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Searching for signs of growth in Trevor Bauer

The Indians' young hurler has shown flashes of brilliance. How can he stretch those flashes into a sustained campaign?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody on the Cleveland Indians roster is more tantalizing, more interesting, and more hope creating than Trevor Bauer. He has all the talent in the world, he's the highest draft pick on the major league roster right now, and he's shown flashes of such brilliance time and again. He was a vital part of a World Series drive. He is the future of the Indians rotation as Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco move over their aging curve and Danny Salazar continues his volatility and comparative fragility. In what is becoming a yearly series, one must wonder if this is the year Trevor Bauer breaks out.

Last June, FanGraphs' August Fagerstrom wrote a piece about Bauer looking like a completely different pitcher. Bauer did look it -- at the time of the article he had a sub-3.00 ERA, he led pitchers in WAR for much of the month of June, and had a brilliant second half in general. Thirteen starts, 20 appearances, a 3.30 ERA over 101 innings. Fagerstrom used the below graph, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, to demonstrate a big adjustment.


In short, over the last two or three years, he's used fewer four-seamers and more sinkers. This helped to drive a major spike in his ground ball rate, 48.7 percent in 2016 compared to 41.5 percent for his career. This made him more effective because of Lindor and the boys behind him, allowing him to pitch more innings. But then the rest of the year happened, and Bauer's pitch usage went like this:

This corresponded with a second half where Bauer held a 5.36 ERA in 89 innings and gave up 12 home runs compared to eight in the first half. He was much worse. It didn't hurt the Tribe too much in the regular season, but if First Half Bauer had shown in the playoffs, we might be talking World Series defense rather than Finishing What We Started.

That's why it's a combination of hope and expectation that Bauer emerges as more than a back to middle of the rotation kind of pitcher. He’s looked good before and he could harness that again, understand what went right and do it more consistently. The pecking order in the rotation is all but set, but you know Salazar is going to have to take a break, and the Indians don't want to take a step back. One of the most fun parts about Bauer is his tinkering, his mad scientist-ness. That, and his brashness that's a bit blended with hard-headedness He trusts himself and his stuff, sometimes a bit too much. For instance, Brian Dozier, a notoriously good high ball hitter, loves facing Bauer because that's what Bauer likes to throw. Even when it's the wrong thing, Bauer goes to the high fastball because he believes in it, and likes throwing it. The issue being, when you miss it gets clobbered. That's why that success he had with the sinker is something he hopefully looks at, and uses it to become better. IF he can decide he likes that and also simplifies his repertoire down from six or seven pitches to three or four with some varient on them, this simplicity could breed improvement.

In looking at his month-to-month numbers, I am struck by an interesting comparison to Jason Kipnis's 2015. Granted, one hits, and one pitches and those two things are literal opposites. But Kipnis was a player on the come up, just as Bauer is now. And just as Kipnis blew the doors off in May and June with a 1.088 OPS then fell back to earth, so too did Bauer with his run late in the first half:

April 5.28 15.1 25.4 1.630
May 3.86 30.1 17.8 1.286
June 2.01 44.2 25.0 0.940
July 5.19 26.0 18.2 1.577
August 4.04 35.2 18.7 1.402
Sept 6.39 38 20.3 1.368

The key to becoming great in sports is finding what works for you, and even if you lose it you can identify it and come back it. Kipnis talked about that with Andre Knott in a few postgame interviews while on that streak, and later turned it into consistent excellence. he didn't have a huge blast of a stretch in 2016, but he produced consistently all the time. For Bauer, Those months he was good he utilized the sinker heavily. He has worked to copy Kluber  We saw in the playoffs him using that, or his two-seamer since it's hard to tell the difference from TV, to get front-door strikes as it broke back across the plate, much like Kluber. Getting this to work consistently, getting that spin rate and therefore lateral as well as vertical movement, could unlock his potential.

There's also something Bauer mentioned by Eno Sarris some time back. As Sarris analyzed what made Bauer and Jake Arrieta so different (in short, command and a better slider) Bauer did mention that he'd changed his motion after leaving college, and was just getting comfortable with it. That could explain the slide in the second half. Perhaps he got tired as the season wore on, and his mechanics slipped? That is entirely possible. It can take a long time to get used to anything new like that. Even little things like brushing teeth with the other hand feels off. It’s amazing he’s been as successful as he has been all this time. Lack of consistent delivery has felled many talented pitchers, Dontrelle Willis being a fantastic example. Bauer’s being able to lock it back in and throw consistent strikes could get him to that Arrieta level. Or at least something approximating it.

In that article comparing Bauer and Arrieta, Sarris did note that the lateral movement Arrieta gets on his four-seamer is a big separator. Bauer has gotten that to work sometimes, notably in his August 19th appearance against the Blue Jays where he struck out 13. That and his sinker running back got a lot of guys looking silly. That run and that control are what he could be if he can find that aforementioned consistency. His Bauer Units, a combination of spin rate and velocity, are what he cares about in his pitches. In principle, his work to elevate this would turn him great. In practice, he's done a great job of it, especially with his hammer of a curve ball. Many were bothered by his velocity training rather than control training last winter, but life isn't a video game. He was working on pitching, plain and simple. I'd prefer he get better at it in general. The control comes with practice.

Most athletes don't broadcast their winter workouts quite as heavily as Bauer, and most don't have companies like Driveline Baseball supporting them and displaying them on social media. So I don't know if his work is different or more than others. But he is committed to his craft, as evidenced by his constant tinkering and fooling about and trying to learn and get better by copying his ace of a teammate. He’s creative and always wanting to get better at something. This desire to improve will be his best ally. That and Mickey Callaway. We've seen him be great at times, and he's almost reached the pinnacle of his sport. These are the pieces that lead to consistency and excellence. There's a lot of "could" in this article. That's the fun with Bauer, is what he might be. Whether he puts it together, we'll see come April.