+

Going Deep: Jake’s New Rake

Why Jake Bauers is interesting

I have a confession to make. Two actually. One: I don’t watch nearly as many baseball games as I used to. And actually, when I do catch a game I’ve found that I’ve grown fond of listening to the audio broadcasts because simply put, baseball is 80-grade background noise. The other one is that I grew up a Yankee fan. Now that my sins have been atoned for, let’s flashback to May 9th: Yankees vs. A’s. I knew that Jake Bauers had made some noise earlier in the spring but I had admittedly overlooked that he had been called up about a week earlier; at that point, I had almost forgotten about him.

But he jogged my memory during his last at-bat of the night. The scene was reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Only instead of watching myself brandish a prop gun while playing cops and robbers on the silver screen, I was immersed in the excited reaction of longtime Yankee play-by-play announcer John Sterling to a missile hit by a player whom I had drafted some years earlier in a startup dynasty league. I’ve been told that seeing is believing, so I checked out the home run later and was not disappointed.

That’s 420 feet to left-center, an impressive poke. But don’t take my word for it. Shortly before Laz Díaz shoved him off the deep end, Yankee manager Aaron Boone said, “The bullpen in left-center is not an easy place for a left-handed hitter to go… That’s different.”

Indeed it is. A baseball savant search revealed a meaningless, but fun stat: since the 2016 season, only 22 left-handed batters have reached a projected distance of 420 feet to center in Yankee Stadium. Including Bauers, only four of them were Yankees.

 

In the Beginning

 

Let’s first step into the time capsule to see where it all began. Bauers was drafted right out of high school by the San Diego Padres in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. He hit enough at A-ball the following year to convince the Rays and so they acquired him as part of the deal that sent Wil Myers to the Padres. A year later, he was a 19-year-old in Double-A and performed well as the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League. His power began to percolate in 2016 when he swatted a career-best 14 home during his second season in Double-A.

He spent 2017 with Triple-A Durham. At that point, his profile was driven by his ability to get on base with an above-average hit tool. Although his power ceiling remained questionable, the pipeline report also noted he had a penchant for barrelling the baseball. That last bit ended up being true, although not until now, years later. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

After spending the first 52 games of the 2018 season in Durham, Bauers made his MLB debut on June 7th and finished with a .700 OPS across 96 games with the Rays. Not great. But as a player who sped through the minors having logged 200 games in Double-A before turning 21, you didn’t have to squint too hard to see a potential post-hype sleeper.

 

From Sleeper to Bust

 

If you’ve been frequenting Pitcher List for a while then you might recall that our person of interest has been the subject of a least two pieces. Daniel Port discussed Bauers in January 2019, a few weeks after the then-Cleveland Indians had acquired him in a three-team trade that sent Yandy Díaz to the Rays and Edwin Encarnación to the Mariners.

Alas, the breakout didn’t happen. Although, he did have at least one highlight that season, and a big one, too: He hit for the cycle on June 2nd. But that was it. He spent August with Triple-A Columbus and ended the season hitting .226 with a .683 OPS.

Bauers spent the entirety of the 2020 season, all two months of it, banished in Cleveland’s alternate site. The following spring, he appeared to have a tenuous hold on the team’s starting first base job and as Chad Young detailed this seemed like his final chance to prove himself.

By this point, the book on Bauers was that he showed above-average walk rates but typified a passive approach that led to a heightened strikeout rate, ie, he had a high called-strike rate. That’s not a death sentence by itself, but he didn’t hit for enough power to compensate. In the end, we were left with a decent walk rate but not much else.

He didn’t show much in 2021 either. After 43 games during which he hit .190, Cleveland pulled the plug and DFA’d him. Five days later, the Mariners acquired him for a Player to be Named Later. Things didn’t get much better in Seattle. Other than trimming a couple of points off his strikeout rate, there was no progress to report.

However, he had one big moment. On September 19th, he crushed a home run at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City off right-hander Jackson Kowar that splashed into the fountains in the second deck. At 460 feet, it was then the longest home run hit by a Mariner since Mike Zunino three years earlier. It was also his second-hardest hit of the year with an EV of 112.2. At the very least it provided a fleeting glimpse of the sort of power that had up until then laid dormant in his bat.

 

A turning point

 

After signing a minor-league deal with the Reds in December 2021, Bauers spent the first 29 games of 2022 toiling in Triple-A Louisville where he posted a .557 OPS. It was hard to imagine him getting another shot at that point. Then the Reds sent him to the Yankees for cash considerations. He finished 2022 in Scranton/Wilkes Barre with a .758 OPS in 32 games. A decent improvement at least, but as a 26-year-old in Triple-A it was nothing to write home about.

And then, something clicked. He made a lot of noise in spring. That, of course, wouldn’t mean much by itself but then he followed it up with an impressive showing in Scranton/Wilkes Barre where he hit .319 with nine home runs across 21 games with the Rail Riders. For a player whose previous power peak occurred seven years ago in Double-A when he hit 14 home runs across 135 games, the recent results seemed alarmingly unprecedented.

Bauers attributed the sudden surge to a psychological change, a clearing of the mind, that sort of thing. As far as something more tangible, or mechanical I wasn’t able to unearth anything specific. But as we’ll see, his underlying numbers right now are awfully hard to ignore.

 

Bauers’ new Powers

 

So why am I interested in a player with a middling .724 OPS through 70 games? For one thing, it’s a decent step up from his career mark of .667, and player progression, no matter how subtle, is worth keeping tabs on. But more importantly, Bauers is really hitting the baseball with authority. Do you like barrels? Good, let’s take a look.

Barrels/BBE % 100 BBE minimum

That’s a pretty solid-looking list of home run hitters. Except now it includes our man whose previous high in barrel rate was 7.0% during his rookie season of 2018. Here’s where we should acknowledge that although the sample size is fairly small at 129 BBE you can’t ignore it, either; barrel rate tends to stabilize relatively quickly becoming more signal than noise at around 50 BBE.

And if you prefer Barrels/PA %, Bauers would be fifth on the list at 11.1%.

Another way to look at it: Bauers’ xwOBACON of .508 is eighth among all batters with at least 100 PA, between Mike Trout and Evan Longoria. Hey, Longo still hits the ball hard!

A look at his PLV profile confirms his elite-level power too; he’s one of ten players (minimum 550 pitches) with a power grade of 75 or higher. Note that PLV power becomes sticky at around 95 BBE.

All this is to say that he’s doing something that he really hasn’t done before and that’s hit for power, and not just a little either but a lot.

 

Batting Stance

 

Let’s take a look to see how his batting stance and swing have changed this season. And, yes, of course, I’ve cherry-picked home run swings. Who wants to look at GIFs of groundballs hit to second base?

The first one is the home run I mentioned earlier, the big one he hit with the Mariners near the end of the 2021 season. One thing you’ll notice is that his stance was a little more open compared to where he is this year. And as we’ll see he holds his bat flat now.

 

So far, this is his longest yak of the year: 446 feet to right on a pitch that’s tailor-made for every left-handed slugger: down, and in. To be fair, this was garbage time and Drew VerHagen was only trying to end this bloodbath of a game but at the very least it shows the sort of power that Bauers has unleashed this season.

Luis Castillo tries to sneak some 97 mph cheddar past Bauers, but he’s too quick and blasts it 392 feet to right. He’s hit some home runs off some other good names this year, too, including Justin Verlander, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Bieber

This is a fun one. Bryce Miller’s fastball PLA of 2.44 is right behind Spencer Strider for the best in baseball (1,000 pitches thrown minimum). So the fact that Bauers is able to turn on it, especially considering the location, is exceptional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s look at a couple of stills from the first two videos. The angles are a little different, so it’s far from ideal, but I think we can at least get an idea of how his stance is different now. He’s closed off, the bat angle is flatter, and his hands are a little higher up behind his head. This could be the different angle but the way we can see slightly more of the back of his jersey illustrates how he’s really closed off now. It also looks to me that his posture is a little more rigid now, i.e. straight up and down like an arrow. I won’t pretend like I know what all this means in terms of hitting mechanics, to which I’m clueless, but the point is to say that he definitely looks different since we last saw him two years ago.

 

The Problem

 

And it’s a big one: strikeouts. We saw this rear its head a couple of Sundays ago when he went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in a game against the Marlins. Yikes, the platinum sombrero.

Through 66 games this season, Bauers is striking out at a 34.5% clip which would be the highest among qualifiers, beating out Jack Suwinski’s 33.7%. No sugarcoating that.

According to FanGraphs, Bauers’ 80.3% zone contact % would be between Trent Grisham (80.1%) and Jack Suwinski (80.4%) for the 19th lowest among qualifiers.

And his 69.0% contact % would be just in front of Luis Robert Jr. (68.9%) for the 11th-lowest among qualifiers; Brent Rooker is the lowest at 64.9%.

2021 Contact % Heat Map

2023 Contact % Heat Map

 

One thing you’ll notice when looking at his contact heat maps above (through 8/13 via FanGraphs) is that he’s having trouble with pitches up in the zone this season and noticeably more than in 2021. So his new setup/swing might be making him more susceptible to pitches up in the zone.

And yes, all his contact rates are career lows. Again, not great and I can’t discount that this could all lead to his fizzling out. But there are a few reasons why I’m cautiously optimistic that he might not completely bottom out. He has shown, as he has in the past, an above-average walk rate of 10.6%. Another way to look at it is PLV’s Decision Value, which for Bauers is 55. That means he’s making above-average swing decisions, which is critical for a player who has contact deficiencies.

The BAT X also has his K rate projected at 27.1%, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to his K rate drop a few points. Speaking of the BAT X, it also projects his slugging percentage at .423. That might seem boring, but it’s also noticeably above his career mark of .363.

 

Adding it all up

 

So Bauers has struggled a lot lately. And that’s an understatement; he’s hitting .143 through 15 games in August. Still, he’s remained a prominent part of the Yankee batting order. Although that might be more out of necessity or desperation for a lineup that is these days little more than Aaron Judge and a cast of characters. Consider this: for as much as Bauers has struggled lately, he’s still third on the team with a .435 slugging % and fifth with a. 310 wOBA (100 PA minimum). Aaron Boone’s insistence on sticking with Bauers might seem odd considering the lack of results lately but I read it as a vote of confidence and considering his exceptional batted ball metrics, he’s probably their best option.

Ask any Yankee fan and they’ll probably mention that at least one of Brian Cashman and company’s shortcomings has been not having enough left-handed power in the lineup. Didi Gregorius had his moments a few years ago but he fell well short of that archetype. Anthony Rizzo started strong this season but faded with what’s now being realized as post-concussion syndrome. Bauers in that case is a very interesting player to watch the rest of the way. However, his future with the Yankees seems tenuous. Rizzo is under contract through 2024, while Giancarlo Stanton should have the DH spot locked to himself. The Yankees also have at least a couple of OF prospects waiting in the wings, most notably Everson Pereira who is coincidentally being called up as we speak. Still, a reasonable showing from Bauers the rest of the way should mean that at least some team will have interest in him next year as a platoon bat perhaps something like Luke Raley with the Rays. And for a player whose big league career appeared to be in serious doubt before the season began, that qualifies as an extraordinary turnaround.

Sometimes breakouts happen and sometimes they don’t. Until a few years later. Or never at all. One thing I’ve increasingly appreciated is that for as much as we like to put everything under a microscope, so much of it is simply being in the right place and at the right time. José Bautista, who was just recently inducted into the Blue Jays Level of Excellence, was an all-time example of that. Bautista has said that his first manager with the Jays, Cito Gaston was one of the big reasons why his career took off. Maybe Bauers fizzles out and this all turns to dust. That’s a very real possibility. Or maybe he’s found something while working with the Yankees coaches and personnel. The point is, he was not that long ago a well-regarded talent who is doing something he’s never done before: hit for power. And the underlying numbers support it. Now he’s got an opportunity to see if he can stick.

In which case, John Sterling’s home run call for him, an allusion to the old FOX show 24, is apropos: He is indeed the man of the hour. With Anthony Rizzo on the shelf and the Yankee season flatlining like one of Keifer Sutherland’s less acclaimed roles, the runway is clear. “I won’t take it for granted,” he said after swatting the game-winning home run against Justin Verlander on August 5th. He speaks softly and these days, he’s swinging a big stick.

Ryan Amore

Writer for PL, artist, DFS enthusiast, and occasional Yankee fan. Once won a GPP with Henderson Alvarez. A proprietor of the Ketel Marte Fan Club. Appreciates walks but only of the base on ball variety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login