The New York Yankees are slowly getting soldiers back in their lineup. Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge are back with the team, and Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton should follow relatively soon. However, their offense is still inconsistent and prone to long stretches of mediocrity.
That means the Yankees will often try to catch lightning in a bottle by giving playing time to reclamation projects. They did it with Franchy Cordero and Willie Calhoun, and they are now, to a lesser extent, doing the same with Jake Bauers.
What do the Yankees have in Bauers, now that he has been up for a few days and has a .278/.333/.611 line 21 plate appearances in the majors? There might be something, but first let’s see where he was at last year and far he has come.
Bauers was actually acquired last year in June, from the Cincinnati Reds. With them, he had a .135/.276/.271 line with a horrible 52 wRC+ in 116 Triple-A plate appearances. He never saw the majors with New York at the end of 2022, but improved to a .226/.352/.406 line and a 105 wRC+ in 128 trips to the plate at the same level.
It’s worth remembering that Bauers was once a legitimate prospect in the mid-2010s, first with the San Diego Padres and, from 2015-18, with the Tampa Bay Rays. Prior to the 2018 campaign, Baseball America ranked him 45th on its Top 100 while MLB Pipeline placed him at No. 64. It was his second year in a row making both those lists. Bauers failed to establish himself in MLB, though, with low averages and high strikeout rates, and bounced around the league for a few years.
That jump from a 52 wRC+ to a 105 mark last year in Triple-A represented marked improvement, even if it wasn’t overly impressive. As it turns out, Bauers had been working on something.
According to what Yankees minor league hitting coordinator Joe Migliaccio told The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Bauers has undergone both swing and approach adjustments since the organization acquired him last season from the Reds:
Bauers has flattened his bat path over the past year. When the Yankees got him in their system, Bauers’ swing was steep up out of the zone, which led to higher than average miss rates, popup rates and groundball rates.
Here is a clip from a Bauers swing in 2021:
And now in 2023, where you can see a slight difference in the bat path:
Last year, Bauers struck out in 28.4 percent of his plate appearances with the Reds and 33.6 percent with the Yanks, both at the Triple-A level. This year, before getting the call, he was at 18.4 percent in 87 plate appearances, with an incredible .304/.448/.797 line, nine homers, five steals, and a 199 wRC+.
As Kirschner notes, not only is Bauers striking out less with his new swing (at least in Triple-A), but he also walked more (20.7 percent), decreased his groundball rate and increased both his line-drive rate and fly-ball rate.
There is still a lot of work to do, but for every player who fails in his comeback attempt with a revamped swing, there are also a couple who strike gold and successfully kickstart their careers. We won’t know if Bauers is a legitimate, MLB-caliber power threat or if he is another Cordero until several weeks from now. But he looks different.
Yes, over that tiny 21-plate appearance sample in MLB, Bauers has struck out 38.1 percent of the time. It’s something he will need to correct because that won’t cut it, but he has been hitting the ball really hard so far.
At the start of play on Friday, Bauers had a 40-percent barrel rate, an 80-percent hard-hit rate, and most importantly, a new career-high in exit velocity: 113.5 mph. He does appear to have more power, and even if he will clearly not finish out the season with those numbers (no one can), his new swing path should help him improve his contact rates a bit and that could enable him to maintain an MLB role.
Bauers is not much help with the glove, but as long as he shows he can hit, the Yankees should, and will, find a spot for him eventually. It’s far too early to tell what kind of year he will have, but to say he is looking good would be an understatement. Who knows? Maybe he will be worthy of being called “Rake” Bauers at some point.