Dodgers Sign Trevor Bauer To Three-Year Deal by Ben Clemens February 5, 2021 The top free agent pitcher in baseball is no longer a free agent. After an interminable PR tour, Trevor Bauer has signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, as Jon Heyman first reported. The deal, a three-year, $102 million pact with opt outs after each year, bolsters an already-stout Dodgers rotation and ups the NL West arms race after the Padres’ busy offseason. It would hardly be honest to write about Bauer without mentioning who he is as a person, so let’s do that first. For lack of a better way to say it, he’s a jerk, a troll. That’s not harsh enough, but it points in the right direction. “Troll” undersells it: time and again, Bauer has stepped up to the line and then gone past it, lashing out and inducing his fans to harass someone before acting shocked at the fallout, claiming innocence. I won’t detail each individual incident, but suffice it to say that this goes beyond your typical Twitter sniping. The pattern is shockingly similar each time: Bauer takes offense at some perceived slight on social media, berates and otherwise insults the source of that slight (sometimes at great length), and then with a quote tweet, points his fans and followers in the woman’s direction (and it’s almost always a woman), who then proceed to harass her. Eventually, Bauer issues a banal non-apology about how he never intended to harm anyone and doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, despite the glib falsity of that statement. This isn’t an isolated incident, a poor decision made in his rash youth. It’s a pattern, and a well-documented one. I’m not here to legislate how you feel about that. I’ll simply invite you to consider how it feels to root for someone who repeatedly takes advantage of his popularity and power to make life worse for people without those things; how it feels to be one of those people. For the remainder of this article, though, I’m going to talk about what this means on the field, on the days where Bauer is pitching, though that hasn’t always been without conflict either. Before 2020, Bauer had been a talented but inconsistent starter. The glimpses were there from time to time; in 2018, he threw 175.1 innings of 2.21 ERA, 2.44 FIP excellence. He finished sixth in Cy Young voting that year in a strong AL field. In 2019, however, he backslid; his strikeout rate dipped, his walk rate ticked up, and he recorded the highest xFIP of his career, a 4.43 showing that moved his career mark to exactly 4.00. But something interesting happened in 2019. Bauer, then a member of the Cincinnati Reds, suddenly started throwing with more spin. The increase was sharp and sustained, and while it didn’t immediately produce better results, his fastball suddenly became one of the highest-spin, highest-movement four-seamers in baseball. Bauer has never publicly admitted to using a foreign substance to enhance his grip, but he’d be the first to tell you their effects, and quite frankly, most pitchers in baseball are doing it. Regardless of what caused his spin rate increase, though — and to be clear, I feel quite confident it was a sticky substance of some type — that increase carried over into 2020, arguably Bauer’s best season yet. In 11 starts, Bauer struck out 36% of opposing batters while walking only 6.1%. He posted a 1.73 ERA, second in the majors behind his former teammate Shane Bieber. He threw two shutouts (albeit of the seven inning variety). He posted a game score of 70 or higher in seven of his 11 outings. He captured 27 of 30 first place votes in winning the first Cy Young of his career. Bauer, you might say, did his best at the best possible time. His four-seam fastball was a major reason why. In his career before 2020, our pitch values pegged Bauer’s fastball for a total -0.5 runs of value. In other words, the pitch was almost exactly average over six seasons of pitching. In 2020, it was worth 14.3 runs above average. He got there with a little bit of everything. He threw the pitch more. Armed with extra spin and extra movement, he missed more bats with it. Most importantly, even when batters did hit it, they couldn’t square him up. The batted ball metrics on the pitch were as good as they’ve ever been: Four-Seam Metrics by Year Year wOBACON xwOBACON Barrel% Win% 2015 .390 .384 7.5% 26.1% 2016 .394 .476 11.6% 24.1% 2017 .395 .391 6.6% 21.3% 2018 .320 .369 7.3% 26.8% 2019 .426 .431 12.6% 29.0% 2020 .320 .317 8.8% 47.4% You might not recognize win percentage, the last column on this chart. That’s because I just made it up. Win percentage is the frequency with which Bauer induced opponents to hit the ball at angles where they couldn’t win, and he couldn’t help but win; below zero degrees or above 40 degrees. That’s where outs live. Put another way, he avoided squared-up contact; it’s hard to blast line drives all around the park when you’re hitting the ball into the ground or high in the air. Bauer’s 2020 success depended largely on that fastball. He throws plenty of other pitches — a slider, a cutter, and a curveball — but he pared back his two weakest offerings, a changeup and a sinker that both ranked as his worst pitches in past years. By focusing on what worked best and avoiding what didn’t, he looked much improved. How much improved? ZiPS thinks Bauer projects as the sixth-best pitcher in baseball this year, high praise for someone with two excellent seasons amid an otherwise solid but unspectacular career. Behold: ZiPS Projection – Trevor Bauer Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR 2021 15 7 3.33 30 30 184.0 155 68 21 58 211 131 4.5 2022 13 7 3.34 28 28 172.3 144 64 20 55 197 130 4.2 2023 12 7 3.44 27 26 162.0 139 62 19 52 180 126 3.7 ZiPS incorporates a ton of data — I picture Dan’s house as overflowing with hard drives — but it’s hard for a computer system to know things like “Bauer’s spin rate isn’t a fluke, and will likely stay this high.” That might make you think that ZiPS is underrating Bauer, but the machine isn’t dumb — there were measurable quantitative changes to Bauer’s stuff, which helps explain why he’s projected for 4.5 WAR despite only hitting that mark (on a pro-rated basis) in two of his seven seasons. This stuff is really hard to get a grip on! Pitcher aging is always a mystery box. The adage I repeat most frequently is that pitchers don’t decline, they break. That’s one of Bauer’s greatest strengths — ZiPS projects him to throw the fifth-most innings in the majors this year, and Steamer projects him to throw the most, period. Staying on the field is often half the battle, and Bauer excels there, self-inflicted drone wounds notwithstanding. The contract terms are unique. Bauer has an opt out after each year, and the salaries aren’t evenly distributed. He’ll make $40 million in 2021, $45 million in 2022 unless he opts out, and $17 million in 2023 if he chooses to stay that long. My opt out model basically laughs at the strangeness: Trevor Bauer’s Odds of Opting Out Length w/LAD Odds of Opting Out Salary ($mm) New Contract ($mm) Total 3-Year Pay 1 Year 3.9% 40 117.9 157.9 2 Years 75.8% 85 36.3 121.3 3 Years 20.3% 102 0 102 Total 1 86.7 32.1 118.8 Bauer is incredibly unlikely to opt out after this season. The model gives him a 3.9% chance, but even that may be too high. The model doesn’t have a single-season cap, because teams will often overpay players in their decline years to make up for paying them “only” $40 million for a year of their prime, but there are no decline years in this deal to use, so I find it unlikely Bauer could secure the full value of that first option. On the other hand, he’s highly likely to leave after 2022; he’d need to decline heavily (or get hurt) to think the best contract he could sign was for one year and $17 million. The model only compares what he’d make over the balance of the contract, but even if Bauer could only secure $17 million per year, he could likely get an extra year at that rate. In other words, he’s even more likely to stay after year one than my high projection, and even more likely to leave after year two than my high projection. The upshot for the Dodgers is that they’re getting two years of Bauer, plus a third one if something goes terribly awry. ZiPS thinks Bauer will be the best pitcher on the team, but he’s likely to slot in as their third starter behind homegrown talent Walker Buehler and living legend Clayton Kershaw, which means Bauer’s dream of starting every four days predictably died on the vine. Los Angeles already had enviable starting depth, but adding Bauer makes that depth truly monstrous. Julio Urías is their likely number four, David Price slots in as a preposterously overqualified fifth starter, and that’s before even considering Dustin May or Tony Gonsolin. That puts their rotation roughly on par with the rival Padres, who built a similarly deep group through trade rather than financial brawn. And the Dodgers may not be done with their offseason yet. Now $30 million over the competitive balance tax threshold, they have little incentive not to sign Justin Turner for the next two years, though should they clock in at $40 million over the threshold, their first round draft pick would fall 10 places, so it would behoove them to spread his money out over multiple years to dodge that particular penalty. The repeat offender CBT penalties are binary and the Dodgers have no shot of getting under that number this year, so splurging is the order of the day. Even if they are done, however, the Bauer signing is enough to make the Dodgers solid favorites in the NL West again. We saw them as slight favorites over the Padres before this deal, with only two wins separating them. Replacing the 30 worst starts with 30 starts from Bauer moves the needle significantly — by perhaps three wins, depending on who you think loses the most playing time with this move. Bauer had publicly mulled keeping contracts short-term in the past, and I think this deal represents a superior option to a string of one-year deals. He likely couldn’t secure a higher average annual value, period — he’ll be the highest-paid player in the game in both 2021 and 2022. Securing an extra option year is likely worthless, but if he tears his UCL in the second year of his deal, he surely won’t hate the chance to rehab with one of the savviest organizations in the game and get paid $17 million for it. Viewed then through the lens of savvy cap maneuvering, or netting a large pay day, or maximizing the quality of an already very good rotation, this deal checks all the boxes. We’re trained to like these sorts of signings, combining as they do smarts with a stated desire to win, a desire that is sadly often in short supply in today’s game. But it’s hard not to look at this through another lens, one that prioritizes accountability and how we treat one another over moving up the win curve, and find it wanting. Trevor Bauer got a clever deal, one befitting the sort of person and pitcher he sees himself as. He got paid. The Dodgers got better. I’m just not sure baseball did.