Trevor Bauer has really elevated his game this season. He went from an above average pitcher to an elite superstar in a very short period of time. Last season was his best season up to that point, finishing four strikeouts shy of 200 in 176.1 innings of work. The one thing that seemed to hurt Bauer the most last year was his home run rate, giving up an average of 1.28 per start.
He has definitely fixed that leading the league in both home runs per nine innings and home runs per flyball rate. Despite the minuscule home run rate, his xFIP is still only 3.01, just slightly higher than his ERA of 2.30 and league leading FIP of 2.45. The FIP is backed up by the 13th highest swinging strike rate and fifth best strikeout rate. Although his walk rate isn’t ranked nearly as high as the strikeout rate, it’s still sitting solid at 7.8 percent.
Add these numbers up and so far Bauer is first in fWAR among all pitchers. However, not only is he doing well, he’s doing well while fighting adversity. Leading the league in FIP means he’s doing the best at outcomes he can control, but how about ones he cannot? Well, Bauer has the 12th lowest batting average against, which is pretty decent. However, what’s shocking is he’s doing that while his batting average on balls in play is 17th highest among 83 qualified starters. This could partially be due to luck, but at least some of it has to be due to Clevelands below league average defense. Only nine teams have a lower total zone total fielding runs above average which measures the total runs above or below average the team was worth based on the number of plays made.
Despite the odds against him, through 19 starts, Bauer has allowed two or fewer in 13 starts, has at least seven innings pitched in ten starts, and eight starts with at least ten strikeouts. Through 129.1 innings of work he’s allowed only five home runs, which are just gaudy numbers in their own right.
There are several reasons behind his success in 2018. First and foremost is pitch usage and pitch sequencing, which arguably is the most important key to being a successful starter. He dropped the splitter altogether even though it received good outcomes. He also cut his two-seam usage in half. In doing so he tripled his slider usage and it has paid dividends.
The sequencing has been altered only slightly. He still heavily uses the curve early and ahead in counts but cuts it way back when he has given the hitter at least two balls. When he falls behind in the count 2-0 or has three balls against, he almost exclusively throws four-seamers, which seems to be the one thing that hasn’t helped him. In 3-0 and 3-1 counts batters are hitting at least .444 against him, which is likely because they know the fastball is coming.
The cutter is thrown early in the counts and is all but non-existent once he’s thrown at least three pitches to the batter. The slider is clearly his go-to strikeout pitch when there are two strikes. In 0-2, 2-2, and 1-2 counts his wOBA with the slider is .065. Even more incredible is 10.9% of his total pitches are sliders in those three counts. This has earned him the second highest pitch value per 100 pitches on the slider.
As much as the usage and sequencing aid the average pitcher, for Bauer I think the tunneling of his pitches and the movement on the pitches are what allowed him to take the next step. I’ve talked in previous articles that almost every elite pitcher has good tunneling to their pitches, so it’s basically impossible to distinguish what the pitches are until it’s too late to decide whether to swing or not. Bauer may be the very best at it. All six of his pitches are pretty much impossible to readily distinguish until about 15 feet or so from the plate, as you can see below.
This is another good demonstration of how similar the pitches look until the pitch is very close to the plate, thanks to Pitching Ninja.
Trevor Bauer, 81mph Knuckle Curve & 83mph Slider, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/0mAgFCffB5— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2018
Trevor Bauer, 94mph High Fastball & 79mph Knuckle Curve, Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2018
Good look at how a high Fastball and 12/6 Curve complement each other. pic.twitter.com/fmzvAgO6Jk
The tunneling is pretty devastating, but when you add incredible break on your pitches you almost guarantee yourself to give hitters fits. Among qualified starters Bauer is second in vertical movement on his curveball. Among those same qualified starters he’s tied for first in horizontal movement on his cutter and fifth in horizontal movement on his slider.
The well above average movement on these pitches coupled with a mid-90’s fastball is a recipe for lots of strikeouts and swings and misses, so it should come as no surprise to see the strikeout numbers Bauer has put up.
Breaking those swing numbers down further, Bauer has whiff per swing rate above 34% on his slider, curve, change and cutter. Plus, over 34% of his knuckle-curves result in non-contact strikes. Those type of numbers have allowed him to keep the isolated power on all of his pitches below .140 with exception to the cutter.
Looking at the totality of Bauer’s numbers and what’s behind him, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the best pitcher in baseball right now. He’s doing almost everything right while also fighting against bad defense and probably some bad luck too. The really amazing part is he’s only 27 and since his debut, each season he has gotten a little bit better. But this season he’s taken such as huge step that he’s transformed into exactly the type of pitcher that you want at the front of your rotation. One thing is for sure—you don’t want to be facing him right now.