Trevor Bauer’s Breakout 2020 Makes Him A Very Risky Free Agent
In terms of teams looking to potentially sign him as a free agent, Bauer’s 2020 season was suspect because it was a complete outlier from the rest of his career.
From his first full season in 2014 until last year, Bauer was 68-56 with a 3.99 ERA, 1.285 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9, and a 9.6 K/9. Overall, he had a 111 ERA+ and a 3.85 FIP.
Breaking those seasons down a little further, he twice had a sub 100 ERA+. He twice had a 106 ERA+ and once had a 109 ERA+. In all but one of his seasons, his FIP ranged from 3.88 to 4.34.
From that, we see much of Bauer’s career stats were buttressed by a big 2018. In that season, Bauer was 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA, 1.089 WHIP, 2.9 K/9, and an 11.3 K/9. Overall, he was a 196 ERA+ and a league leading 2.04 FIP.
For a moment, it did seem like he was going to build off that season. Prior to his being traded to the Reds, he had a 126 ERA+ and a 4.15 FIP. This progression was shaping to easily be his second best season as a starter.
His season tailed off from there. With the Reds in 2019, he had a 73 ERA+ and a 4.85 FIP. There are many reasons to explain this drop off including small sample sizes, adjusting to a new team and league, and much more.
Looking at his career, no one should’ve anticipated Bauer’s breakout 2020 season. Essentially, he had gone from a slightly better than average pitcher to a real bona fide Cy Young level pitcher.
Over 11 starts, Bauer was 5-4 with a 1.74 ERA, 0.795 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, and a 12.3 K/9. Overall, he’d lead the league in ERA, and he’d have a league leading 276 ERA+. He also had a 2.88 FIP.
Of note, entering 2020, he had averaged just under 6.0 innings per start. In 2020, he averaged 6.2 innings per start.
Part of the reason for that could be the shortened season. In 2020, Bauer made 11 starts, which is one-third of the workload of your normal 162 game season. That presented a rare opportunity for starters to go out there and let it fly.
Another issue is the level of competition he faced. Aside from the Chicago White Sox, every lineup Bauer faced this year was in the bottom third in the majors in terms of offense.
Like the good pitcher he is and has always been, he went out there and beat the bad teams. In fact, he dominated them. Honestly, that should come as a big surprise to no one.
All this does is present a challenge for teams looking to sign him. Going to his Baseball Savant page, Bauer’s spin numbers were off the charts. They were a substantial improvement from last season.
We saw that reflected in his high strikeout totals despite Bauer having lower velocity numbers. This shows just how effectively and smart Bauer pitched this year.
The question now is why. Was Bauer able to put extra spin knowing he had just 11 starts, and he wouldn’t need to hold something back to survive the rigors of a 162 game season? Was he using foreign substances like people are widely suspecting? Or did Bauer just figure something out?
On the latter, Derek Johnson is a very well regarded pitching coach. Mets fans are somewhat familiar with him due to his work with Matt Harvey. Johnson briefly reclamated Harvey’s career after the trade. Unfortunately, Harvey has not been able to sustain success since leaving Cincinnati.
To his credit, Bauer appears to be a pitcher always working on his craft and searching for new ways to improve. He’s clearly bought in on analytics, and he’s looking to see how he can use it and other means to be the best pitcher he can be.
What this all boils down to is Bauer is a pitcher who turns 30 before Spring Training next year, and he’s a free agent.
Teams looking to sign him have to decide if Bauer has truly found something, and now, he’s having a career renaissance similar to what we saw Jacob deGrom have at the same age. They also need to decide whether this was a career year which resulted from this being a short season and his facing just terrible offensive teams.
Ultimately, that’s the risk associated with signing Bauer. You just don’t know if you’re giving big money to a guy who had an unrepeatable career year or if you’re getting a bargain for a pitcher about to become a perennial Cy Young contender.