As you've probably heard by now, the Indians have sent Trevor Bauer to the bullpen, with Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin both named to the starting rotation, where they'll join Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. The thinking all spring has been that Anderson and Tomlin (and T.J. House) were fighting for one spot, but Bauer's spot was not as secure as many of us thought (and thought in large part because that's what the team was saying). If it had been, he'd still be in the rotation, because he certainly didn't pitch his way out of it these last few weeks. In 20 Cactus League innings, Bauer has 19 strikeouts and only 4 walks, and he's got a 2.25 ERA. He's pitched better than Anderson or Tomlin, leading me to wonder what the impetus for this decision was.
Terry Francona says he felt Anderson did too much last year to be sent to the minors: "Sending Cody Anderson to Triple-A, I don't think any of us thought that was the right thing to do. This kid came up last year and right smack in the middle of the season, not only managed to survive, but he helped us win." Francona also said Tomlin's experience pitching out of the bullpen makes him a better fit for the #5 spot in the rotation, because during April the #5 guy might only start three games, with either some relief work or long breaks between outings along the way.
It's true that Anderson pitched well last season, but it's also true that he did that with a strikeout rate of just 4.3 per 9 innings. In the last five years only one other pitcher has thrown as many innings as Anderson did, with such a low strikeout rate and ERA+ better than 94. Point being, he's likely headed for some ugly regression to the mean unless he can improve his peripherals*. And if Tomlin's bullpen experience was a factor, simply putting him in the bullpen to start the year, with Bauer in the rotation, makes more sense to me, especially since everyone seems to expect Bauer to start again: Says team president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, "We still expect him to make a meaningful number of starts for us this year. When that happens, we're not exactly sure..."
*Anderson's K/9 in spring training is 7.5, and following an enhanced offseason workout regimen, his velocity has jumped 3 or 4 MPH. The front office and coaching staff may believe his peripherals will in fact be much improved.
Bauer's only public words since the news was announced was to ask about mobius action cameras on Twitter. It's easy to imagine him fuming, because without getting into whether it's deserved, he has a reputation for handling criticism poorly. Bauer works hard, and to me he often seems frustrated that the results doesn't match the effort. Earlier this spring he told reporters, "I don't know what kind of pitcher I want to be anymore. I just want to throw hard." The bullpen is a better place for that sort of attitude than the rotation, because you don't have to hold much back if you're only going an inning or two.
I haven't been as optimistic about Bauer as some Tribe fans have, but I also don't feel ready to cut the cord. Bauer's overall line from last season (fewer than six innings a start, a league-leading 79 walks, and ERA+ of 94) says "#5 starter," and if that's all he can be, then giving Anderson a chance to be something more makes sense, but the way Bauer reached those numbers leaves me intrigued, because in individuals games, Bauer rarely looked like a #5 starter. He tended to look like a #2 starter or a guy who shouldn't be pitching at all.
Bauer had a game score of 70 or better eight times last season, tying him for 9th in the American League, and putting him only one behind Kluber and Carrasco for the team lead. (Salazar had four such games.) At the same time, Bauer also had a game score lower than 30 seven times last season, tying him for 3rd in the AL. (No one else on the team had more than four such games.)
No other pitcher in baseball had 7+ games of both those types last season. In fact, no other pitcher has had 7+ of both in the same season in the last decade. I was too time-consuming to go back any farther than that, but from 2006-2015, Bauer last year was the only one. That he so often looks that good makes the bad games that much more frustrating, but also makes it harder to give up on the idea that he might figure things out. He is, after all, still only 25 years old.
I am aware that yesterday's announcement doesn't mean the team is giving up on him; a months-long stint in the bullpen did wonders for Carrasco, and maybe Bauer follow that path. Francona and Antonetti both said really positive things about Bauer yesterday, but what else were they going to say? We know they don't think Bauer starting is what's best for the team, which strikes me as strange, given how well he has pitched this spring (with a velocity uptick of his own). There's more to spring training than the numbers, but if numbers like his weren't enough for him to keep his job, it's hard to see how he can pitch his way back into the rotation; instead it will now take someone else pitching their way out. That's not something I want to see happen, but I also don't want to never find out if Bauer could put it all together.