The SF Giants are rumored to be very interested in signing starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. While he may fit an obvious roster need, his profile is filled with red flags.
Some early free-agent rumors have already tied the SF Giants to starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. Considered by many to be the best free-agent pitcher available, Bauer addresses one of the Giants most obvious weak spots heading into 2021. However, other options will be cheaper, could come with longer track-records of success, and do not have a history of harassing people online.
SF Giants Free Agent Review:
Reexamining Trevor Bauer’s 2020 Season
Let’s start by examining Bauer’s 2020 season. In 11 starts, Bauer completed 73 innings, struck out 100, walked just 17, and allowed just 14 earned runs (good for an elite 1.73 ERA). While the results have not been revealed, Bauer is a finalist for the NL Cy Young and may very well win the award. Yet, as dominant as his numbers appear on the surface, there are some concerning red flags from his performance.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is one of the most notorious regression stats in baseball. A few pitchers manage to control contact well enough to limit hits on balls in play consistently throughout their careers, but they are the exceptions. Pitchers consistently have less control of their BABIP than hitters. Bauer, who’s career BABIP entering the season was .298, had a career-best .215 BABIP this season. It’s almost impossible to envision him repeating that performance.
If Bauer’s BABIP was just .295 in 2020, much more in line with his career totals, Bauer would have allowed 12 more hits, increasing his WHIP by nearly 20 points. Of course, with more hits and more baserunners, Bauer may have faced longer innings and given up more runs as well. You can see this reflected in stats like FIP that aim to evaluate a pitcher independently of their defense. According to FIP, Bauer had a career-best FIP of 2.88. Still strong, but a far cry from the all-time 1.73 ERA he posted.
Left on-base percentage (LOB%) measures how many batters reach base against a pitcher via hit, walk, or hit by pitch and score. Pitchers have some control over their LOB%. Obviously, a pitcher who racks up more strikeouts, like Bauer, is better positioned to work their way out of a jam. Still, while the league-average hovers around 72%, aces like Max Scherzer barely strand more than 80% of their baserunners allowed. Bauer’s strand-rate in 2020 was 90.9%.
Had Bauer posted a LOB% at the 2019 league-average of 72.3% (his career LOB% is 73.8%), his ERA would have jumped to 2.83. Another example of a strong 11-start campaign in 2020, but not the exceptional season that his ERA implies.
When you combine those two effects, Bauer’s season becomes much more like his career performance. By adjusting Bauer’s hits for a .295 BABIP and then adjusting his LOB% to 72.9%, Bauer’s ERA jumps to 3.58. Given Bauer’s career ERA is 3.90 and his 2020 xFIP of 3.25, both seem to suggest that Bauer may not be the surefire ace many are making him out to be.
The fact is, Bauer’s free-agent case is heavily reliant on an exceptional 11-start performance that was an aberration from his overall career. In fact, a deeper dive into that small-sample suggests it might have been as much a product of good luck as his own career-best performances. Plenty of pitchers have managed 11-start stretches with an ERA below 2.00 and had Bauer suffered a bit more bad luck, and his ERA was 3.00 or above; his free-agent candidacy would be viewed drastically differently.
Bauer’s cult will point to his career-high strikeout rate and unexplained jump in spin-rate as signs that his 2020 performance is sustainable. Of course, the only explanation Bauer has given for this sudden jump is the use of illegal substances. MLB has been lax in its enforcement of banned substances for some time, but if that changes or Bauer gets caught, neither bode well for his future.
While Marcus Stroman opted-out of the 2020 season, there is a strong argument that Stroman has been a better pitcher than Bauer over their careers, has fewer innings on his arm over the past few years, and is better situated for sustainable success long-term.
SF Giants Free Agent Review:
Trevor Bauer’s Harmful Off-Field History
Yet, aside from his work on the field, Bauer’s off-field behavior is a direct indictment of his character. An avid Donald Trump supporter, Bauer has a history of branding himself as a unique player who beats to his own drum as a cover for much more insidious practices.
For years, Bauer has used social media as his playpen. Whenever someone lodges criticism his way, it can become a justification to fire back on social media and encourage his hundreds of thousands of followers to target them. Often, the people on the receiving end of Bauer’s crowdsourced harassment are women with no substantial social media following.
His “loose cannon” persona becomes the justification for him to say whatever he wants, even when it’s transphobic. Then he points to the most disrespectful tweets he received, ignores those who attempt to engage in dialogue, and is credited for being a champion against cyber-bullying. He never takes responsibility for his behavior in the situation nor dives into the hateful tweets he fosters by encouraging his followers to engage.
To many, perhaps most, baseball fans it’s all fun and games. However, being a professional athlete, or anyone with a significant following, comes with a level of power and responsibility. Wielding it to harass people, especially those disproportionately at risk of being harassed, is dangerous and harmful.
Even if Bauer were likely to replicate the caliber of success he showed in 2020, the Giants need to consider the type of team they’re building. Plenty of fans will probably say, “win at all costs,” but that’s exactly what built the Houston Astros. That same ideology built an organization that unapologetically cheated and had a top executive yelling at female reporters about a player who committed domestic violence.
All of this together should lead San Francisco away from Bauer as a top target. He’s in a prime position to be the highest-paid player on the market or at least the highest-paid pitcher. Yet, even before you get to his problematic behavior off the field, several statistics raise questions about whether he’s even the caliber of pitcher many are calling him.
There’s a reason SF Giants fans remember Cody Ross more fondly than Aubrey Huff. It’s not because of contributions on the field, but because of what they did off it. The fact is Trevor Bauer’s profile is filled with red flags while historically similar starters without that baggage, like Stroman, are available and will probably cost substantially less.