The Yankees have Gerrit Cole penciled in at the top of their rotation for 2021. Beyond that, the state of their staff is in flux. Deivi García and Jordan Montgomery appear primed for rotation slots, but with Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ all hitting free agency, the Yankees clearly need to make a move to address their starting pitching.
Trevor Bauer is the best pitcher on the free agent market. The Yankees need a starter. Just like last year, when the Yankees backed up the Brink’s truck for Cole, this should be simple, right? Not quite. Signing Bauer to be the Yankees’ rotation savior would be anything but straightforward on a number of fronts.
One such front is not Bauer’s significant off-field presence, however. While some may look at Bauer’s off-field controversies and refer to him as “complicated,” Bauer’s social media travails really aren’t all that complex. He makes use of social media better than most in terms of promoting himself and the game, and he also uses it to harass women, to deny climate change, to demean transgender people — that sort of thing. Turns out, posting a lot and using Twitter to be an asshole isn’t that complicated!
Rather, the complexity of Bauer’s free agency stems from his actual impact on the team that signs him. There’s no easy way to determine just how good Bauer will be as he enters his 30’s, and how his clubhouse presence will affect his next club.
The right-hander is obviously coming off his finest season as a pro. At age 29, he ran a 1.73 ERA, good for a 276 ERA+ across 73 innings, with 100 strikeouts against 17 walks. Those numbers earned him the NL Cy Young Award.
The rest of Bauer’s career makes it difficult to discern how much stock to put into that stellar campaign. Prior to 2020, Bauer maintained a career 109 ERA+. He struck out 9.5 batters per nine and walked 3.5, compared to 12.5 and 2.2 marks in those respective categories this year. Essentially, Bauer was on average a premier mid-rotation arm prior to 2020, before morphing into a premier ace during this shortened season.
How was Bauer able to make such a profound leap? Well, that’s where things continue to get convoluted. In previous years, Bauer spoke loudly of how the only way to improve one’s spin rate was to cheat, by doctoring the baseball with foreign substances. He hinted that many Astros pitchers had managed to add life to their heaters via underhanded means.
Then, in 2020, Bauer spiked the spin rate on his fastball. After ranking in the 82nd percentile of fastball spin rate in 2018 and 89th percentile in 2019, he ranked in the 100th percentile in 2020. His curve spin rate also skyrocketed, from 58th percentile in 2019 to 92nd percentile in 2020, all per Statcast. The results were eye-popping. Bauer allowed a .400 wOBA with his fastball in 2019, and a .224 wOBA in 2020. He allowed a .108 wOBA with his slider and a .219 wOBA with his curve. Every one of Bauer’s pitches in 2020 seemed to spin like crazy and drive hitters insane.
“For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball... But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances,” Bauer wrote on the Players Tribune in February. Months later, Bauer managed to do the thing that he proclaimed was only possible via cheating.
I don’t personally much care on a moral ground if pitchers are using foreign substances to doctor the ball, but it does matter when doling out huge free agent deals. If Bauer had to join the (admittedly large) ranks of pitchers doctoring balls to reach ace status, can he maintain that status? Will MLB continue to turn a blind eye to this brand of cheating, and allow pitchers like Bauer to prosper? Will the league attempt to actually crack down on the practice, seemingly neutering a fair bit of Bauer’s value? Given how inconsistently MLB has handled both the sign-stealing brouhaha and the constantly-changing juiced ball, it’s an impossible task to discern how the league will approach a potential foreign-substance scandal.
Adding to the question marks around Bauer is his questionable clubhouse fit in the Bronx. Last July, when profiling Bauer as a potential trade target, I wrote this about his possible impact on the Yankees’ clubhouse:
The Yankees, however, are not fans. They are an organization that has cultivated a thriving and open clubhouse, one welcome to all kinds of players from all walks of life. They are an organization that has often prioritized makeup, most recently spending heaps of draft capital on less toolsy players that come with glowing reports of excellent makeup.
I don’t think much has changed since last summer. The Yankees still seem to prioritize plus-character, and still seem to have a strong clubhouse culture. I don’t know how to quantify clubhouse chemistry, but I don’t doubt its existence. It’s hard to imagine adding Bauer would do much to benefit the team’s chemistry, but it’s not hard to envision ways in which Bauer could throw the Yankees’ chemistry out of balance.
Altogether, I only see one argument for adding Bauer: the Yankees need a starting pitcher, and Bauer is the best one available. Any other view of the matter would lead one to believe the Yankees should pass. Bauer achieved Cy Young status likely by employing means that we can’t ensure are sustainable. He’s also a controversial figure, since controversial is the only term we can muster to describe dudes who say detestable stuff on the internet. The Yankees could find simpler ways to improve their rotation, such as by just keeping Tanaka and his wholesome Instagram content within the organization.