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Orbiting Cleveland: The fall of a pitching prospect

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Last season was one of the Cleveland Indians’ busiest offseasons in recent memory, but perhaps no move was more significant than the one that occurred on December 11, 2013.

It was on that day that the Tribe acquired Trevor Bauer — their future ace.

At the time, the Indians were applauded for the move. In what turned out to be a three-team deal between the Tribe, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cincinnati Reds, the Indians shipped outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and infielder Jason Donald to Cincinnati while left-handed reliever Tony Sipp and first baseman Lars Anderson were shipped to Arizona.

In return, the Indians received Bauer, outfielder Drew Stubbs as well as right-handed relievers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw. In essence, the trade basically amounted to the Tribe dealing one year of control of Choo (the left-handed hitting outfielder was set to hit free agency after the 2013 season) and spare parts in exchange for Bauer, an above-replacement level outfielder and a pair of relievers.

By all accounts, the Tribe made out like bandits.

Or did they?

Initially, it appeared as if Bauer would be the future ace that the Indians had long sought. Armed with a variety of pitches, Bauer seemed destined to quickly become a staple at the front of the Indians’ rotation, but let’s just say things have not exactly gone according to plan.

In last week’s Orbiting Cleveland, I referenced TINSTAAPP (There is no such thing as a pitching prospect), which is a phrase coined by Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay. The term has never taken off, but there seems to be a lot of accuracy to it.

It basically means that because pitching prospects are so up-and-down, it’s almost impossible to project a pitcher’s career. Great stuff and great minor league numbers could equate to a future star…But they can also equate to Carlos Carrasco. You’re catching my drift right?

The unique thing with Bauer is that he seemed to be about as sure of a pitching prospect that a team could hope for. While at UCLA, the 2011 MLB Draft third overall pick routinely touched 97 mph, and he had dominated the minors up until the point that the Indians acquired him in December.

But since then, things have kind of gone south. While Bauer entered the season as the team’s undisputed top starting pitching prospect, it’s clearly evident that he has relinquished that role and that that distinction now belongs to right-hander Danny Salazar.

ESPN’s Keith Law even noted in his blog earlier this month that Bauer is one of the top prospects who have seen their stock plummet this season. It’s ironic for the Indians that while Salazar has seen his stock rise dramatically during the course of the season, Bauer has watched his stock head in the opposite direction.

So, with that being said, what’s wrong with Bauer?

And, most importantly, how does he or the Indians go about fixing it?

The thing to remember with Bauer is that he will never truly be a control artist. His delivery can be deceptive and is certainly effective, but it also can be very erratic and walks have been a problem for Bauer through his minor league career.

However, the thought and feeling was that Bauer’s plus stuff combined with his arsenal of above-average pitches would be enough to overcome the walks, and that was the case last season in the minors. Things have been a little different so far for the right-hander in 2013 though.

As noted, walks have always and probably will always be a bit of a concern for Bauer. But they’ve been more than a concern this season though as Bauer’s BB/9 has spiked to a three-year career high. Take a look:

The bottom line is that it is simply very difficult to be successful as a starting pitcher when you’re walking five batters per nine innings. In fact, it’s basically impossible.

The other thought with Bauer is that he would be able to rack up strikeouts with his plus fastball and plus-plus 12-6 curveball, but this has also been an area where Bauer has seen significant regression.

In 2012, Bauer was striking out over 10 batters per nine innings, but as the graph below indicates, that number has now dipped to below eight.

It’s bad enough when either a player’s strikeout rate decrease or his walk rate increases, but when both happen at the same time, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Now, truth be told, Bauer’s 2013 season has hardly been a disaster. In 19 starts with the Columbus Clippers, Bauer has a 3.72 ERA. However, it’s a stark comparison from his 2012 season at Triple-A Reno where he posted a 2.85 ERA in 14 starts.

His ability to go deep into games has also been an issue for Bauer as he’s averaged just over 5 1/3 innings a start between 23 starts in Columbus and Cleveland. An ace is expected to give a team length, and Bauer has been unable to do that with any level of consistency.

There are no specific reasons for Bauer’s decline, but one has to suspect that it simply comes down to his stuff just not being what it was, and that has been the case this year.

In college, Bauer was routinely clocked in the upper 90s, but his fastball this season has averaged 92.6 mph in four Major League starts, and it’s been even worse in the minors as Bauer has sat between 89-91 mph.

Given his questionable command, Bauer needs to overpower hitters, but the reality is that he has looked much more like a finesse pitcher than a power one.

As most Tribe fans know, Bauer is an extremely bright kid who studies biomechanics as he is always striving to better understand the muscular and skeletal functions of the human body. Bauer believes that knowledge like this will ultimately make him into a better starting pitcher, and this also explains some of his unorthodox training methods like his long-toss regimen before each start.

It’s hard not to love Bauer’s intelligence and the fact that he is a pure student of the game, but some have suggested that Bauer could be too smart for his own good. Of course, a statement like that seems to be a tad too extreme, but it’s evident that not everyone is a fan of Bauer and his quirkiness.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are evidence of this as they seemed to have no problem with unloading one of the top-heralded pitching prospects in the game. It appeared as if they had grown tired of Bauer and his antics, so they were willing to part with him for what seemed to be a less than equal return.

So far, the Indians have said that they’re committed to Bauer and his unorthodox ways, but commitments don’t always last forever. Otherwise, how do you explain the United States divorce rate of over 40 percent.

Bauer is a difficult player to dissect because it is blatantly evident that his future development is still immensely important to the Indians. He has arguably the highest upside of any starting pitching prospect in the system, but it’s just a matter of getting Bauer to finally tap into that upside.

How the Indians move forward with Bauer will be an interesting topic to follow. On one hand, a case can be made that the Indians need to really sit down with him and work with him on retooling his game, but what if Bauer is not receptive to the move? A change can only be successful is a person is willing to try that change, and there does not seem to be any indication that Bauer would be willing to deviate from what has gotten him this far.

But perhaps Bauer would be open to mechanical adjustments. Bauer is an especially intelligent individual, and he’s certainly smart enough to know that his prospect stock has taken quite a dip.

Also, while this is probably more unlikely, could Bauer possibly also recognize that some of his efforts may not necessarily be effective? With power arms, velocity drop-offs are inevitable, but they’re also something more likely to occur at age 32, not 22.

For now, Bauer is essentially a project. He remains a project with immense potential, but he’s a project nonetheless.

Despite his potential, one can also see why the Diamondbacks soured on him so quickly. Bauer is a player that will test the patience of any team, and it’s clear that Arizona had no patience left for him.

The only question now is how do the Indians address Bauer? When he was acquired in December, the team believed they were acquiring a front-of-the-rotation that was Major League ready, but it’s now clear that there is still much work to be done.

Control remains a major issue, and someone has to get to the bottom as to why Bauer is experiencing such significant velocity declines despite the fact that he’s only 22-years-old.

Less than nine months ago, Bauer appeared to be a blue-chip, top-of-the-line starting pitching prospect.

Now? Who even knows.

TINSTAAPP.

Yep, Huckabay must have been on to something.

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