Undeniably, there has not been more preliminary scrutiny over a contract in recent years than the deal the Los Angeles Dodgers made for pitcher Trevor Bauer last winter. While the three-year, $102 million agreement makes Bauer among MLB’s highest-paid players, only time will tell if it was a sound investment. However, based on what we’ve seen already, the reasons the team went above and beyond to sign the righty starter are starting to become visible, shenanigans aside.
Friday night’s opener against the Giants was perhaps the Dodgers’ most important game of the young 2021 season so far, and Bauer delivered yet another gritty, clutch performance. The contest was highlighted by several of Bauer’s eccentric, trademark antics, but once the dust settled on the scoreboard, the Dodgers walked away with a huge 2-1 victory.
No question, the 30-year-old North Hollywood native has become one of the most critical parts of the Los Angeles starting rotation just seven weeks into this year’s campaign.
Enhancing the Rivalry
The funny thing about the rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers is that it had been seemingly fading, especially considering the departure of lefty Madison Bumgarner from San Francisco two winters ago. Undoubtedly, the rivalry between these two clubs stretches back more than a century to New York City, but when the Giants began disappearing from the top of the NL West standings, the intensity started to lessen.
In the eyes of San Francisco fans, Yasiel Puig filled the role of the villain several years back, and Max Muncy was among the hated after his “Ocean Ball” against Bumgarner during the summer of 2019. However, Bauer might have opened a new can of worms, apparently becoming the new villain of the rivalry when he walked off the field on Friday night.
Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports summed up Bauer’s stage presence nicely: “He [Bauer] feuded with the home plate umpire, capped a big strikeout with a demonstrative sword celebration, and urged the biggest crowd at Oracle Park in nearly two years to go to another level with boos.”
Conceivably, not every major league player can get away with this type of mischief, but Bauer’s effectiveness on the mound is backing up all the frivolous capers we’ve seen from his so far.
Before the beginning of Saturday’s games, Bauer’s 10 starts and 63-2/3 innings pitched are at the very top of the MLB leaderboards, but these numbers only tell just a small part of the story. On more than one occasion, a Bauer start was pushed back to follow a Los Angeles bullpen game, as the team depended on him to eat some much-needed innings when the relief corps appeared to be exhausted.
At the end of April, fans saw Bauer follow up a bullpen effort with his first complete game of the year, which ended up being a 2-1 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee. In that affair, he threw 113 pitches. In Friday’s opener against the Giants, Bauer logged 126 pitches in another gutsy display, but this time there was just enough scoring to notch him his fifth victory of the season. While his breaking pitches seemed to have lost a bit of crispness toward the end, the fact that he was still touching 96 MPH in the seventh inning suggested he still had a bit left in the tank.
“We needed him to go deep tonight, and he took that challenge, embraced it and left it all out there,” said skipper Dave Roberts in Friday’s postgame.
So far this year, Bauer’s numbers are eerily similar to some of the peripherals that helped seal his Cy Young Award last season. His strikeouts per nine innings currently sit at 12.4, which is a tick above the 12.3 he finished with last season. His 0.770 WHIP this year is lower than his 2020 mark of 0.795. Obviously, the season is still young, but if these trends hold true, we might see him in the conversation for another Cy Young come the end of 2021.
“He was really good,” said Roberts of Bauer’s performance on Friday. “The more you see him, I mean you just love the competitiveness, the execution, the ability to make pitches when he needs to.”
At 30 years old, Bauer’s velocity is still there, and his spin rate is higher than ever. Perhaps more importantly, he has not hit the injured list since the 2018 season with a small stress fracture in his leg, emphasizing another reason behind the Dodgers’ strong pursuit of him as a free agent.
Right now, Bauer’s WHIP is fourth in the majors among all qualified pitchers, and his 1.98 ERA is good enough for seventh. With his ability to go deep into games, the sky’s the limit in terms of his prospective 2021 end-of-season stats. Most essentially, though, his contributions may be crucial to yet another Los Angeles playoff run.
“You can argue that in his starts, his last 20 throws have been his best throws as far as stuff, where most guys, at 100 throws, 110 throws, you’re reaching back and there isn’t much left,” Roberts said.