Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer has very good stuff, and at just 25 years old still, sky-high potential. He came out of college with an MLB-ready fourseam and curve, and has used them to great effect thus far in his career. Bauer is also a tinkerer, a meddler at times, always fussing and tweaking aspects of his game in a quest to become better. He's a thinker, a theorizer; he came up with the idea of Bauer Units, which works to normalize spin rate based on pitch velocity. If not for his electric arm, he’d be a great pitching coach. But his arm is great. And on Monday night, a terrifying new wrinkle emerged.
I think Bauer learned Corey Kluber’s cutter.
Bauer has a wide variety of pitches he throws. The two best are his curve and four-seam, which originally were going to be the center of this piece. I thought maybe simplifying his repertoire would do Bauer good, since in the past he’s thrown as many as six or seven different pitches. When you have that many tools, especially this early in a career, mastering any of them will be tough. Back in May, Matt Schlichting of BtBS sister site Let’s Go Tribe theorized that maybe throwing the curve primarily would be of benefit to Bauer. But simplification isn’t in Bauer’s blood. He wants to get better, add new pieces until he’s some kind of mechanized pitching terror that does nothing but shatter bats and demoralize hitters. So adding Kluber’s cutter is a nice piece.
Kluber is known for two things: his breaking pitch, literally the best curve in baseball among starters according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Values, and the possibility that he was actually built in a lab deep beneath Lake Erie. But those who pay attention know about that cutter, too. It ranks merely third in baseball among starters by Pitch Value, behind John Lester and Mike Leake. It’s got that Mariano type of style, though lacking some velocity. Kluber uses it for soft contact, backdoor strikeouts and as a change of pace from his higher velo four-seam and sinker, since it comes in at around 88-90. He throws it 23.3 percent of the time. Here’s a good example of one from his most recent shutout, to get to 0-2 against DJ LeMahieu in the ninth inning:
It works so well because it bites well, and because he’s able to set it up with pitches like this:
But we know Kluber is incredible as a pitcher. As great as Chris Sale has been this year, the Cy Young isn’t as runaway as people thought it would be. Kluber is simply excellent.
This is about Bauer though. On Monday night, he threw 31 cutters. This is a pitch that he threw six of in 2015, folded back into his repertoire in 2016 before phasing it out by September (he thew 535 in the whole year, according to Brooks Baseball) and has never thrown more than 26 of in a single start. However, according to Brooks, last night he threw seven cutters and 24 sliders. Baseball Savant charted Bauer’s evening like so:
Brooks has charted his cutter and slider in 2017 usage like this:
I do accept that pitchers use new pitches as their careers go on, but it seems unlikely that Bauer started using a slider for the first time in mid-July, in a pennant race. He hasn’t thrown many sliders in his career, as many as 614 (or five percent of his total career pitches) in 2015 according to Brooks and the now departed Pitch F/X, but it’s just not something he’s needed because of his excellent curve. If you have a good curve, why throw what was once known derisively as a “nickel curve” when it appeared in the mid-50’s?
So on Monday, if we’re to believe Baseball Savant (and it’s a savant, why wouldn’t we?), he threw more cutters than ever. He averaged 86 mph and got eight swinging strikes, the most of any of his pitches in an 11 strikeout outing. Here’s one striking out Mookie Betts at 86 MPH:
It’s a bit slider-y, huh. Alright, here’s Bauer forcing a grounder off the bat of Andrew Benintendi:
It pairs so well with his fastball, much as Kluber’s own cutter does. He also gave up a home run to Benintendi with one of those, but it was generally a very effective pitch for him. It could be very useful for him, giving a third plane to work on along with his fastball (slight armside run) and his wicked curve.
Regardless of whether it’s a slider or a cutter, Bauer is getting more break than Kluber has with his version of the pitch. In that shutout against the Rockies, Kluber averaged 0.92 inches of horizontal break on his cutter. According to Brooks, Bauer averaged 1.40 inches of horizontal break on his cutter and 2.78 on his slider. It’s a tough nut to crack, whether he’s figured out some sort of supercutter or Baseball Savant isn’t sure what he’s doing with his pitches.
Looking back, it’s not really Kluber’s cutter — that pitch features a tight movement that tricks due to the insane movement of his sinker/two-seamer. Bauer’s is just silly. But he’s found something there, and got it to work wonders against Boston. He’s a fiddler, and has settled on little in his repertoire beyond the four-seam and the curve, but this could be his third piece of whatever puzzle the Trevor Bauer career ends up looking like. Whatever that is, it stays interesting.
Merritt Rohlfing writes vociferously Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, and records the podcast Mostly Baseball, mostly weekly. He can be followed at @merrittrohlfing.