Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer is one of the most controversial players in all of Major League Baseball. People seem to fall into one of two camps with him, they either can’t stand him or think he’s a genius who will transform the way we think about pitching. Admittedly I fall in the second of those camps so my thoughts here may be a bit biased.
That said, to deny his ability, intelligence, and understanding of the game would be foolish. He’s gotten better year to year, won the NL Cy Young award last season, and if it weren’t for a freak injury caused by a line drive hitting his shin he would have won the AL Cy Young in 2018. His only real down year as of late was in 2019 where he battled a nagging ankle injury for most of the season.
Though you may look at his numbers from 2012-2017 and question what’s so special about him, you may even think that 2020 and 2018 are just isolated events in an otherwise average career, but not only is that completely off-base, it’s also severely lacking in context. Bauer’s legacy doesn’t have to be based on his production, but rather how he impacted the game of baseball.
Simply put, Bauer is a pioneer of baseball. I’d even go as far as to call him the Ted Williams of pitching. While he, obviously, is nowhere near at Williams’ level in terms of career success, the comparison has more to do with them approaching the game in a fundamentally different way from everyone else. Williams back in the 40’s was the first hitter to ask questions like “what is my batting average for each part of the strike zone?” (pictured below) or to question what angle his swing plane should be on. Heck, the man literally wrote a book called “The Science of Hitting.”
Bauer has brought similar conversations and debates into how we approach pitching. Bauer came up in the “Moneyball” era of baseball, where analytics were just starting to be used en masse. The analytics back then really helped explain who was a good player but did very little to explain why they were a good player. In 2011 he was drafted with the 3rd overall pick in the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the time he was a short (5’11’) skinny pitcher from UCLA who drew comparisons to Tim Lincecum due to their hyper athletic delivery and similar frames. But while Lincecum faltered as the years went on, Bauer’s career has only gotten better with age.
When Bauer came into the league he frustrated a lot of baseball traditionalists with his scientific approach to pitching. In his rookie season, Bauer was already ahead of the game. I remember a radio interview of his where he was discussing his offseason training regimen and he said (paraphrased) that the key focus of his offseason was based around a simple question. At what point after the pitch is thrown does a batter have to make a decision whether or not he’s going to swing, and how do I make all of my pitches look exactly the same until that point.
What Bauer was talking about there is now known as “Tunneling” and it is considered by many to be the number one factor in determining what makes a successful pitcher. Bauer often was criticized early in his career for his insistence on throwing the ball higher in the strike zone, especially fastballs late in counts. At the time, the conventional wisdom on pitching said that you wanted to stay low in the zone, change speeds, and keep the ball on the left or right edge of the plate. Bauer’s approach of changing the hitter’s eye level by how he elevates his pitches has become the new standard approach.
Since Bauer’s arrival in 2013, the Cleveland Indians have had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball every year despite having almost no pitchers amongst the top prospects or free agent signings in baseball. Though I think it’d be foolish to lay all the credit for that at Bauer’s feet, the Indians were one of the first teams to pick up on the things he was talking about, and it’s obvious that he had an impact, at least in starting the conversation on that.
Bauer has challenged standards at every turn, and though he ruffled a few feathers along the way, he has drastically changed the way we approach the game of baseball. His Cy Young award last season is proof that his way of thinking is working. If he can keep it up he’ll have an opportunity to truly silence the doubters and show that he truly has cracked the code on pitching.