Evaluating Trevor Bauer
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Justin Berl, Getty Images
The following two statements are generally accepted by the larger baseball community: 1.) The Yankees need starting pitching through either the Free Agent Market or trades this offseason. 2.) Trevor Bauer is the best Free Agent pitcher available. While those two simple statements alone seem to make the Yankees and Trevor Bauer a match in what will likely be a slow-moving market this offseason, the truth is far more complicated. There are all kinds of issues that bear discussing regarding Trevor Bauer’s Free Agent case as it relates to the Yankees, but I think it is first important to understand who Trevor Bauer has been as a pitcher from a bottom-line perspective.
I am of the opinion that teams cannot evaluate players in a vacuum when discussing their value. We’ll get to the context in a minute. For now though, I want everyone to take a step back and look at the relative merits of three pitchers without the bias that comes from preconceived notions of performance from name recognition. Below are relevant pitching statistics compiled by three pitchers from the start of the 2017 regular season through the 2020 regular season (playoffs not included). For full disclosure, one of these pitchers is Trevor Bauer. Which of the below pitchers would you choose?
Blind Pitcher Comparison w/2017-2020 Regular Season Statistics (Click To Enlarge)
A few quick notes before we dive into the numbers. Because I couldn’t compile cumulative Exit Velocity numbers for the years in question, the Exit Velocity numbers listed in the chart are averages of Exit Velocity against year-over-year. Secondly, Fangraphs’ version of WAR likes each of the 3 pitchers on this list better than Baseball-Reference, likely because the peripheral statistics within each players’ control are a bit better than their good bottom-line performance numbers generally indicate. Lastly, the strange, shortened 2020 season skews the innings totals in a negative direction for all three pitchers given a typical 4-year sample. All three pitchers were starting pitchers for the vast majority of their appearances for this entire time period. Please take note of all of these factors when looking at the numbers.
Player A may not strike players out at the same rate as Player B or Player C, but he also issues walks at the lowest rate of the group. Player A has a worrisome HR rate, but despite some flaws, was an above-average pitcher between 2017 and 2020.
Player B was fantastic overall. He threw more innings than any of the players on this list, likely averaging 180+ innings per season, 2020 notwithstanding, making him a rare innings eater. Player B tied for the highest strikeout rate, but also issued walks at the highest rate of the group. Player B’s walk rate is below the 8.3% average of all MLB pitchers, however it is high for a starting pitcher. Player B’s HR rate is a bit high, but manageable relative to the total package, as indicated by the fact that both Fangraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s versions of WAR view Player B as the most valuable pitcher of the three between 2017 and 2020.
Player C is an interesting case. Player C threw significantly fewer innings than either Player A or Player B. However, for the innings that Player C did throw, a good argument can be made that he performed the best on a rate basis. Player C had the best ERA, FIP, HR%, and Exit Velocity allowed, while tying with Player B for the best K%. Despite throwing 241 innings less over the same timespan, Player C was bested by Player B in both versions of WAR by relatively small margins. Player C also bested Player A in both versions of WAR despite throwing 167.2 fewer innings.
So, I’ll ask again: which of these three pitchers would you take in a vacuum? The steady, average performance of Player A? Player B, the innings eater with good rate stats? Or Player C, the player who was pretty clearly the best on a rate basis? If we were running a poll, I think the answers would likely be split similarly between Player B and Player C.
Player A is Masahiro Tanaka. Player B is Trevor Bauer. Player C is Luis Severino.
Context is Key
Obviously, the bottom-line numbers you saw above are meaningful from a summative perspective, but the way in which those numbers were achieved matters. If we were confident that Trevor Bauer was highly likely to meet the above rates on a consistent basis, I think a lot of us would sign up for that for the next few years. However, Bauer’s statistics have been extremely volatile. Check it out:
Trevor Bauer Statistics 2017-2020 (Click To Enlarge)
While there is some consistency in the underlying numbers, Bauer’s performance over the last 4 years is all over the map. Bauer generally strikes out a lot of batters and walks a few too many for comfort. It’s also really important to note that despite a good average rate, Bauer’s HR% has generally been nearly as high as Tanaka’s, who’s issues with the gopher-ball are well-known. Inconsistency and a tendency to get beat by the long ball are not usually attributes that play well at Yankee Stadium.
We do need to contend with the fact that Bauer’s 2020 season was likely his best performance to-date. He walked fewer batters than at any other time in his career, his strikeout rate went bananas, and he did the most important thing a pitcher can do: he limited runs as well as any starter in the Majors. However, the sample size is miniscule, and Bauer’s 2020 FIP tells us that while he was every bit as excellent as he looked, it is likely that Bauer would have regressed at least to some extent with more innings pitched. We also have to mention the controversy surrounding the massive jump all of Bauer’s pitches made in spin rate this season, particularly his fastball. Bauer made a huge show of calling out the Astros for the use of pine tar to increase fastball spin rate during and after the 2019 season, so many have pointed to non-mechanical factors to explain the Bauer’s sudden spin rate gains. Regardless of your thoughts regarding Bauer’s increased spin rate, 73 superhuman innings in a strange season does not overshadow hundreds of innings in the preceding years.
We also have to look at Bauer’s likely contract. I still think Free Agent contracts are going to get very weird this offseason, but Bauer is one of the best 2 or 3 Free Agents on the market, so he should still be alright. MLB Trade Rumors projects 4 years/$128 million while Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards predicts 4 years/$90 million (3.13 years/$90.3 million if we look at Fangraphs’ average crowdsourcing numbers). That’s a pretty wide range at anywhere from $22.5 million per year up to $32 million per year. Personally, I’d expect the bidding to run closer to $30 million per year for 3 or 4 years. Bauer is 29, so he should have 2 or 3 prime seasons remaining (at least).
Lastly, Bauer’s personality and previous actions make a fit in New York difficult. Personally, I think some of Bauer’s on-field quirks have been overblown. I was a big fan of Bauer’s use of long toss and weighted balls long before such training methods were popular, and I think that baseball orthodoxy tends to react badly when someone doesn’t fit traditional molds. However, Bauer’s other actions cannot be ignored. His Twitter activity has gained significant negative attention, particularly following a Twitter rage against another user that has been called harassment by many, yet Bauer has not really apologized other than through a vaguely worded clarification after the negative backlash that followed his initial tweets. It has also long been rumored that Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer have not gotten along since their college days at UCLA.
All of these factors complicate a marriage between the Yankees and Trevor Bauer.
Trevor Bauer is a polarizing pitcher, who is a difference-maker at his best, but probably not worth the hassle at his worst. At the end of the day, Bauer is a pitcher who presents significantly more risk than a typical $30 million per year Free Agent pitcher. As much as the Yankees need pitching, I would pass on Trevor Bauer when all factors are taken into account.
I think Yankee fans need to remember that if Luis Severino can make it back from Tommy John Surgery as even 90% of the pitcher he was from 2017 through an injury shortened 2019, he may be the best #2 starter in all of baseball. In fact, I can’t really come up with a better 1-2 punch than Cole and Sevy if Sevy makes it back. That’s a big if, and the Yankees still need to add some reliable innings to the staff, but I don’t think Bauer is the man for that job.