You 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:
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