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What’s Wrong With Trevor Bauer? On First Pitches and Usage Questions

When three-fifths of your teams’ starting rotation is on the injured list, the other 40% shoulders a large burden. Half of that 40% is Trevor Bauer, the same guy who was the frontrunner for the American League Cy Young award before getting injured last August.

2019 appeared to be a fresh bill of health and a clean slate for Trevor Bauer, as he looked to register among the elite arms in baseball for the second consecutive year. Things soon derailed, and with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger on the injured list, Bauer is rightfully under the microscope.

Bauer hasn’t fared… well. And while some of it could be explained away as regression to the mean on some ball in play type stats compared to last year, there are legitimate areas for concern. Most notably, his command is off thus walks are up and he has been prone to giving up loud contact thus home runs are up.

When examining the main differences between 2018 Bauer and 2019 Bauer, the immediate layers leave us scratching our head at the fall from excellence. His fastball velocity is up, his movement is the same, and he’s generating swings and misses while getting opposing hitters to chase. The rate differences are generally few and far between.

That is, until you reach one stat: first pitch strike percentage. Trevor Bauer has thrown strikes on the first pitch 56.6% of the time in 2019, a number down 7.1% from last year’s 63.7% mark.

While a 7.1% decrease might not seem excessive at face value, it’s considerably impactful for the remainder of each at-bat — baseball fans are well aware of how different the remainder of the at-bat can look when it starts 1-0 rather than 0-1.

Another spinoff of the first pitch issues happens to be what occurs when Bauer does find the zone on his first pitch offering. Last year, he permitted a 0.349 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) versus a middling 0.384 xwOBA in 2019. This drop in contact management efficiency equates to about 9%.

When talking odd first pitch developments, Bauer has gone away from throwing curves as get-me-ahead at-bat starters. He’s only gotten called or swinging strikes on first pitch benders 20 times this year, well short of matching the pace that netted him 84 of these instances in 2018. He did this likely because hitters started jumping on those curves last year. Fastballs have been far less kind in 2019, too.

Beyond first pitch issues lies a usage problem: Trevor Bauer has gone away from his bread and butter. He has dropped his curveball dependence 6%. Another marginal drop at face value, but when considered with other efficiency losses (like first pitch strike percentage), it equates to a big deal. Going from 26% to 20% curveball clips seems unwarranted. Look at the expected and actual weighted on-base average results against the pitch between this year and last:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

While his actual results on curveballs have been better this year, his expected results have not… even with this fact considered, his 2019 expected results are still positive. This speaks to the ability of the pitch to mitigate opposing hitters’ contact efficiency. A tinkering Trevor Bauer has instead upped his changeup and cutter usage, leading to slightly less appealing results.

If there’s anyone who is actively aware of these data points on a daily basis, it’s Trevor Bauer. Of course, he is doing everything he can to find his way back to prominence because he’s insanely competitive and struggles like this hurt his arbitration earning potential, which will be a key point in this coming offseason. Getting ahead of hitters a bit more often and finding a happy medium for his curve usage would be a step in the right direction to shouldering more of the load with three starters down and adding a few dollars to his arbitration salary in 2020.

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