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Trevor Bauer: Gutter to the grail

In his first 3 starts of the season, Trevor Bauer has dazzled, allowing just two runs over 19.1 innings. Has he turned the corner and become the ace Cleveland hoped they traded for, or has the precocious pitcher just benefited from some good fortune early in the season?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Bauer was drafted third overall by the Arizona in the 2011 amateur draft and flew through the minors, making four starts with the Diamondbacks in 2012. Despite his rapid ascent, there was clearly friction between the young hurler and the club as he was traded to the Cleveland Indians as part of a 3-team blockbuster that offseason in which the D-Backs appeared to be left holding the bag. The trade raised the question: why would Arizona want to unload a top draft pick so soon after acquiring him for such a paltry return?

Bauer always marched to the beat of his own drum. Even prior to the draft, it was no secret that he had an unconventional throwing program that involved heavy doses of controversial long-toss, even before games. Although Arizona knew about his methods before entering the union, their issue was his unwillingness to incorporate changes they proposed. So rather than exercise patience with a petulant 21-year-old, Kevin Towers chose to unload one of his cornerstone prospects for a pittance shortly after one of Bauer's allies, senior vice president in charge of scouting and player development Jerry DiPoto, left to take the GM job in Orange County.

While Bauer may have figured out the secret to pitching, he was having trouble putting it into practice. His BB% nudged higher with each rung he climbed through the D-Backs' system, and his K% -- while always high -- decreased with each stop along the way to the majors. Bauer finally bottomed out in his first season with Indians, striking out just 117 while walking 89 over 138.1 innings across AAA and the majors.

His ascent from the gutter would begin the next year, which he spent mostly in the big leagues. He cut his walk rate back to 9.1 percent and boosted his strikeout rate to 21.6 percent over 153 innings. However, these values still left him far from his potential as an ace with an fWAR (1.3) that ranked just 82nd among the 102 MLB pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Bauer has already accumulated 0.8 fWAR over just 19.1 innings, tying him for the team lead with reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. While the season remains young, does his hot start appear to be sustainable?

Take a look at Bauer's stats, and the first thing to leap out and slap you in the face are the strikeouts (26). Having pitched just 19.1 innings, he currently leads all starters with a strikeout rate of 37.4 percent. The second thing you'll notice is his walk rate, which has actually increased to 17.4 percent, and ranks third-highest behind only Archie Bradley and Tyson Ross. Even still, his K-BB percent still ranks 14th-best among big league starters.

Check out at Bauer's pitch frequency table and you'll see that he has no fewer than 8 pitches in his repertoire, but due to his inordinate number of offspeed pitches, classifying Bauer's pitches may be the most difficult endeavor facing Brooks Baseball's significant brain trust., especially with Yu Darvish out for the season. For this reason, comparing the performance of pitches should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. For instance, according to his pitch frequency tables, Bauer has yet to throw a cutter this season, which is contradicted by quotes following his 6-inning no-hit performance against the Astros where he said 'My cutter was really good early, two-seamer too.'

2015 frequency 2014 Frequency 2015 Whiffs 2014 Whiffs
Fourseam 44.8% 49.7% 10% 7%
Sinker 8.2% 0.3% 0% 0%
Change 15.5% 6.5% 14% 9%
Slider 24.6% 12.9% 27% 10%
Curve 6.0% 12.6% 11% 20%
Cutter 0.0% 11.5% n/a 14%
Split 0.3% 2.6% 0% 6%
Screwball 0.6% 4.0% 0% 9%

From this data, we can infer some general trends. Bauer continues to use his fastball (twoseamer and/or fourseamer, who knows?) to set batters up, but the pitch has also generated nearly three percent more whiffs than it did a year ago. Over 61 swings against this pitch, we're approaching no-fluke zone. Lumping his secondary pitches together and you see even more of an improvement, with an overall whiff rate that has jumped from 14 percent to 20 percent. This increase in whiffs has come while finding the strike zone at nearly the same rate this season (43.7 percent) as he did in 2014 (43.4 percent).

While some of Bauer's success can be attributed to an overall improvement in his arsenal, he has also benefited from a healthy dose of luck involved in his first three appearances. For starters, he's stranded 89.5 percent of runners he faced which has diffused all but one of the walks he's issued. He's also lived up to his twitter handle (@baueroutage) as he's yet to allow a HR despite a slightly higher than league average flyball percentage thanks in large part to an infield flyball rate of 40 percent, 4 times league average.

So put it all together and where does Bauer sit? Well he's certainly not in the gutter any longer, but he may not have reached the grail just yet. But the good news for Cleveland is that Bauer -- who won't even reach arbitration until 2017 -- appears to be on his way.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.