Trevor Bauer began the 2016 season in the bullpen after losing a Mexican Standoff for the final two spots in the Indians' starting rotation. For most fans it was clear that the move wasn't exactly a demotion -- in 2014, the Indians did something similar when they sent Carlos Carrasco to the bullpen in the middle of the season. He emerged from his ssignment as one of the most effective starting pitchers in baseball. Many around baseball wondered if Bauer would have a similar reaction to his reassignment.
"They tell me to go pitch and I pitch," Bauer said. "Whatever they decide my role is, that's what I go do. That's the definition of being professional, right?"
If the frustration feels misplaced, consider that Bauer had a phenomenal spring. The implicit reason he missed out on a starting job was Cody Anderson's excellent spring and string of starts in 2015. Many raved about the additional 3.4 mph Anderson added to his fastball, his sleeker physique, and improved command. The coaches were so impressed that he earned the fourth spot in the starting rotation. And Bauer? He quietly added another 3.1 mph to his fastball — the seventh-most of any player according to August Fagerstrom.
"I think I had the best spring that I've had in pro ball," Bauer said. And yet, they sent him to the bullpen, where he had some difficulty adjusting. He would not remain there for long. When Carlos Carrasco strained his hamstring at the end of April, the opportunity to prove that he belonged in the rotation for good presented itself.
Since his return on April 30th, Bauer has an ERA of 3.25, with three wins and two losses. Only once has he allowed more than three runs in a start, and his average game score is 57. For reference, Greg Maddux averaged a game score of 56.1 for his career; Madison Bumgarner sits at 57.
These numbers give us an idea of what is happening, but the more interesting question is why Bauer is pitching with such consistency after a young career marred by irregularity. I asked Kyle Boddy, who trained Bauer at his Driveline Baseball facility, if there's a key to Bauer's turnaround:
He throws more strikes behind in the count and his GB% is up. Primary reason for both is a consistent 2sFB/Cutter. https://t.co/PDnwqTC3y0— Kyle Boddy (@drivelinebases) June 19, 2016
This is certainly part of the picture. Bauer's GB% is at a career-high 46.8%, and he's giving up .7 HR/9, a career-low. While he's gotten better at keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard, his command is also improved. Bauer is allowing a 3.11 BB/9, nearly a walk per game better than 2015. And yes, this is in large part due to his improvement when he falls behind in the count. On two and three ball counts, Bauer throws a strike 74.2% of the time, compared to 67.3% last season.
Also worth considering is the battery that Bauer formed with Chris Gimenez upon his return. According to Francona, Bauer is following Gimenez's strategy during games. This may explain Bauer's altered mix of pitches this season. Regardless of why Bauer's arsenal is slightly altered, it is certainly more effective.
All of this should be encouraging for Indians fans. Bauer's ceiling is still as high as it was when the Diamondbacks took him with the third pick in the 2011 draft. He's shown some marked improvement, and is much better than I anticipated before the season. Like I wrote then, he has all of the physical tools to be an ace, but it's the one between the ears that he needs to figure out. We're starting to see that evolution. Consider how Bauer talked about his approach between innings back before the start of the 2014 season (Hop to the six minute mark. I can't figure out how to embed and specify a start time. Please help.)
While there might be method to that madness, there's something to be said for the clarity that comes with having one straightforward goal in mind. Before this season began, Bauer said, "I don't even know what kind of pitcher I want to be anymore. I just want to throw hard." We've also seen less of the temperamental, napkin-snatching Bauer this season. He's starting to find some of that focus he used to lose when things went wrong. Consider Friday night's game against the White Sox, when Lonnie Chisenslid and missed a fly ball in left. In previous seasons, this would have been the moment when Bauer imploded and gave up four runs in the inning. This time, Bauer buckled down, forced Jose Abreu to groundout, and struck out Melky Cabrera. If Bauer was flustered or angered, he channeled it all into the pitching.
It will be interesting to see how Bauer continues to pitch this year. He needs to keep the same energy and focus he brought into the season: don't worry about what kind of pitcher you are, just get in there, throw hard, and throw strikes.
Similar advice was once handed down to a young flamethrower with focus and control issues. Let's hope it continues to work for Bauer.