Brian Dozier recently described Bauer to FanGraphs' Eno Sarris as someone who "lives up in the zone" and who won't go away from his strengths to attack Dozier, a high-ball hitter. And while it's technically still true that Bauer often throws his fastballs high in the zone, it's an interesting reminder of the perception of what Bauer was in the past, and the reality of what Bauer is now. The perception of Bauer was that he was so transfixed with his own pitching style, that he was resistant to change. The reality is now, he couldn't look more different.
Bauer opened the year in the bullpen after a rough 2015, but found himself back in the rotation after Cody Anderson's early season struggles. In 11 starts, Bauer has a 2.96 ERA and a 3.22 FIP. Over the last 30 days, he leads the entire Major Leagues in Wins Above Replacement among pitchers. But results are results, and without a change in process, there'd be no reason to believe the results should be any different. This is what a complete change in process looks like:
Granted, having the third-largest decrease in walk rate becomes less impressive when you're coming off the worst walk rate in the majors. But the walks are down, and that can't be a bad thing. The grounders are up 10 percentage points, more than any qualified pitcher from last year to the next. With all the extra grounders, the home runs have been cut in half. More balls are going over the plate, and Bauer's working quicker than ever before. No more relentlessly shaking off the catcher. Bauer's actually working at one of the quicker paces in the majors.
Bauer's seemingly found something with backup catcher Chris Gimenez, who's caught each of Bauer's past 10 starts. With Gimenez calling his starts, something's changed in the pitch mix, and it might be the biggest explanation for every change in the table above. Trevor Bauer, once known for his insistence on throwing his four-seamer up in the zone, is now a sinkerballer:
The four-seam is still there, but it's the two-seam "laminar express" that's taken over as the primary pitch. Bauer began developing the pitch under the guidance of Kyle Boddy at Driveline Baseball last offseason, and this year has begun leaning on it more than any other offering, a point of focus between the two during the most recent offseason. Interestingly, Bauer still throws the two-seam high in the zone more than he does low, but the movement of the pitch is still more conducive to ground balls, which is the most extreme and noticeable difference in Bauer's game.
Last year, the four-seamer made up more than half of Bauer's pitches to start at-bats and get back into counts. With Gimenez behind the plate, Bauer's throwing all five offerings to start at-bats, suggesting an increased confidence across his entire arsenal, and the sinker and cutter have taken over as the primary pitches to get himself back into at-bats when he falls behind in the count. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway says he's "simplified his mix." Francona described Bauer's new approach as "more conventional." None of his five pitches are being thrown more than one-third of the time, and none less than 10 percent. It's a true five-pitch mix, and any of Bauer's predictable tendencies from last year appear to be gone.
Previous versions of Bauer wasted too many offerings, letting at-bats slip away by throwing "unnecessary pitches." Last year, when Bauer got behind in the count and went so often to his four-seam, he put the ball over the plate less than half the time, according to Baseball Savant. This year, the sinker and cutter have been getting Bauer back into counts, as he's putting the ball over the plate 55 percent of the time when he falls behind, an even more substantial increase than his overall season uptick in Zone%. Put simply, with a new approach and more strikes, this year's version of Bauer is just a bit more to the point:
There's that two-seamer to lead. The elevated four-seamer's still there to play off the curve. And, about that curve. It's getting more spin and more drop than ever before:
"Is getting the run on the two-seamer and the drop on the curveball more beneficial than having all my fastballs and curveballs look the same coming out? How do you weight those, what's more important? Who knows?"
Evidently it's the latter that's more important.
Over his last 11 starts, Trevor Bauer's resembled a third-overall Draft pick. Over the last month, he's been baseball's best. And he's done it by finally overhauling the approach that once earned him a reputation as being stubborn. Before one gets too excited about Bauer's potential, one must remember that he's run an ERA and FIP like this over 11 starts before, and same with the walks, and same with the homers. But never all at the same time, and certainly never in the way he's doing it now.
A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.