Jake Bauers isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. He’s just the latest in a long line of fringe corner outfielders who the Yankees have employed in recent years in an attempt to bridge the shortfall left by Brett Gardner’s decline and departure from the Bronx stage, as well as Aaron Hicks’ deep struggles since the start of 2021.
Is Bauers any different than Mike Tauchman, or Greg Allen, or Marwin Gonzalez, or Tim Locastro, or Franchy Cordero, or Willie Calhoun? Probably not. Still, there’s a little promise that there might actually be something there, after a few weeks of major league play. There is the encouraging 1.245 OPS he put up in his brief time in Triple-A this year, far outstripping the power he’s shown earlier in his career. Just a few days ago, Andrés Chávez covered some of the improved contact quality and results that Bauers is seeing as a result of a new, flatter swing designed to eliminate popups and weak fly balls, replacing them with harder, line-drive contact, and it looks pretty good! His 101 wRC+ leaves plenty to be desired, but considering the way that the likes of Hicks, Cordero, and (most distressingly) Oswaldo Cabrera have spent most of the year struggling to break the half-century mark, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
With the improved contact quality that Andrés mentions — Bauers has already set a career-high in max exit velocity, and has found barrels on a full quarter of his 20 batted balls — one might imagine there’s also come a pretty substantial change in the distribution of his batted balls. In this case, one would be me, and one would be wrong, at least at this early juncture. He is putting the ball in the air a fair bit more relative to his career averages, but the differences between now and 2021—the last time he got an extended big league look (a stretch in which he recorded a 63 wRC+ in a run of more than 300 plate appearances)—wouldn’t make one assume that there’s a totally different player there:
Hitting fewer balls on the ground is usually a very good thing! But with the limited sample we have, it’s still not much to go on. There is one key piece of context that’s missing, though: launch angle.
Even though Bauers is putting the ball in the air more, his average launch angle has fallen a healthy amount, from 20 degrees to a hair under 17 degrees. That’s actually still higher than the marks he produced in the two seasons he played prior to 2021. The critical part is that changes in launch angle map pretty well onto changes in groundball rate — grounders have a lower launch angle, so your average launch angle will typically rise and fall with how many grounders one hits. To see a decrease in groundballs and a decrease in launch angle, that means that not only is Bauers putting the ball in the air more, he’s putting it in the air at an angle that’s much more conducive to the ball hitting the ground than finding the hitters glove.
The proof of that can be found in the pudding called Sweet Spot %, the launch angle range that tends to produce the best outcomes irrespective of exit velocity. By that measure, a full 50 percent of Bauers’ batted balls have fallen in the happy zone, 15 percent above his career rates. When you combine that with Bauers’ strength, you get a 25-percent barrel rate. That is what a broad change in swing plane can do, even if it doesn’t make the actual batted ball numbers pop super significantly.
Take these two pitches: two fastballs in the low-90s, up and out over the plate. One, in 2021, is a weak fly out.
The other, a few days ago, is a 107 mph liner.
Take a pause at the beginning of their swings, right at the top of their pre-swing load. It’s a little hard to tell, but if you squint, you can see that with the Yankees, Bauers has moved his hands a fair bit more up and behind his head on his load, creating a “bat wrap” that keeps the barrel more parallel to the ground.
I’ll leave it to my colleague Esteban to go into serious detail about the ways these swing mechanics work, but the long and short of it is that previously, Bauers was bringing his bat through the zone and an angle that was too steep, causing his barrel to get through the zone late and make contact with the bottom of the ball at less than full power on a mediocre high fastball. This is a 55-degree launch angle at a 95-mph exit velo:
Now, by keeping the barrel more parallel to the ground and shortening its loopy route through the zone, Bauers is able to get the barrel of the ball into the zone and on plane with the pitch, striking it in the meaty part of the ball with his full strength. This is 12 degrees, at 107 mph.
I’m running out of space for a full demonstration, but the same theory essentially applies to low breaking balls in the inverse.
Now, by flattening a swing plane, you’re also going to lose out on some of those soaring, majestic home runs that you only get by timing a long uppercut with a slow, hanging breaking ball low or down the middle. At the same time, though, what you’re also eliminating are hits like these, which are what happens when you have a steep swing and can’t get on the right plane with a pitch breaking downwards and can only hit the top half of ball, sending it down into the ground:
If Bauers is taking those two holes in his swing — an inability to get the barrel to high hard stuff, and a predilection for rolling over very hittable breaking balls in the lower part of the zone — and patching them up, then, well, we might have something here. If not, then on to the next! Only time will tell, but in the early going, it seems as if there might be something more to Bauers than the rest of the corner outfield clown car we’ve seen in 2023.