Few players in baseball are better at making people talk about them than Trevor Bauer. Science, politics, beef with the commissioner, even some rather nasty cyberbullying — it can all be found in Bauer’s Twitter account. This time, perhaps thankfully, it’s Bauer’s play on the field that’s drawing our attention to him yet again. After a tumultuous and frustrating 2019 season, he’s one of few humans still looking their best midway through 2020, tossing 13.1 innings of four-hit ball to start the year while allowing just a single earned run, including a historic seven-inning shutout in Detroit on Sunday.
But there’s something else about Bauer that’s raising eyebrows, and it’s not his performance. A couple great outings aren’t anything new to the mercurial right-hander, but the spin rates he’s posting sure are. First, he registered a mean of 2268 RPM on his fastball (almost perfectly average) for his career until ticking up to a career-best 2412 RPM in 2019. Now, it’s surged to an eye-popping 2827 RPM, the highest in baseball and more than 200 RPM ahead of Mike Minor, the second-ranked starting pitcher on the leaderboard.
Gaining or losing a little spin isn’t necessarily the most uncommon thing in the world. Let’s take a look at the biggest spin gainers of this young 2020 season and see where he lies:
|Δ Velo (mph)
(Source: Baseball Savant)
Yowza! Year-to-year fluctuations of up to a couple hundred RPM aren’t super out of the ordinary, and this year in particular we must account for inconsistencies caused by the switch from Trackman to Hawkeye camera systems. However, a 400 RPM jump with no hint of a corresponding velocity increase is decidedly not normal.
Let’s cut to the chase, then: Either Bauer has discovered the secret to drastically increasing a pitcher’s spin without adding velocity, or he’s rather brazenly doctoring the ball with some kind of sticky substance. This binary is by Bauer’s own admission, as the perpetually online hurler caustically brought to our attention with regards to Gerrit Cole’s 2018 breakout:
If only there was just a really quick way to increase spin rate. Like what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight…imagine the steals you could get on the trade market! If only that existed…
I told all my spin rates to stop acting like such Coles all the time but they still went up 400 rpm. Will try to get them under control but sometimes they just don’t listen to me and make their own business decisions. ??♂️ https://t.co/UKAzQVvveU
The thing is, Bauer’s two starts with league-best spin rates aren’t new to 2020. It’s a trend that began last September, an “experiment” that Fangraphs’ Ben Clemens discussed in a fantastic article several months ago. (It’s very much worth noting, anecdotally, that the second tweet above was posted just days after the article’s publication). “My base case,” Clemens asserted, “is that Bauer got back into the sticky stuff.” It’s taken a few months longer than expected to find out, but it appears now that the sticky stuff may permanently be a part of Bauer’s approach moving forward.
So What, Who Cares?
The fact that there’s almost certainly some kind of technically illegal stickum being used isn’t very interesting on its own. In spite of MLB’s alleged crackdown on the pine tar practice, everyone does it, nobody cares (so long as there’s at least a little effort to hide it), and it actually makes some hitters feel more comfortable and less at risk of taking a 98 mph heater to the dome.
(As an aside: With seats down the right field corner at Dodger Stadium for the semifinal of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, I vividly recall watching Mark Melancon amble over to a deep, dark corner of the bullpen to empty half a can of sunscreen onto his forearm before loading it with rosin. He walked one in two-thirds of an inning against Japan that night.)
While we’ve lately been conditioned to understand that more spin is good and desirable, the fact that this extra stickiness has added tons of it in this case might not be super interesting either. Clemens already did that work for us, and he determined that while the extra spin did give Bauer’s four-seamer a little more ride, it didn’t seem to make the pitch more effective. His movement data for 2020 appears to show the same 1 to 2 inches of added rise identified by Clemens. It also shows that, like in September, it hasn’t fundamentally changed how well hitters are seeing and swinging at the pitch.
So what’s there to see here? In a word, spin simply may not be the name of the game. Spin is the reason we know that there’s something fishy going on, and it’s mostly spin that Clemens is concerned with in his analysis. His article wasn’t about Bauer’s pitching performance as a whole, just what he happened to be doing with his fastball.
Critically, Clemens’ examination also somewhat assumes that increased spin is the primary motivation for doctoring the ball. I’m not so sure that’s the case. Added spin is a side effect of a little sticky, but it’s far from the only effect. In this case, it may just be a red herring. There’s a reason that pitchers have been slopping pine tar on their caps, gloves, pants and necks since long before Rapsodo was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. It helps with control! Pine tar may not change the way Bauer’s pitches move, but it could very well change where he’s able to throw them.
Velocity and movement in conjunction with control and command — that’s the stuff that wins games on a pitch-by-pitch basis. Spin can only do so much for you if you don’t know where it’s going, and a little stickiness can definitely help with that. But nobody’s ever been able to hazard much of a guess at exactly how much of a positive effect it has. Lack of transparency is part of the deal for getting away with it, after all. The kind of before/after split beginning last September identified by Clemens is rarely visible. Now, thanks to what we know about spin — and perhaps Bauer’s proclivity for drawing attention to himself — we have a fairly straightforward case study of how this stuff changes at-bats.
Bauer in Control
There’s no lack of incentive on Bauer’s part. A smidge more control would greatly behoove a pitcher as talented and maddeningly inconsistent as he can be. Clemens was led to leave the question of effectiveness up in the air partly because Bauer’s run prevention wasn’t anything to write home about. On the surface, he didn’t seem to be pitching too differently, with an unimpressive 4.10 ERA and 4.73 FIP in September not registering as out of place at the conclusion of what was a disappointing campaign.
But wait! Upon looking closer, spin rates weren’t the only things that changed when Bauer conducted his experiment. Over the course of a full season, the 5.7% walk rate he posted in September would have been a career best by nearly two and a half points, accompanied by a 23.8% K-BB% that would have blown away his career high. Further, expected statistics sure seemed to think he was allowing weaker contact. In theory, splits like these track with a pitcher who’s figured out how to put the ball in better spots:
(Source: Fangraphs/Baseball Savant)
By many measures, Bauer has been a demonstrably better pitcher since the start of last September, in spite of the month’s subpar run prevention. We see that his FIP was particularly haunted by his predilection for throwing gopher balls. Disproportional results are wont to follow a 20% HR/FB rate in any given month.
Nonetheless, it’s astounding to see the often-erratic hurler’s BB% and K-BB% fall and rise so dramatically. Including 2019, the former has never dropped below 8% for a full season, and the latter has only once exceeded 19%, during his Cy Young-caliber 2018 season. It’s not common for a nigh-30 year old with 1,100 big league innings under his belt to change his command profile so suddenly and drastically. It only takes a few bad pitches to change a game, so while the results weren’t there last September, it’s clear that on a batter-by-batter basis, something was clicking a little differently.
Pine Tar and Pitch Command
So, Bauer’s control ticked up quite a bit at the same time his spin rates mysteriously spiked. It all still tracks with adding a little sticky-icky-icky to the repertoire! But there’s also another simple way to take a gander at whether he was actually commanding the ball better at the same time he was spinning it more: look at where he’s throwing the ball! Let’s take a peek at Bauer’s pitch locations on Tom Tango’s attack zone chart (click here for a helpful visual), which divides the plate into four concentric areas called the heart, shadow, chase, and waste zones. The heart of the plate is exactly what it sounds like, while the shadow represents the edges of the strike zone where a call can feasibly go either way:
(Source: Baseball Savant)
What we see here is that when Bauer spiked his spin rate and chopped his walk rate almost in half, he started throwing a fair amount more in the shadow and chase zones. Balls thrown in these areas are typically pitchers’ pitches. If done right, they’re close enough to the zone to draw a swing, but enough on or off the edge of the plate that the hitter has to take a pretty good hack to be able to do much damage. It’s hard to execute to these spots consistently, but as Niko Goodrum and Travis Demeritte learned this week, there’s not much to do but tip your cap to the pitcher when he’s painting corners like these:
Bauer certainly has the stuff to succeed without relying on peppering the edge of the zone like Kyle Hendricks (47.5%) or Masahiro Tanaka (46.0%). And working in the shadow zone isn’t a recipe for success in and of itself. What’s important about Bauer’s shift is that these new pitches in the shadow and chase zones are coming at the expense of waste pitches and hangers over the heart of the plate. He’s throwing more competitive pitches, and turning some easy takes and easy swings into something the hitter has to think about. It makes a difference in crunch time, and it might partially be how Bauer has managed to allow just three walks so far this year despite throwing 25 pitches in three-ball counts.
That’s what a little extra command does for you. A closer pitch and shorter at-bat here can lead to another strikeout or inning pitched there. When walk rates get cut in half, you’re leaving a lot of extra pitches to spend on fewer hitters. It’s what will let a pitcher get through the middle innings without their best stuff and still turn their 100-110 pitches into 7 innings, as Bauer did on Sunday. Just being able to throw a 95 mph fastball exactly where you want it is enough to get out of most jams, and this year, Bauer’s sure looked like he knows where he wants to dot his fastballs:
To be sure, we’re talking about small margins here; maybe an extra four or five pitches per game going to the edges that weren’t before. But those are the margins baseball is played on. With two strikes on Miguel Cabrera, missing the two red spots on that chart by an inch in either direction is probably going to lead to some hurt! And as any pitcher knows, four or five bad pitches can be more than enough to swing a game one way or the other. It can be the difference between the frustrating, inconsistent, and occasionally brilliant pitcher Bauer has been for most of his career, and the consistently dominant one we saw in 2018 and may be on track for in 2020.
Pulling It All Together
In reality, I know jack-all about what Trevor Bauer is actually doing or why he’s doing it. He’s living his own strange world, and all I can do is put together what’s all already out there. For better and sometimes worse, and he tries to stay on the edge of the curve. For all I know, he really has found the key to significant non-substance-induced spin increases that still to our knowledge don’t exist.
But hey, all evidence points to slapping something sticky on the ball, and it sure looks like it’s having a positive effect, if not necessarily the one we think it is. Other demons of inconsistently may arise and test Bauer’s professed desire to go year-to-year in free agency, but he’ll be in much better shape if shaky command isn’t one of them. After all, if pine tar didn’t work sometimes, they would’ve stopped using it by now!
Considering the lip service given by MLB towards cutting down on ball doctoring, this may be little more than a somewhat amusing subplot amid the outrageous and deadly malpractice with which the league has handled everything about this year. Bauer knows as well as anybody else how visible these changes are, and it can’t be said that he shies away from making points in obnoxiously obstreperous ways. We’ll see where this goes, and as we hope with all our hearts that this season is completed safely and with no harm done, we may also hope to get some fun out of a little ball-tampering mischief while we’re at it.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire