Bauer, Swisher, and a theory on baseball aesthetics

Trevor Bauer

Jon is in a bit of a writing rut, so he’s asking the WFNY gang to help him get out of it. After circulating some juicy topics around WFNY Headquarters, Craig said he was interested in talking Trevor Bauer, Nick Swisher, Travis Hafner, and what it means to like some players more than others.  So we did that. We’ve got some more of these in the hopper and we’ll try to keep the discussion going in the comments as well.

WFNY_roundtable

Craig - I obviously root for anyone wearing an Indians uniform, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Even as a young, impressionable baseball fan, I knew the dangers of standing up for Albert Belle. I cut my teeth as a co-dependent sports fan when I tried to defend Belle’s plastering of Fernando Vina.


I know better now, but as a 17-year-old, I defended that play. It’s embarrassing to me now. This current Indians team doesn’t have that kind of personality, but I don’t find all current Indians players easy to root for. Two current examples for me are Nick Swisher and Trevor Bauer.

It’s weird too because they both have value and are helping the Cleveland Indians. Bauer disappointed last season, but by all accounts worked hard to figure some things out. Swisher has disappointed in each of his two years with the Tribe as a box score contributor, but there’s little doubt that he adds value in the locker room and makes his teammates better. There’s just something about these two, between Bauer’s incoming reputation as a bit of a punk, and Swisher’s incessant frat boy “Bro” style that he is happy to portray loudly that makes them a bit difficult for me to root for.

Jon – I appreciate your bigger point about the difference between “rooting for” and “liking”.  I root for the team to do well, which means, almost by default, I root for its constituent members to do the same. But man, there are I players I have some trouble warming to.

What’s interesting to me is why I like some guys less than others. I hope it’s not personal/personality related, as that would make me a prejudicial jerk (reminder: I have not actually met any of these guys). I like to think more that there are “types” of players I find difficult to like—something a bit closer to a theory of baseball player aesthetics. What sort of ballplayer do like?

Let me talk about Bauer here first, as I think he’s ultimately the more interesting case.

If you would have asked me last year to describe my favorite sort of pitcher, it would likely have included these words, in no particular order: “young”, “cost-controlled”, “strikeouts”, “upside”.  Bauer has all of those and yet….  Well, and yet something is missing for me.  Is it that he’s just not Danny Salazar, for whom I maintain copious stashes of undeserved love? Is Bauer just a bit…cold? Maybe, but I don’t quite think so.

What Bauer lacks for me is probably best described as “efficiency”.  Consider: for his career Trevor Bauer has averaged 4.06 pitches per plate appearance.  For reference, league average is around 3.82 and Corey Kluber, one of my absolute favorites, is at 3.70 this season.

Now, you can be a very successful pitcher and be inefficient.  Strikeouts, after all, often require longer at bats than plate appearances ending with a batted ball.  But on the aggregate inefficient pitchers don’t pitch deep into games, and their games take longer to complete—both things I tend not to enjoy. Bauer has averaged more than 104 pitches per start this year, has lasted six or fewer innings in seven of his starts, and has completed seven innings only once.

Am I being nitpicky here?  Yes, I probably am. We’re lucky to have landed a pitcher with as much talent as Bauer for one year of Choo. But more interestingly, I learned that I care about pitcher efficiency in ways I didn’t know I did.

As for Nick Swisher, I too don’t much care for his over-the-top ebullience.  But I also don’t enjoy OPS’s that start with a “6” from my nominal DH. Applying a similar template to Swish as we did for Bauer, I tend not to love players who are: “on the wrong side of 30″; “making eight figures”; “defensively challenged”, or “generally declining”.  It’s not that players like this can’t be useful, either. Derek Jeter has been all of these things for 12 years and he’s been quite valuable during that time.  I just find these guys a little hard in general to get warm and fuzzy about.

Which is really a shame, because if anybody wants—NEEDS—people to feel warm and fuzzy about him, it’s Nick Swisher.

Craig - And that’s one of the major things that makes me feel good about Swisher even as I simultaneously despise “BROhio.” I don’t have to feel warm and fuzzy about him. His teammates and manager on the other hand do.

In another email you referred to a comparison of Swisher and Hafner due to cost and productivity. It’s an interesting comparison because it’s worth discussing how much of a drag a guy’s contract places on a team like the Cleveland Indians, but the intangibles that Swisher brings to the club shine above and beyond those of Travis Hafner. Don’t get me wrong, I think Tribe players had Hafner’s back and he was one of the guys in the locker room, but I don’t know that he had much in the way of contagious spirit. I always feel a little bit squirrely talking about something as nebulous and incalculable as the contagiousness of positivity and how it impacts a team performance. It gives me post-war flashbacks to arguing with Yankees fans about the intangibles of Scott Brosious back in the late 90’s. However, I think it’s instructive when comparing someone like Nick Swisher to Travis Hafner. Baseball is a chemistry game and Nick Swisher is a world class teammate if nothing else.

As for Bauer, I think you assigned some actual statistics to describe why I am not totally in love with him as a player yet. Those efficiency marks for pitchers seem to be closely aligned with the entertainment values of watching their games.

Jon – The parallels I draw between a guy like Swisher and a guy like Hafner probably have more to do with a snake-bitten fan base than any real-world similarities between the two guys.  As you point out, Hafner was a quiet leader, seemingly shy and aloof. The next time someone calls Nick Swisher shy and aloof will be the first.  The guy who does it will also get a high five, because SWISH LIKES LEARNING NEW WORDS, YO!

The reason they strike similar chords for me is more about what both represent to the fanbase, and how they’ll be perceived because of it.  Both Hafner and Swisher signed four-year deals that would’ve appeared very reasonable if they’d been able to perform in the future as they had in the past. Both were big swings for the franchise–large allocations of the budget spent on a single player arguably past his prime.  Both saw their offensive and defensive production decline precipitously in the years following their contracts.

I find it interesting, though, mostly because the sort of decline Hafner had is not supposed to be typical.  From 2004-2006 Hafner was arguably the best hitter in the American League. Then from 2008 through 2012 he was among the 12 worst.  This is not an aging “curve”; it’s an aging cliff.  And it’s supposed to be a freak occurrence.

But we’re Cleveland fans, and gosh if it doesn’t feel like it’s happening all over again.  For Nick Swisher’s entire career he’s never had an OBP below .300 or a slugging percentage below .400, and then, the year after signing a franchise record contract in Cleveland (breaking the record Hafner had set six years before), Swish is below both those figures.  His defensive versatility–once adequate in right and above average at first–seems to have disappeared entirely.  If things don’t change soon, we’ll be left with an overpriced, aging DH who can’t hit, which, on my list of aesthetically pleasing attributes exists somewhere below “Tomo Ohka”.

None of this is to say that either contract was necessarily stupid at the time, or that Shapiro is a villian or that Paul Dolan swims through piles of YOUR HARD EARNED MONEY ala Scrooge McDuck.  It’s only that, not unlike me, the Indians appear to have a weakness for a certain brand of baseball player.

  • mgbode

    Jon, what is the number of pitches/PA for Salazar? You mentioned plenty of love for him, but not for Bauer. Then, you try to pin the reasoning on inefficiency, but Danny is plenty inefficient himself.

    I have no qualms on stating that the players persona affects how much I enjoy them. Swisher’s Bro-hio act doesn’t work for me, so his struggles end up being highlighted more. However, Bauer’s anti-establishment thinking does. It is not really fair, but it is the persona that they portray (or is sometimes portrayed of them), and it is all we have to go on.

  • nj0

    Career pitchers per plate appearance
    3.97 for Salazar
    4.08 for Bauer
    Source: ESPN

    ESPN has a few stats that I can’t find anywhere else.

  • Steve

    “Swisher has disappointed in each of his two years with the Tribe as a box score contributor”

    I have no idea where this narrative came from. Swisher was a 3-4 WAR player last year.

  • nj0

    Liking/disliking a player for me is based completely on contribution divided by cost. Feel bad admitting that, but it’s where I’m at.

  • nj0

    Yeah, give Swish a break. He was pretty good last year.

  • Steve

    The truth is that we actually know so little about the vast majority of these guys. Is Swisher the frat-bro jerk you’ll find wandering W 6th, or is he a guy who, despite the big persona, prefers to hang at home and play board games with the kids? Is Bauer a punk, or just a guy who goes “hold up, maybe the perceived right way to do things (traditions that MLB has held on well past their expiration dates) isn’t actually the right way, let’s test this out”?

    I have a hard time figuring out if I’d actually like a certain player personally. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, as I still think I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to give Paul O’Neill a well-deserved punch in the face, but especially with the guys wearing Cleveland jerseys, there’s little more to the equation than “how much can this guy help us win”.

  • nj0

    re: Bauer v. Salazar

    I think part of the hesitancy to embrace Bauer is that he was a highly touted prospect who wasn’t an instant success. Couple that with his unique attitude and the narrative begins to write itself. Meanwhile, Salazar’s career has been the complete opposite: unheralded, out-of-nowhere, instant big league success.

    Humans like to create narrative. I think the story for these two resounds with us even when we don’t realize it. It’s the lazy-entitled failure and the by-the-bootstraps success. At least it was. Real life is more complicated than stories.

  • Steve

    So much of this.

  • mgbode

    thanks. was wondering where that stat came from.

  • WFNYJon

    I’d also suggest that Salazar was developed internally, so he always felt a bit more like “ours” than Bauer ever did.

    Again, I’m not claiming my love for Salazar is necessarily rational–I feel like I even explicitly pointed out that it’s not. This is just an exploration about why I feel some of things I do.

  • WFNYJon

    See my comment below. Agree on most of what you say here all the same.

  • nj0

    I had never heard much about Swisher when he was with the Yankees. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Sure seems to me that the Indians marketing department has doubled down on his Ohio connection and frat boy persona.

    Agree on all counts. Peter Gammons’ tweet from a few days ago:
    Trevor Bauer’s continued growth testament to a great manager(T.
    Francona) and pitching coach(Mickey Callaway) understanding the
    person…

    Some guys need to be shown, not just told.

  • Steve

    I’d guess the internal thing matters too, but the vast majority of the fanbase didn’t know who Salazar was going into the 2013 season, and even the guys who spent a lot of time studying the farm system let out a collective “Huh?” when he was added to the 40 man roster after 2011.

  • Steve

    The Yankees PR does an excellent job of Jeter-ing a lot of guys on their team. Unless of course, they need to get out of the Rodriguez contract. They can sell tickets and ads on the YES network with the most boring and bland ballplayers. The Indians, on the other hand, need to throw a few hail marys to sell tickets. I think that’s where the difference lies.

  • woofersus

    The built-up expectations from the FA process made people think they were getting something more than they were. It was the richest contract in Indians history, after all. In fairness, last year was a down year for him by most measures, but the mismanagement of expectations soured more people on him than his stats did.

  • WFNYJon

    I’ll just speak for myself here (which may not be useful to your argument since I knew who he was), but there’s something about the drafted/developed internally thing that–even when I don’t know they guy–ends up being appealing to me.

    I’d even go so far as to add it to the aesthetics list. I prefer homegrown players, irrational though it may be.

  • Steve

    What expectation did the FO provide? What I see more of is people who don’t understand that post 2010 is a completely different run environment, both across the league and specifically in Progressive, from the 90s, which may be the last time they went to the park.

  • woofersus

    And just for the sake of pointing out their alternating good/bad years, for 2014 Salazar is at 4.07, while Bauer is at 4.00. Bauer is also averaging more pitches per start than Salazar, so in total it would be tough to say Bauer has been any more drain on the bullpen than Salazar.

  • tsm

    I completely fail to understand the reluctance to embrace Swisher’s persona. This is completely separate from his production, which has been poor. Signing him was a mistake. With that out of the way, many of you whose comments I truly enjoy and respect for the knowledge they represent, seem to be bothered by him personally. I shudder what you all would think of the great Ernie Banks – “let’s play two” who was a very positive person. Perhaps Swisher is just trying to lighten the mood of a long, pressure filled season and make the game fun – like we all did in little league. I prefer his style to the Albert Belle’s, Chris Perez’ etc. Not everyone can be as peaceful and quiet at Brantley.

  • mgbode

    just being honest. I love Brantley and Kluber for the production that they give and it adds a boost to it that they are such level-headed guys while doing it.

    there are plenty of others who love the over-the-top nature of Swisher as can be seen by typing “Brohio” into youtube.

    it’s all personal preference, but I do think it is important to note why we might prefer some players. I am predisposed to not liking Swisher, so if I am being unfair to him in a thread, feel free to call me out on it. I won’t mind and it’s a good way to keep things even.

    For instance, Steve & myself both like Bauer more than most. NJ0 likes Carrasco. Et cetera.

  • woofersus

    The problem is that these perceptions are so often based not on the aesthetics of a player’s game or persona, but based on the emotions connected to your experience with them. In both the cases of Swisher and Bauer, their early performances with the team were disappointing, and that emotional dissonance gets attached to whatever outward sign we can find that might explain what’s wrong with them. Swisher actually ended up third on the team last year in OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+ behind Kipnis and Santana. (who was first in all four and still managed to be among the maligned last year) Bauer came in and struggled (at the very young age of 22) and people decided that all the negative things the press said about him must be true, even though the vast majority of them were speculating. Heck, the worst concrete thing that anybody could throw at him was shaking off a sign in his first big league start. The gall! Still, those early experiences shaped perceptions of him. Salazar impressed right away, so we subconsciously see him as somebody with more promise.

  • Laura

    I agree. I’m curious to see other people weigh in on the homegrown thing. I would guess the nature of a small market team like the Tribe lends itself to a fanbase that prefers homegrown players. I’m sure there’s a percentage of fans in every city that love a homegrown player but I can’t see it meaning as much to the fanbase of a team like the Yankees.

  • nj0

    I’m not sure I like Carrasco. I just think (hope is more like it) he has the tools to be a better starting pitcher than House or Tomlin.

    I was agnostic towards Swisher’s rah-rah routine until he started stinking up the joint this year. Then it was just insult to injury. It’s not particularly endearing or entertaining. Banks’ enthusiasm is another animal completely. Swisher’s routine reminds me too much of the worse kind of frat lunkheads and those guys are high on my list of “people to avoid like the plague”.

  • woofersus

    You’re not wrong about general expectations of an offensive contributor. And I don’t necessarily think the FO did anything wrong either, but he was the big FA “get” and the centerpiece of marketing campaigns. Perhaps “mismanagement” is a poor choice of words. It was a confluence of factors, from the excitement of signing him, the promotional campaigns, the size of the contract, the larger than life personality, and the general lack of understanding from the casual fan. People pulled up a chair expecting to see the second coming of some of the guys who were signed away from us a decade ago, and instead they found out what $13M/yr gets you in FA in 2013, which is a solid contributor and nothing more.

  • nj0

    The worst thing is his rapping. Ugh. But play well and I’ll let you scat.

  • Laura

    You pretty much nailed exactly what I was getting ready to say about Swisher.

  • mgbode
  • nj0

    I don’t think I care so much about homegrown talent. I get why people like it. In a way, those players are also a testament to your front office’s acumen. (See, they’re not idiot!)

    That said, I do think I have a prejudice against high-priced free agents, but I’m not sure if that’s a real prejudice or just a reflection on Cleveland’s poor track record with those types of players. If we signed someone worth a darn, I might not feel the same way.

    See, and now you’ve got me thinking about LeCharles Bentley, Nick Swisher, Paul Kruger…. who was our last worthwhile big free agent signing? Well, before Lebron.

  • mgbode

    Eric Steinbach
    (or hopefully Donte Whitner & Karlos Dansby)

  • mgbode

    I get the appeal, but honestly, most of my favorite players have ended up being young guys we traded to acquire going all the way back to the Baerga/Alomar trade.

  • nj0

    Seven years past….

  • Petefranklin

    I love the idea of Bauer shoving it to the establishment. I love it when we take someone who was given up on by another organization and are rewarded. I could care less if the Indians develop someone because, well, usually they suck. C.C. is the only pitcher off the top of my head that was homegrown and a #1 starting pitcher. In fact Bauer is the only S.P. in the whole organization that I trust to be a #1 besides Kluber. If Salazar somehow gets his velocity back he might be able to be the #3 guy with only 2 pitches.

  • Petefranklin

    Carrasco has impressed out of the pen, why not leave him there? You would probably get the same amount of iP from him as a reliever over starting.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    what is the prob with the belle-vina dealio?

    17 yr old craig was on mark.

  • Steve

    What is the problem with the Belle-Vina takedown? Seriously? Just because a sport has contact doesn’t mean that recreation of NFL players trying to take each other’s heads off is within the rules. Belle was suspended and fined for his actions.

    “only thing i didn’t like about him was his mercenary heel-turn with the whitesox”

    Ahh, here we go. Guys who help my team are the good guys. Guys who help the other team are the jerks. This idea of players who don’t do what we hope when making decisions about their well-being being called mercenaries and heels is kind of sickening.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    Agree with all of this. Though if we are handing out face punches, my is always and forever reserved for AJ Pierzynski.

  • nj0

    Albert would have had a HOF case if his hips would have allowed it. Nothing MORE I would have loved to see because I’m 99% sure the BBWAA would not have allowed him in simply out of spite.

  • nj0

    Because our starters sucks. That’s it. He’s way more valuable as a mediocre starter than a good reliever. Not sure if the equal IPs comment is a joke or serious. I’m going joke.

  • Harv 21

    It’s just entertainment. I don’t feel a bit bad for liking a guy who can’t play or hating one with an excellent WAR. They are court jesters for our pleasure. It’s nuts to overthink this.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki
  • Jared in LA

    I loved it. Vina went directly into the basepath in front of him and held his glove high and tight up to his neck, he was almost anticipating it. Then again, they outlaw running over the catcher now. Then again, I felt this was the same type of play, Vina was expecting full contact and Belle delivered it right where his glove and the ball were, which happen to be at his neck/head. Listen, it was excessively physical and dangerous, but if Vina were to tag him low and Belle went up around the head, WOW. But that didn’t happen.

  • Steve

    Thanks for feeling entitled enough to share your opinion with the class, but not have to defend it against a rebuttal.

  • nj0

    Eh, I get that. I just want us to win. And I admit I like players who make that possible. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy some jesting every now and then.

  • Steve

    I don’t think anyone would ever want you to feel bad about liking an athlete or not (except the Jeter superfan club), but I think it’s worth noting that these are actual human beings, with multiple layers and emotions out there entertaining us. We (as in sports fans in general, and not anyone specific) seem to judge them mighty quickly based on pretty superficial reasons.

  • Petefranklin

    Uh, he’s only proven to be a good starter the first time through the lineup. 5 inning max guy. Hopefully he improves enough to eat some innings up as a starter somewhere down the line…as an Indian.

  • mgbode

    I didn’t mind his hips acting up on him mostly because those were the years that he was in a CWS uniform.

  • mgbode

    can we line him up right next to Ozzie Guillen and let me throw a roundhouse?

  • ron

    to this day I still like belle/vina play- vina did it the same exact thing earlier in the game and belle just took the tag and went back to the dugout. Belle did exactly what was needed on the second play; Just like a pitcher throwing at a batter, not right in a vacuum, but sometimes a necessary evil of the game

  • TNB

    Coming a little late to the party, but Im hopping aboard the Defend Swisher train.

    Siwsher is/was the most consistent power hitter in the majors, and yes we did overpay him. However, his production last year was consistent with his career numbers, and when the criticism of Swish arrives, I often think about David Ortiz, who it 330 and had 50 homers and then the next 2 seasons posted a sub2 and then sub1 WAR, he struggled to get on base and his stats were carried by still decent slugging numbers in Fenway, but he was making more than Swish was at the time too. (2008/09).

    Im still pretty willing to wait with Swish, and I love his attitude of wanting to be involved with the fans, because it was basically he and Francona that symbolized the new look Tribe and made what was looking like another average ‘maybe’ next few years into an exciting ‘look at us’ stage.

  • Petefranklin

    Looks like you are correct sir.