been tenacious about winning above all. He certainly would never have decided to “unlearn 10 years” of muscle memory right before spring training without consulting the coaching staff.
    Bauer receives too many mulligans for his behavior and lack of respect for the impact his decisions have on his teammates and coaches.
    The Tribe has not done him any favors by giving him spot starts despite his faults but injuries and hope forced their hand. Now its time to see if Salazar and, or House are ready when the next turn comes up.

  • woofersus

    A couple of weeks ago on an article by Jacob I brought up Lee as an example as well. If you look not only at his K/BB ratio, but his BB/9, you can see his control dramatically improved over the course of his career even as his SO numbers fell off a bit. In fact, his K/BB didn’t exceed 2.22 until 2008, when he was 29. Of course we know in 2008 his K/BB jumped to 5 and he won the Cy young award, which is why we couldn’t keep him. In 2010 it was 10.28 (!!!) and his BB/9 had fallen from 7.0 when he was 23 to 0.8 at the age of 31. (and 0.7 the next year)

    Here are some other examples for you though:

    CC Sabathia. You can’t compare their minor league careers directly because Sabathia skipped AAA, but Bauer’s K/BB at both A+ and AA are quite a bit better than CC’s, and in the first 5 years of Sabathia’s major league career his combined K/BB was 1.99. His BB/9 started out at 4.7 and declined steadily through that time until it was 2.8 at the age of 24 in his 5th season and it’s only been that high one time since.

    Randy Johnson: The Big Unit always had pretty good strikeout numbers, but he had even worse control than Bauer. Through his minor league career (prior to various rehab stints later in his career) his K/BB PEAKED at 1.89. The most entertaining set of numbers are at AA, where he struck out 10.5 batters per 9 innings while walking 8.2. He was also giving up 6.4 hits per 9 and had a WHIP of over 1.6. His ERA? 3.73. Excluding a couple of spot starts he made in 1988 after a partial year at AAA his major league career started with much of the same. In his first 4 full seasons in the majors his K/BB never exceeded 1.67 and his BB/9 was never below 5.4. When he made his first all star team his K/BB was 1.62. It wasn’t until he was 29 that his BB/9 dropped substantially to 3.5 and he came in second in Cy Young voting. His control would improve even more through his early 30′s much like Lee’s has, and he would be dominant for the next decade and a half.

    Nolan Ryan: This one is near and dear to my heart, because I was sort of named after him. My dad watched Ryan pitch in AA (Williamsport, VA) when he was 13 (my dad, not Ryan) and became a fan of the way he got strikeouts based on a hitter’s fear of standing in the box. What kid doesn’t like intimidation factor? Anyway, fast forward to 1979 and Ryan is already a 5 time all star by the time I was born in mid July and my parents were debating two names to give me. Ryan lost out and became my middle name, but the spelling was an homage to my dad’s favorite player. Who knew he would still be throwing no hitters when I would be old enough to appreciate it? Anyway, Ryan’s K/BB ratio was never that great, but it started out horrible and improved to mediocre through his 30′s. (averaged 1.43 through his first 4 seasons and 2.50 from age 33-44) More importantly, his BB/9 averaged 5.6 in his first decade, (including 6.9 when he was 24) and 3.8 for his last.

    I’m sure there are others, but this is what I found in about 20 minutes of searching. The point is pitchers do gain better control over time, and Bauer is only 22, which is well before any of the above examples started to get it together. I’m sure there are also guys with great stuff who never did get their walks down or learn to work major league hitters in an effective way, but it’s clearly way too early to tell.

  • woofersus

    Are you suggesting Bauer has made various tweaks because he doesn’t care if he wins? That his pitching out of the stretch was some sort of defiant middle finger to the Indians? Because that’s ridiculous. Whether or not he’s being stubborn is besides the point. What he wants is to pitch well and win. He hasn’t shown any reason to believe anything else.

    Every pitcher is working on stuff in spring training. The coaches said as much in blowing off media questions about Bauer’s comments on changing his delivery. What bad behavior has he exhibited other than having an inconsistent 3rd year of professional ball? It’s not his fault most guys his age are doing all this under the radar in A+ or AA. He’s had brilliant outings in Columbus this year as well as some horrible ones. Clearly adjustments do need to be made.

    And for the record, Cliff Lee did have an outing that bad. A quick flip through his game logs reveals that in July of 2004 start he lasted 0.2 innings while giving up 6 runs.

  • woofersus

    “- K/9 = 17.0 … how is this possible? This means at single-A he averaged (averaged!) 2 strike outs per inning?”

    Yep. He only pitched 9 innings at A+. He gave up 3 runs on 7 hits, walked 4, and struck out 17. He was then moved to AA. He only pitched 16.2 more innings that year, and while he got knocked around a bit that fall he still struck out 26 in those innings for his 14 k/9 average.

  • woofersus

    If I could up-vote this a dozen times I would. He did not go rogue. He has not shown to not care about the team. He has not alienated anybody. He’s a 22 year old struggling with his mechanics. It happens.

    When we made the trade we scoffed at the Diamondbacks for giving up on a top prospect at the age of 21 because he likes the long toss and shook off his veteran catcher before struggling at the major league level. Then after two somewhat strenuous but ultimately successful starts (people were calling for him to replace Jiminez and Kazmir a month ago) he has an outing blow up and it’s all “he’s entitled” and uncoachable” and “he doesn’t care about the team” and “the media narrative justifies his eccentricities” and all manner of travailing. We all thought we were sooooo smart, and now what?

    Good grief people, he’s only 25-ish months into his professional career and 22 years old. He’s only in AAA and making spot starts here in Cleveland because he dominated A+ an AA batters. He’s been inconsistent this year, but not bad all the time. He’s been terrific sometimes. Why must there be all manner of assumptions about there being some sort of fatal flaw in his personality? Can’t he just be young and developing?

  • Steve

    “What he appears to have is an uber-developed anti-authority streak, He doesn’t have to listen to everybody, but it appears he relishes not listening to anybody. Major experimentation when the club brings you up for a special start and asks you to eat innings smacks more of adolescent boundary testing than some restless search for improvement.

    You have no idea what you’re talking about, and you aren’t even bothering to educate yourself on what actually happened. But at least you got a good rant. Sit the next round out champ, collect yourself, and take a breather before you get back in the game.

  • Steve

    “Lee is a lefty who has always cared been tenacious about winning above all”

    Except when he pouted down the stretch in 2007.

  • Harv 21

    kind of harsh, even if true. In fairness, I do educate myself, to the extent possible given my obvious limitations. But this much I know with certainty: the type of condescending tone in your comments has led me, and many like me, to decide to not attend Indians games in person the last few years.

  • Kildawg

    Don’t forget that Bauer was thrown out of his regular routine of starts in order to make the spot start in Chicago. I think he just needs to focus on making sure his mechanics are where they need to be and locating pitches better. Next year should be easier for him to stay in AAA due to Tomlin returning from Tommy John, plus the Ubaldo option if the Indians are that desperate.

  • jmgatskiejr

    No, I’m saying that Bauer operates on his own plan without consulting the coaching staff about wholesale changes to the performance of the athlete they traded for and are expecting when they put him in a game that has real consequences, both in the standings and financially.
    It’s not defiance but it is the arrogance of a very bright young man who believes his ideas are the only correct ones.

  • jmgatskiejr

    Touche.

  • Steve

    If you want to miss out on a first place team because you don’t like being called out on your BS, then you’re the only one losing in this scenario.

  • Harv 21

    Oh no, Steve, not the way I see it. The Cheap Dolans lose when I don’t show because of your ad hominem attacks. I still get the tribe, every game in beautiful HD. You can help the team you so stridently defend: just taste your words before you type them.

  • Steve

    The only ad hominem attacks here are yours against Bauer. But go ahead and keep being pissy that you got called out, that seems to be keeping you happy.