Ross Atkins has stated that the Toronto Blue Jays will consider looking outside the organization to add pitching during this off-season. Trevor Bauer is a free-agent starter worthy of consideration.
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When the current off-season began, FanGraphs listed Trevor Bauer as the number one free-agent starting pitcher. Bauer has been one of the best starters during the 2017-2020 period. However, Bauer has a public persona that does not ingratiate him to some people. Is Bauer worth the risk on a short or mid-term contract?
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Bauer with the third pick of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft. He made his MLB debut on June 28, 2012. Subsequently, Cleveland acquired Bauer on December 11, 2012. His breakout season was 2018, in which he posted a 5.8 fWAR, 2.21 ERA and 2.44 FIP. Bauer was traded to the Reds on July 31, 2019, and posted a 6.39 ERA for Cincinnati in 56 innings; before the trade, he recorded a 3.79 ERA and 2.7 fWAR for Cleveland. Bauer, who won the National League’s 2020 Cy Young Award, became a free agent after the 2020 campaign. The Reds extended a Qualifying Offer to Bauer, which he declined.
His fourseam fastball generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, has good “rising” action, has essentially average velo and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers. His cutter generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ cutters, has heavy sink, has extreme cut action, has below average velo and results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ cutters. His slider sweeps across the zone, has exceptional depth, generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders and has below average velo. His curve has an exceptional bite, results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ curves and is slightly harder than usual.
For Bauer, it is pitch movement and not velocity that separates him from most pitchers. For more information about Bauer’s pitches, please refer to Table 1.
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Bauer
- The arguments for and against signing Bauer
The highlights from Table 3 are as follows:
- 2020 was an excellent campaign for Bauer
- His K%, K%-BB%, ERA, FIP, SIERA, and fWAR marks were 93rd percentile or higher
- 2019 was a step back from 2018 for Bauer
- His K% slipped to the 83rd percentile
- The marks posted for ERA, FIP, and SIERA were 46th, 57th, and 77th, respectively
- His fWAR was 79th, which would slot him into a #2 starter position
- Bauer was excellent in 2018
- His HR/9, K%, K%-BB%, ERA, FIP, SIERA, and fWAR were 94th percentile or better
- During this period, Bauer was one of the best MLB starters
- He was in the 90th percentile or higher in terms of K%, K%-BB%, SIERA, and fWAR
- His ERA and FIP were 84th and 86th, respectively
The highlights from Table 4 are as follows:
- His percentile grade in BA, SLG, and wOBA was 100th, 95th, and 97th, respectively
- In terms of expected metrics, Bauer’s xBA (100th), xSLG (99th), and xwOBA (100th) were elite
- Bauer’s BA and xBA were 81st and 86th percentile, respectively
- However, his xSLG and xwOBA were lacklustre by his standards (71st and 66th percentile ranking, respectively)
- Consistent with Table 2 data, Table 3 illustrates the brilliance of Bauer’s 2018
- The BA, xBA, SLG, xSLG, wOBA, and xwOBA (xERA) percentile rankings were 92nd or better
- Bauer’s percentile slot in BA, SLG, and wOBA was 85th, 78th, and 77th, respectively
- His xBA was 91st percentile, and his xSLG and xwOBA (xERA) were 85th
The data, FanGraphs and Statcast’s, supports the view that Bauer has been one of the better MLB starters during the 2017-2020 period. However, consistency is a concern. He was outstanding in 2018 and 2020, less so in 2019, and median in terms of expected metrics in 2017. My view is that he has been a more durable version of Ryu, but not in the Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer class.
The contract estimate
For a detailed explanation of the factors considered in the contract computation, please refer to Appendix A. It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Before the current off-season began, Bauer stated that he wanted only to sign one-year contracts. However, his agent indicated that he was open to longer-term deals. FanGraphs speculated that Bauer might sign an agreement longer than one year but with player opt-outs. Opt-outs should be a deal-breaker because the cost of losing a compensatory draft pick resulting from signing Bauer is more tolerable the more extended the deal.
Table 4 shows that a reasonable contract for Bauer is a four-year, USD 92.4 million deal. This contract value is consistent with FanGraphs’s four-year, USD 90 million estimate. The Crowdsource (median) projection was considerably higher (three-year, USD 87 million and MLB Trade Rumors topped the charts (four-year, USD 128 million).
Bauer is not your, aw-shucks athlete type. He engaged in a well-publicized Twitter battle with a 21-year old university student and expressed political views, not to some people’s liking. Sports Illustrated featured Bauer in a lengthy interview that also upset people. Furthermore, Bauer famously threw a ball over the outfield fence from the mound when Terry Francona came onto the field to remove him from a game.
Bauer could be a disruptive force on a team. The Blue Jays would certainly factor his personality into a decision whether to offer a contract to him. Notably, Toronto’s Management know Bauer from their days in Cleveland; they also have a better sense than the public concerning Bauer’s impact on team culture and chemistry. I’ll leave it to them to appropriately weigh Bauer’s personality into their decision.
Case Arguments for and against signing Bauer
- Bauer was an excellent starter during the 2017-2020 period and projects to be a top-of-the-rotation in the near and mid-term.
- He relies on pitch movement more than velocity to get batters out, allowing him to succeed as he ages.
- Bauer is very much in-tune with the benefits of using data and technology to improve pitching performance, consistent with the Blue Jays approach to pitching.
- His relatively high K% and K%-BB% would be beneficial to the Blue Jays, who were poor defensively in 2020 (29th in DRS)
- Bauer has been durable; the fewest number of innings pitched in a season during the 2017-2019 period was 175 (2018)
- The 2021 campaign will be Bauer’s age-30 season, which means that he would only be 33 when a four-year contract concludes.
- In a typical free-agent market, a player of Bauer’s calibre would likely attract many suitors. That level of interest would push the term and AAV higher than what is estimated to be this off-season.
- That is to say, the 2021 off-season is a buyer’s market, and the Jays would acquire an excellent pitcher at a discount.
- Bauer has been somewhat inconsistent during the 2017-2020 time frame, together with the small sample size of 2020 data, which increases the risk that Bauer will underperform over the term of a contract.
- Pitch movement has been a competitive advantage for Bauer. However, Ben Clemens of FanGraphs speculated that Bauer might have used a foreign substance to increase his pitches’ spin rate.
- Therefore, Bauer may not maintain his superior spin rate if he indeed used a foreign substance, and he no longer uses the substance.
- Bauer rejected his Qualifying Offer, which means that the Jays would forfeit their second pick in the 2021 June Amateur Draft if they sign him.
Maybe. Bauer profiles as a durable, top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher over a four-year contract. The Blue Jays can certainly use more quality starters. As a pure baseball matter, Bauer is a worthwhile acquisition within the range of a four-year, USD 92.4 million contract.
Concerning Bauer’s personality, my view is that this is an area in which an outsider cannot make a reasonable assessment. There are many non-baseball matters for Management to consider. A partial list of those topics would include whether Bauer has changed and Management’s confidence that Bauer will not have a net, negative impact on team chemistry and culture.
The last word
Bauer is an excellent starting pitcher; he would appear to be a welcomed addition to the Blue Jays rotation. Accordingly, Bauer should be on the Blue Jays radar. However, there are persona issues that Blue Jays Management should address. I have confidence that Management will examine all aspects of a potential Bauer acquisition and make the appropriate decision.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.