Trevor Bauer has been excellent this season, both in comparison to his own career and just in general; it’s been a long time coming.
We’ve seen dribs and drabs — the dazzling curveball since he came to the Tribe, that first start in the 2017 playoffs that looked Kluberesque, the ever-climbing strikeout rates as he adds tools to knock down hitters, the fascinating fiddling with pitch design and whatnot — but this year is a realization that something special is in the offing. There are actual, real metrics that show, albeit by the slimmest of margins, that he’s actually the best pitcher on the Indians right now. One thing that’s helped is his home run rate has fallen to the bottom of the sea. That’s a huge deal in the modern era.
Last year pitchers allowed a home run on 13.7 percent of fly balls, the highest rate since they’ve kept track starting in 2002. It’s taken a step back to 12.4 percent this year, but that’s still third highest measured rate. League average fly ball rate this year is 35.7 percent, higher even than a year ago when the Fly Ball Revolution truly rose to prominence.
Admittedly it’s not the highest since the turn of the millennium, that would be 2007 and 37.5 percent. But these days hitters are making real, obvious effort to hit it in the air as evidenced by very low ground ball rates, the league average 43.2 percent being the lowest since 2000. Amid all this is Bauer posting a 33.5 percent fly ball rate, his highest in three years. And yet he’s just not allowing home runs.
Well, maybe a few. Literally it’s a 5.3 percent HR/FB rate. It’s seventh lowest among qualified starters even as his fly ball ranks 51st. That seems quite out of whack, like something real is happening. In raw terms it works out to three homers off Bauer this year, one each to Lucas Duda (0-0 count), Manny Machado (3-0, makes some sense) and Robinson Chirinos (2-1). That last one is a bit of an oddity, but that’s the way with home runs. Pitchers usually just give up 15 or 20 a year, some cheapies and some sky crackers. It happens. It’s not a big deal. You just hope they minimize the damage otherwise.
We’ve seen some pitchers have abnormally low HR/FB rates. The Giants at the turn of the decade come to mind, their 8.7 HR/FB rate between 2008 and 2012 being the lowest in the game. Matt Cain in particular suppressed home runs at an abnormal rate, his seven percent over that rate actually topped by three pitchers (Josh Johnson, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Braden) though he threw nearly 400 more innings than the next closest guy on the list in that span. You usually expect a pitcher to have a HR/FB rate somewhere between 11 and 13 percent, perhaps a bit higher now that the dinger is so much more common than in years past. Andrew Cashner led baseball last year at 8.6 percent. So what Bauer is doing is a bit out of hand, even if it isn’t the tops right now.
Which makes you think it must be a sample size thing. After all, a bad game or two (like the looming start against the homer-happy Astros for instance) can throw it right back to average if not below average. And Bauer has been a bit lucky in the scheduling – only four of the ten teams he’s thrown against have winning records. And one of those was at Seattle, a park that eats fly balls. So that could simply be it – he’s faced bad hitters in pitcher’s parks, and simply been lucky a lot.
One thing though, all three of the home runs that Bauer gave up were when he was behind in the count, and all on fastballs (the one to Chirinos was a cut fastball, but still). This year Bauer has thrown a pitch when behind in the count to a hitter 263 times, or 24.4 percent of all his pitches. Over the last two years, when his HR/FB rate was 13.8 percent, he was behind on a pitch 28.6 percent of the time. It’s not some meteoric drop, not like his home run rate has been between then and now, but it’s a marked difference. It’s just a handful of pitches that the hitter isn’t in the catbird seat, as Hawk Harrelson put it, but that can mean a world of difference in the world of infinite chance that is baseball. He’s also getting the first pitch strike 62.1 percent of the time compared to 56.9 percent last year and 59.9 the year prior. HE’s putting himself ahead. Hitters being in protect mode more – even just a bit more — could certainly lead to less huge swings, and less home runs.
Then there’s his pretty new slurve. In the past Bauer got by with high fastballs and 12-6 curves. Both of these pitches rely on each other. The high fastball can cause pop outs, and the curve looks like the fastball until the wrong time. But both hang well. Too low and the four-seam becomes a home run. If you hang the curve, it moves in the opposite direction like batting practice.
In the past Bauer hunted for a third dimension of movement with a now-shelved two-seamer, a now intermittent cutter — he throws it 7 percent of the time this year, a career low — and a brief dalliance with a slider. In stealing some version of Corey Kluber’s breaking ball he can now live on that third plane much more comfortably. Since it doesn’t fall off the table quite as hard, instead running laterally, he can pair it with lower fastballs than before in a nice little 1-2 sequence.
Another thing about his pitch selection, his four-seam fastball has taken its biggest hit in terms of usage rate, now 36.7 percent. Outside of his 2016 “sinker year” where he threw only 21.7 percent four-seams and 29.2 percent sinkers/two-seams before he realized it was a bad idea, this season is his lowest usage rate. All his home runs this year came on fastballs of some design. Over the last three years, of the 68 home runs he gave up 30 came on four-seams, another 12 on two-seams and 10 on cutters. Which makes sens, they’re the least move-y, and hitters chase fastballs all the time. He’s not going to stop throwing two of those offerings, but in throwing fewer he’s going to allow fewer balls to clear the fence.
Again, it could all be just nothing but his needing to expose himself more. The other guys in the top ten of HR/FB% include Luis Severino and Justin Verlander, but also Matt Boyd and James Shields. Three of these guys pitch in parks where the ball flies, and the other is Matt Boyd. So who knows. But Bauer is a different pitcher than we’ve seen. He attacks a bit more and has a new dimension to his repertoire. It’s doubtful he’ll keep his homer rate this far in the hole, especially nowadays. Still, a pitcher’s development can take subtle steps. He’s not allowing easy runs as much. He’s not walking as many guys.
Trevor Bauer, True Ace could be closer than we think.