It’s probably safe to assume the Cleveland Indians are going to lock up the AL Central. At this writing, they lead the White Sox 10-4 en route to shrinking their magic number to three. I’m still a little nervous to jump to this conclusion because of those bedeviling baseball gods, but for the sake of the article and indeed hope itself, the conclusion must be jumped to. This means Trevor Bauer will be a postseason starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.
From opening day bullpen arm to Game 2 starter, it’s quite a jump for the young hurler. Whether this excites or worries you is a moot point, because it’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. It must be wondered, though, how suited is he for October baseball?
Perhaps October baseball isn’t that different than April or June or August baseball, aside from the consistent excellence of the opponent. That seems wrong, though. Just because it’s the same game by rules, the level of tension has to weigh on pitchers, doesn’t it? At least a bit. To add to that, the series are much longer. It’s not as bad as the NBA where by the end of a seven-game set the two teams can hate each other, as we saw with the Pacers and Heat earlier this decade. But it does make for more complete scouting reports, increased familiarity? This is especially true for pitchers. That’s where I think Bauer may have a leg up.
Bauer is a pitcher made for the postseason
The man is brilliant, having a degree in engineering from UCLA along with interesting extracurricular activities and constant dives into the kinesthetics of pitching and the minute details of his craft. I can’t help but wonder if this could pay dividends in a second outing against a playoff opponent. Could he and his beautiful mind find something extra, and execute it, when starting for the second time against a team in a series? During the season, he had middling improvement in facing a team the second time in a season, but there’s often a several start gap between these. Perhaps facing a team so quickly will allow him to take his attention to pitch sequencing, metagaming and other small parts of pitching to the next level.
There’s also the real aspect of Bauer’s pitching, and his style of attacking hitters. He is in no way brute force. For those that don’t know, Bauer is a proponent of the theory of Effective Velocity. This idea of pitching, written extensively about by pitching theorizer and former player Perry Husband, bases its ideas on the perception of the hitter in relation to the location of the ball in the zone. A ball up and in, EV theorizes, is perceived as being eight to 10 mph faster than the same pitch down and away. This is a gross oversimplifcation, but read more here. Bauer is a big fan of this idea, and its effect on batters of creating soft contact. I actually interviewed Husband while writing for Wahoo’s on First, and he noted that Corey Kluber utilizes EV techniques innately.
Of course, sometimes weak contact doesn’t work out. Sometimes it turns into a seeing-eye single, a bloop into that no-mans land behind the first or third baseman, or sometimes it goes like this:
If the fences are five feet deeper, that's a foul ball. According to Statcast, the batting average on a ball hit at that angle, at that exit velocity, is about .105. Instead it was two runs. But that’s just bad luck. In general, weak contact turns into more outs, fielded by the defense. The Indians happen to have a good defense, at least on the infield. That's where Bauer’s 48.5% ground ball rate comes into play, along with his ability to get timely strikeouts. While he does allow more contact than before, his in-zone contact rate is a career low 86.8% and his out-of-zone contact rate is an improvement from last year (his first full year as a starter) at 63.2%. If you’re going to have a heightened contact rate, that’s the kind you’re going to want.
Bauer doesn’t have the raw numbers, or even the advanced numbers, that endeavor one to hope he starts a game in October. He’s got a 4.26 ERA, 4.00 FIP, and 4.29 SIERA and has earned 2.5 fWAR. If Bauer does one thing, it's adhere to his peripherals. He’s struck out 20.1 percent of batters this year, which is decent but also a career low for him. He did cut the walks down, again a career-low 8.7 percent BB rate. Both of these are likely related to his career high rate of pitches thrown in the zone, 49.7 percent.
There is precident for a pitcher like Bauer succeeding in October
So he’s not performed as one might hope, at least in the regular season. Looking at his season numbers, do you want to trust him?
Well, let’s look at other pitchers with similar season stats who also succeeded in the postseason. Yordano Ventura, a lynchpin of the Royals success a year ago, had a 4.08 ERA, 3.57 FIP and was worth 2.7 fWAR. It was good for a 100 ERA- (That’s a minus, not a dash. It’s like ERA+, but lower is better in this case, 100 is average) and a 112 FIP-. Bauer is at 99 ERA- and 93 FIP-. Much like Ventura, he’s incredibly talented and also has a lot going on in his head.
I’m not one to delve into the psychology of two young pitchers, but at least we’ve never seen Bauer purposely throw at people. He just has struggles in a different way. Looking further back, John Lackey was the number two starter for the Red Sox in 2013, and he had a 99 FIP- with an 87 ERA- in the regular season. He’s a gamer, as they say, a bulldog and all that other stuff. In real terms he’s a decent pitcher with a fiery temperament. In some ways, Bauer is like that, just with a heap of "sometimes too smart for his own good" added to it. He loves to compete, as Rick Manning has remarked, and intangibles like that can be key in October. That, combined with his actual raw talent, could be Bauer’s key to success.
So what can we expect from him?
Maybe a league average ERA and a somewhat better than average FIP doesn’t wow people. He’s a decent pitcher though, and more than anything, he can be good on a team that has a dominant bullpen. The Indians just happen to be that team.
A quality start needs to be six innings with three earned runs. That’s a 4.50 ERA. With the beasts behind Bauer in the bullpen, his allowing three, even four runs along with how the offense can perform now doesn’t make for overt terror for Indians fans. Or at least, it shouldn’t. Plus when he’s on, he’s done things like strike out 15 Blue Jays over eight innings and allow two runs, or shut out the Nationals into the seventh inning. At his best, he could be great.
But at the very least, Bauer can be just enough to bridge to the bullpen, and give the offense a chance to squeak back into the lead. He’s a fine pitcher for this team and who knows, it could be that the pressure cooker of October is just what he needs to become truly great.