Trevor Bauer is the top pitching prize of this offseason, and it appears like the market for him is starting to develop.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are perceived as a popular candidate to eventually land Bauer, based on their willingness to spend money and the general allure of being a successful franchise.
The common belief surrounding their overall chances of signing Bauer was that it would likely have to be a relatively short-term deal with a high average annual value.
There was buzz that Bauer would be willing to essentially bet on himself to hit the market again shortly instead of opting for long-term security on a fixed rate.
The logic was that Bauer would sign somewhere for as brief as one season for a huge AAV and then use another great season under his belt to explore potential long-term deals in a future offseason.
This scenario would allow Bauer to have his cake and eat it, too, assuming he would have another great season on his short-term deal. He would add his increased money from his short-term deal to an eventual long-term contract, making more money than he would have by only inking the long-term contract for less AAV than a short term.
Bauer being open to an agreement like this has led many to assume the Dodgers would be more than willing to oblige him. However, if recent reports are factual, Bauer is not looking for a short-term deal, which changes things.
Jon Heyman of MLB Network reports that Bauer is seeking a contract in the range of five-to-six years for $36-40 million per season, which would come out to about a $200 million total throughout the deal.
It’s important to note that Bauer denies this, and his agent Rachel Luba has refused to comment on the ongoing talks with teams.
The Dodgers have historically preferred to prioritizing fiscal flexibility by offering short-term contracts. A good example is their pursuit of Bryce Harper a couple of offseasons ago, in which they reportedly were only willing to go short on years but hefty on AAV.
Harper eventually chose to go with long-term security that the Philadelphia Phillies offered, albeit with a lower AAV than the Dodgers presented to him.
Each free agent is different, though, and the fact that Bauer has previously been reluctant to the idea of a long-term deal led many to believe he was pursuing the short-term, high AAV route for his new contract.
If Heyman is accurate, then it appears that the Dodgers may not be in as good of shape to land Bauer as once believed. That’s assuming they were ever all that bullish on acquiring Bauer, though, especially given how their projected rotation looks right now.
Yes, acquiring Bauer short-term without much commitment is enticing, but if Bauer is seeking something long-term, the Dodgers could be less enthusiastic about any pursuit of Bauer.
The Los Angeles starting rotation for next season looks like it’ll feature some combination of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Dustin May, Julio Urias, and Tony Gonsolin.
That’s some incredible depth, meaning that allocating the economic resources that Bauer would seemingly command may not even be necessary for this team.
Bauer wanting a long-term contract makes it less likely he ultimately will end up with the Dodgers.
Bauer is coming off a 2020 season in which he won the NL Cy Young Award and led the NL with a 1.73 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP.
Bauer is a unique case because, despite his phenomenal 2020 season, the rest of his career doesn’t look like the typical track record of someone poised to sign a potentially historic contract.
He had an ERA below 4.15 in just one of six full seasons as a starter before this Cy Young season, and a WHIP below 1.24 just once as well. He was an All-Star in 2018 and finished that season with a 2.21 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, placing sixth in AL Cy Young voting.
If you take away his 2018 and 2020 season, he looks like a completely different pitcher than the one about to cash in this offseason for a possibly historic contract.
From 2012-2017, he had a total ERA of 4.36 and WHIP of 1.36 in 132 games in 728.2 innings pitched over that time. His 2019 season was uneven as well. He had a 3.79 ERA with a 1.21 WHIP in 24 starts with the Cleveland Indians but a 6.39 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with the Cincinnati Reds.
The question for baseball executives around the league is if Bauer will look more like 2018 and 2020 or 2012-2017 and 2019 going forward.
With the Dodgers already sporting a formidable rotation with a nice mix of veteran stars and young talent, any long-term commitment to Bauer would need to hold up to due diligence.
It’s worth investigating what Bauer did differently during his 2018 and 2020 seasons that set him up to attract such a projected contract.
He had his highest strikeout rates those seasons and his lowest walk rates, as well as his lowest batting averages against, and his lowest WHIPs.
The 2018 and 2020 seasons were also Bauer’s best in terms of the lowest contract rate and the highest percentage of pitches swung and missed.
There hasn’t been much change in velocity throughout his career. Generally, his fastball has been averaging anywhere from 93-95 MPH. Last season featured around a 1 MPH dip in fastball velocity from where it has been 2018-2019, but that slight dip didn’t impact his effectiveness.
He threw his cutter more last season than ever before, throwing it 19.6% of the time, whereas his career rate is just 10.9%. He also threw his changeup far less this past season, throwing it just 0.3% of the time when he had thrown it 12.1% back in 2016.
It’s interesting to look at how his pitching patterns have changed relative to what they were back in the 2016 season in particular.
Bauer threw a sinker 29.1% of the time in 2016. By 2020 that rate had plummeted to just 1.1% of the time. Bauer was throwing either a sinker or a changeup 41.2% of the time in 2016. By 2020, he was throwing those pitches just 1.4% of the time.
What made his pitch repertoire different in his 2018 and 2020 seasons was fewer fastballs, changeups, sinkers, and more sliders, cutters, and curveballs. He stopped throwing a splitter beginning in the 2018 season. He had relied upon that pitch as much as 21.7% of the time during his 2013 season. He also stopped throwing his screwball by the 2016 season. He had relied upon that pitch as much as 22.9% of the time back in 2013.
His patterns have evolved throughout his career, and it’s easy to point out aspects he did differently in his two best seasons.
He had a lower exit velocity on balls being hit in 2015 than he did in 2020, as well as a lower percentage of balls hit off the barrel and a lower hard-hit balls percentage. His 2016 percentage of balls hit off the barrel was even lower than it was in 2015, and that’s a reason for some optimism that his 2018 and 2020 seasons could have been foreshadowed by analyzing some earlier data.
It appears that while Bauer was finally able to put it all together in 2018 and 2020, there had been previous signs that he could be in store for dominant seasons like that.
Those 2018 and 2020 seasons do not seem to be completely unprecedented relative to the rest of his career. That points to some optimism he can perform admirably under a gigantic contract like the one he seeks.
If Bauer is looking for a long-term deal, though, it makes it far less likely the Dodgers will be legitimate suitors for him.
The best chance for Bauer to end up with the Dodgers was always a short-term deal that features a higher AAV than other teams would offer him on long-term contracts.
There are still many variables that need to be played out regarding this Bauer pursuit, and given his recent credentials as the most recent NL Cy Young Award winner, it is a story certainly worth monitoring.
It’s not every offseason that the defending World Series champion is in the mix for a pitcher coming off a Cy Young win.