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Prospect Retrospective: Trevor Bauer

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The Indians will send right-hander Trevor Bauer to the mound tonight against the Yankees. Here’s a look at his career.

Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

Tonight the Cleveland Indians will send right-hander Trevor Bauer to the mound against the New York Yankees and Sonny Gray. Here’s a look at his background as a prospect and where his career currently stands.

Bauer was a starting pitcher at UCLA from 2009 to 2011 where he combined with teammate Gerrit Cole to make a devastating punch at the top of the Bruins rotation. Bauer was especially impressive in 2011, posting a 1.25 ERA in 137 innings with a 203/36 K/BB.

Cole went first-overall in the ‘11 draft to the Pirates, while Bauer “fell” to third overall and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bauer posted a 5.96 ERA in 26 innings after signing between High-A and Double-A, albeit with a 43/13 K/BB. He had one bad start that elevated his ERA but was otherwise dominant.

I wrote this glowing report for 2012:

Trevor Bauer out-pitched teammate Gerrit Cole at UCLA last year. Cole still went earlier in the draft, first-overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates, while Bauer went third-overall to Arizona. Some people felt Bauer was the superior talent; at least he is the superior pitcher currently, and personally I would have taken Bauer. Almost unhittable in college, Bauer peaks his fastball at 95-96 MPH but even when working at 91-94 he is still overpowering. He has a truly outstanding curveball, a very good changeup, and will also use a solid slider and split-finger pitch. He throws strikes, shows both command and control, and has held up without problems under a heavy college workload. Bauer is an excellent overall athlete and uses a long-toss regimen to keep himself in shape. He also has a highly-professional approach to his craft, a superior work ethic, and is far beyond many of his peers intellectually. He reminds scouts of Tim Lincecum, and in my opinion Bauer is fully capable of putting up similar numbers. Don’t worry about his numbers at Mobile: he pitched great in three of his four starts, and his outstanding K/IP ratio is the thing to pay attention to. He won’t need long in the minors. Grade A.

2012 was weird. He was quite good in the minors, posting a 2.42 ERA in 130 innings with a 157/61 K/BB, and two-thirds of his innings were with Triple-A Reno, a tough environment for any pitcher. He was promoted to the majors and made four starts with command problems, 6.06 ERA, 17/13 K/BB in 16 innings.

On paper that wasn’t a hopeless debut due to the strikeouts but the Diamondbacks pulled the plug quickly, trading him to the Indians in December amidst talk that Bauer was uncoachable and a clubhouse problem.

The comment for 2013:

So, why did the Diamondbacks trade Trevor Bauer to the Indians? It seems pretty weird that a team would give up on a guy like Bauer so quickly. He’s got a low-to-mid-90s fastball. His curveball is excellent, and he also has a solid slider, splitter, and changeup. He’s a great athlete, is one of the hardest workers in baseball, and is also one of the most intelligent players in the game. Statistically, his K/IP and H/IP marks are outstanding, reflecting the quality of his stuff. He needs to get the walks down and he works too high in the strike zone sometimes, but those seem like relatively minor blemishes in his profile and are things that should improve in time. I don’t think anyone can conclude that Bauer is a bust based on four major league starts, and he still looks like a future number one or two starter to me.

Now, all that was the typical report, but then I added this bit of commentary:

As for why he was traded, it is very clear that Bauer and Arizona management did not get along. Trevor is very bright but also brash and self-confident. The Diamondbacks wanted Bauer to make some alterations in his intense training regimen. They had suggestions about pitch sequencing and location that he wasn’t receptive to, preferring to stick with his own ideas. That’s one thing if you’re a proven 30-year-old veteran, but that attitude from some punk kid fresh out of college is bound to annoy managers, coaches, and teammates. Communications broke down quickly, there were tensions in the clubhouse, and it was obvious the front office was looking for a way out of the situation.

The thing that seems weird to me: the Diamondbacks knew what Bauer’s personality was like when they drafted him. Bright, immensely talented, hardworking, self-confident 21-year-olds think they know everything and frequently do not listen to older folks even when they need to and should. The smarter ones figure out the need to listen pretty quickly if their approach stops working. Whatever you think about Bauer, you have to admit that he’s bright, immensely talented, and works hard. But he is the type of thinker who needs empirical evidence to change his mind about something. And 16 innings wasn’t enough evidence.

The Indians know this. They think they can work with him and are betting that he’ll figure out that he needs to change things (if it turns out he does) once there is more evidence. I think it is a good gamble to take, and they are in a better position to take it than Arizona was. The Dbacks are trying to win now, while the Indians are in rebuilding mode. They can afford to let Bauer do things the way he wants, at least for a while. If his approach works, great! You have yourself an ace. If he’s 2-6 with a 5.97 ERA in his first 10 starts, then you can take him aside and show him the evidence that he needs to make changes, and hopefully by that point he’ll be wise enough and humbled enough to listen.

That sort of “patience-with-the-rookie” strategy is a lot harder to pull off if you’re in a pennant race. Ultimately, I don’t blame Arizona for trading him. Sometimes what looks like a great relationship in the beginning just doesn’t work. I think acquiring Bauer has a good chance to be a real coup for Cleveland, and I still see him as a top prospect. I’m dinging his rating just a tad to Grade A-, due to the need to sharpen his command, but he’s still an elite talent.

2013 was not a good year. He posted a 4.15 ERA in 121 inning in Triple-A with a 107/73 K/BB; his walks were up and his strikeouts were down. He made four starts with the Indians and continued to struggle with his control, 5.29 in 17 innings with a poor 11/16 K/BB.

At this point the skeptics were gloating. The comment for 2014:

Trevor Bauer had a disappointing 2013 season, causing Diamondbacks partisans to say “I told you so.” His velocity was down some and he had significant command problems at times in Triple-A and the majors. As i write this in spring training, he has his mid-90s fastball (which was missing much of last year) back in gear, his curveball and changeup look strong, and his command has been much better. So, what gives? He worked all winter to rework his mechanics and, so far, the results are excellent. I’m wary enough of small sample sizes to give him a Grade B+, but he is still an elite pitching prospect and could still turn into an ace.

Bauer finally locked down the rotation spot in 2014 and has slowly but steadily improved. This is tracked well by his fWAR values: 1.4 in 2014, 1.8 in 2015, 2.7 in 2016, and 3.2 in 2017.

Overall he’s at 8.8 fWAR in his career, holding a 4.36 ERA in 729 innings with a 705/298 K/BB, 47-41 record.

To my mind, it is still uncertain exactly what Bauer will become. He still gets blown up often enough to keep his ERA elevated, but when he’s right he pitches like the true ace I thought he would be, particularly down the stretch this year when he went 7-1, 2.89 in his last 10 starts with a 63/16 K/BB.

At Fangraphs, Travis Sawchik wrote this article in early September, looking at Bauer’s recent success and wondering if he “pitches better when angry.”

I still find Bauer to be one of the most fascinating players in baseball. Does his second-half dominance in 2017 auger a true breakthrough in ‘18? My guess is yes.