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The curious case of Trevor Bauer

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Cleveland's rotation is stacked—and Trevor Bauer has a shot at making it even better.

In 2015, Bauer was sometimes pretty good and more often pretty bad.
In 2015, Bauer was sometimes pretty good and more often pretty bad.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of Cleveland’s rotation, and rightfully so. Last year saw Corey Kluber prove his 2014 Cy Young was no fluke, while Carlos Carrasco was similarly impressive and Danny Salazar wasn’t all that far behind—only a select few teams can be more optimistic about their pitching heading into 2016. But as exhilarating as that trio of starters is, three men do not a rotation make. And while Cleveland’s fourth man, Trevor Bauer, certainly doesn’t have a record anything like those of his teammates, it’s not out of the question for him to make some strides in their direction this year.

While Bauer is the youngest of the four, you probably feel as if you’ve been hearing his name the longest. And, probably, you have. Let’s rewind a bit, say three years. At this point in 2013, Kluber was coming off a season that he’d split between an ugly performance in the big leagues and an extended stint as a 26-year-old in the minors. Carrasco was recovering from Tommy John, a few lackluster years removed from being the centerpiece of the prospect package the Indians had received for Cliff Lee. And though Salazar had finished a solid if unspectacular season in double-A, he wasn’t topping any of Cleveland’s prospect lists.

Bauer was, by far, the most exciting name of the bunch. Recently acquired from Arizona, he was a first-round draft pick with a burgeoning reputation as a pitching mechanics geek to match his status as an elite prospect. Though he had struggled in his brief exposure to the majors with the Diamondbacks, expectations for Bauer were high. When he was traded to Cleveland, Ben Badler of Baseball America declared him a pitcher with "the upside of a No. 1 starter, a guy who could annually rank among the league leaders in strikeouts and contend for a Cy Young award."

Of course, that hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t been close. Bauer now has two full years with the Indians in the majors, and at a glance, they haven’t been noteworthy—he has yet to get his FIP under 4.00, and though his strikeout rate has been decent, his walk rate has been anything but. Bauer is only 25, though, and he still presents some interesting possibilities.

It’s easy to look at Bauer’s numbers from last year and see a guy who was pretty disappointing, while not quite disastrous. The one factor that stands out isn’t a good one—his walk percentage was terrible, the highest among qualified starters at 10.6%. For someone who told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs in August, "I’d almost rather not be a pitcher than be a mediocre pitcher," it was surely disappointing. Maybe a 4.33 FIP is closer to "bad" than it is "mediocre," but we can guess that’s not the direction Bauer wants to go.

For a stat line that was fairly undistinguished overall, though, Bauer showed some flashes of excellence last year. His numbers aren’t as much a reflection of consistent poor performance as they are a mix of encouraging outings with atrocious ones. To wit—Bauer started nine games in which he gave up zero or one runs. He started ten in which he gave up five or more (including six games when he didn’t even make it out of the fourth inning). He got off to something of a hot start, with double-digit Ks in three games by the end of May. He didn’t repeat that performance once for the rest of the year. More so than in 2014, Bauer showed that when he’s good, he can actually be quite good—and when he’s bad, he can be truly miserable.

Apart from the poor command that’s resulted in Bauer’s walk trouble, perhaps his most notable feature as a pitcher is how remarkably deep his arsenal is. Just in what he threw last year, you have something that’s almost close to a complete encyclopedia of pitches: fourseam fastball, curveball, slider, sinker, change-up, splitter, cutter. Of course, being able to throw seven pitches doesn’t mean being able to sequence them well, and in Bauer’s case, more pitches have seemed to lead more to inconsistency than anything else—at least, so far.

But that pitch variety stems from an intense passion for understanding the science of pitching (like, Trackman-system-installed-in-his-house kind of passion), and the hope for Cleveland is that Bauer’s physical results will soon catch up and click with that intellectual foundation. To be sure, not every pitcher with a cerebral approach is going to be Zack Greinke and Bauer's walks remain a glaring issue, but his analytical plan of attack is at least intriguing, if not necessarily encouraging.

Projection systems don’t anticipate much of a change for Bauer’s performance next year. And it’s very possible that there won’t be. But his substandard numbers don’t tell the whole story, and if, just maybe, 2016 is the year when he finally breaks through, Cleveland’s rotation might truly be something else.

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Emma Baccellieri is a contributor Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @emmabaccellieri.