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Short outage: Why I’d bet on Trevor Bauer

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With Bauer it is only down, not out.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Before the season, while discussing fantasy baseball draft strategy with a friend, we came up with a bet. He was bullish on Yu Darvish in the Cubs rotation, whereas I felt confident this year Trevor Bauer would find consistency and became one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. So, we wagered a 10th round pick in our 2019 draft on who had the better season, Darvish or Bauer, with the caveat that significant injury to either pitcher would void the bet (note: it’s not original to blame me for Bauer’s injury in the comments but please, go ahead).

Now, here we are in late August, and over the weekend Darvish left a Class-A rehab start after 19 pitches, likely ending his season. With that, the bet is surely dead and I have to give up my hopes of an extra, early draft pick next season. Of course, Bauer is on the sideline, too, but I’m not ready to give up on him just yet.

While Darvish was preparing for his doomed rehab start, Bauer was out on the field as well. Forced to use a scooter with his lower leg immobilized in a boot, the tenacious righty still made it out to throw, because that’s just what you do when you’re a monomaniacal pitcher like Bauer.

Of course, throwing out to 100 feet from his knees should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Bauer for any length of time. His laser-like focus on pitching led him to his nontraditional training methods, which, of course, led Bauer to Cleveland after the Arizona franchise ran out of patience for him.

He’s never run out of willpower or dedication to his craft, and in Cleveland his eccentricity has been supported better, which allowed him to engineer a new slider and changeup this past offsesason. As he told Eno Sarris of The Athletic:

The only way I maintain my advantage is by putting in more hours than anyone else is going to. I think I do a good job of that. I’d challenge anyone to find a professional ballplayer at all who puts in more hours year-round than I do.

Those two pitches have been critical to Bauer’s success this year, and the work he put in then is emblematic of the work he will put in to get healthy, and it’s why I think he can’t yet be discounted for 2018.

The results from those pitches also show how Bauer’s hard work has paid off. Coming into this season, the wide array of pitches Bauer has thrown in his career had earned varying ratings via FanGraphs. Pitch Info (whose tracking information FanGraphs uses, whose classification the pitcher may or may not agree with) had tracked the right-hander throwing a four-seam fastball, cutter, splitter, sinker, changeup, slider, curveball, and screwball at various points since 2012. The most extreme weighted values for Bauer came via his sinker in 2017 (-11.0), which was well below average, and his curveball in 2016 (7.9), which was above average; everything else fell easily within normal ranges, neither too high nor too low.

This year, however, Bauer’s numbers on all pitches except the sinker (which he threw just 5 percent of the time) have been above average to very good. His fastball (7.6) ranks 20th in the league, his cutter (0.3) is 11th, and his curve (2.8) is 18th — but none of those rankings come in a vacuum, and the success of those pitches, which he has thrown and thrown decently well for his whole career, comes on the back of the improved slider and changeup.

When he was designing his slider, Bauer aimed for more horizontal movement, something to run counter to his curveball, which has more than 10 inches of vertical drop. So he watched video of Marcus Stroman and Corey Kluber and came up with a pitch that has less than 3 inches of drop but runs away from right-handed batters. Over the course of the season, as he became more comfortable with the pitch, Bauer increased the horizontal run to 9.4 inches (in July, the last full month of data available for the pitch). This led to the eighth best slider in the game by Pitch Info values, a whopping 13.

Of course, Bauer is a throwing machine, and he was not content to simply improve his slider: He also had to make his changeup better. So, he watched Stephen Strasburg’s changeup and tried to copy that. What he did was craft a pitch that sits nicely seven miles per hour below his fastball velocity but eight miles per hour above his curve, with more horizontal movement (toward right-handed hitters) than either pitch and more vertical movement than the fastball but much less than the curve. It’s the 16th best changeup in all of baseball by Pitch Info weighted values (3.6) and it’s also basically unhittable.

That’s five pitches, all ranked in the top 20 (plus a less-frequently used sinker that is rated -1.8, 40th). How many other pitchers have that many? Zero. In fact, just three pitchers have four pitches ranked in the top 20, Jacob DeGrom, Aaron Nola, and Max Scherzer — basically the arms race for the NL Cy Young.

So, when a player can do what Bauer has done in 2018, how can you ever count him out?

Terry Francona says Bauer will be out four to six weeks while healing. Mayo Clinic says stress fractures may take several months to heal, and the resuming physical activity should be done slowly (referring to mortals, not professional athletes, of course). Bauer says he is “furious,” “pissed,” and “You’re going to get a very different answer if you ask me that question and if you ask the medical staff that question,” when asked about his timeline.

It seems unlikely that Bauer will do anything in his baseball life, rehab or otherwise, without the zeal and determination with which he has always approached his craft. So, I’m not counting him out of anything — not the postseason or the regular season, not returning as a starter or a fireman reliever, hell, not even out of the AL Cy Young race (Chris Sale is also injured, after all).

I’m not much of a betting man, but Bauer is exactly the kind of guy I’d want to bet on. Again.