Editor’s (my) note: So, I wrote this post on Monday night about how the Cardinals shouldn’t trade for Trevor Bauer and then something happened tonight: he got traded to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds gave up Yasiel Puig and a top-50 prospect in Taylor Trammell in order to do so, and for reasons you should be able to pick up along the way here, I think it’s a dumb trade for them! Anyway, I’m not going to just not run a 1,200 some-odd word post, so here is the thing I wrote. The only thing I changed besides this note is the headline.
When I first became aware of the NBA, the most famous player in the league was certainly Michael Jordan, but his latter-years Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman was certainly in the upper echelon. Rodman was a notable media attraction, famous for his relationships with the likes of Madonna and Carmen Electra, for his constantly-evolving hairstyle, and for such notable incidents as wearing a wedding dress to promote his autobiography and kicking a cameraman during a game.
Rodman clearly outpaced his actual on-court abilities in terms of fame. Rodman was a good player, one of the NBA’s premier rebounders, but he wasn’t as good as, say, Karl Malone. But he was a more recognizable player because of his notoriety. In fact, his playing style, a highly deferential role-playing style in which he didn’t score very many points, is one which under normal circumstances would lead to a player being rather underrated. The same could be said about Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest, a next-generation defensive specialist who became extremely famous for incidents which had nothing to do with his ability. Both were effective players but in a strange way, they were kind of boring players.
Non-flashy players have an interesting tendency to become more famous than more spectacular players because of their lives off the field of play. David Beckham was once the most famous soccer player in the world, but he was never a particularly high-volume goal scorer—he was rather a solid two-way midfielder who was accomplished on set pieces and also married a Spice Girl. Chad Ochocinco, formerly Chad Johnson, had a pretty conventional style of play as an NFL wide receiver but earned a reputation as flashy because of post-touchdown celebrations and his life off the field.
Baseball, a sport less driven by individual personalities, still manages to have such cases. Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson had reputations for arrogance, but nothing in their numbers suggested this translated into their performance—each had outstanding plate discipline and tremendous base-stealing efficiency. And on the other end of the spectrum comes Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer.
Trevor Bauer became a full-time starting pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2014, and by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, he has been tied for 19th among pitchers, which is pretty good. The guy with whom he is tied? Dallas Keuchel, a pitcher that any team in baseball could have acquired last off-season and into June for just money (and a draft pick). But while Keuchel was shockingly easy for MLB teams to ignore, Trevor Bauer had made it so that teams cannot ignore him.
Unlike Keuchel, a benign baseball player about whom I have absolutely no opinions outside of what his stats tell me he is, Trevor Bauer is certainly more famous, mostly for being an annoying dork. He is certainly the most deeply Online baseball player; sometimes he uses his affinity for basic meme culture for good (he has given to charity over stretches of 69 days, given to 69 different charities, etc.), but most of the time Bauer just ends up irritating people with his politics, such as 9/11 trutherism, birtherism, and climate change denial. Oh, and he missed an ALCS game because he hurt himself playing with a drone. Oh, and on Sunday, when manager Terry Francona pulled Bauer from his start against the Kansas City Royals, Bauer reacted by taking the ball he should’ve theoretically given to Francona and throwing it over the center field wall. It was a feat which was both impressive and petulant.
Admittedly, I disagree with a lot of things Trevor Bauer says and does, but also, compared to some of the things that, say, Aroldis Chapman or Addison Russell has done, it is relatively small potatoes. I find him personally annoying, but the same could be said of John Lackey or A.J. Pierzynski, and I was willing to look the other way when they joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. And if the Cardinals acquired Trevor Bauer, I wouldn’t suddenly abandon rooting for the Cardinals, and by extension I’d root for him. Some people wouldn’t root for him, and that’s fine. I get it, and that’s probably more rational, but sports fandom isn’t rational.
But the end result of Trevor Bauer’s numerous controversies is that he is more famous than his record implies he should be. Even if most of the attention he receives is critical, sheer Q rating impacts his perception. In a baseball world filled mostly with platitudes, the fact that Trevor Bauer has thoughts about politics, even if you disagree with said thoughts, implies at least the ingredients of being cerebral. In interviews, Bauer has claimed he has nineteen different pitches. He cites spin rate in order to excite sabermetric circles in the same way I’d use dozen-letter words in essays in high school to make teachers think I was smart. He has a weird long-tossing warmup routine that, as far as I can tell, prepared him more directly for his outburst on Sunday than for actual pitching.
But Bauer’s actual results are something of a mixed bag–at least far more mixed than those who speak of him as an ace are willing to let on. While Bauer was undeniably terrific in 2018, with a 2.21 ERA and 2.44 FIP (and a 3.14 xFIP) in 175 1/3 innings, this has been an extreme outlier throughout his career. In Bauer’s first four seasons as a starter, he never had an earned-run average below four, and his career-low FIP was 3.88–fine, but nothing extraordinary. While Bauer’s reputation as a thinking man’s pitcher invited speculation that he had permanently turned a corner in 2018, his 2019 ERA stands at 3.79 while he sports a 4.17 FIP. In Bauer’s roughly 5 2/3 seasons as a starter (since excluding his outlier 2018 wouldn’t be fair), he has the same park-adjusted ERA as Mike Minor, the same park-adjusted FIP as Lance Lynn, and the same park-adjusted xFIP as Archie Bradley. Now, these are all fine pitchers, all worthy of a spot in a Major League rotation, particularly if that rotation belongs to the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals. But throughout his career, the numbers don’t back up Trevor Bauer being more than a fine pitcher. The fact that he tells a better story about his pitching prowess than teammate Corey Kluber doesn’t mean he’s as good as Corey Kluber.
It isn’t as though Trevor Bauer is under some incredible, team-friendly contract that makes his above-average pitching extra valuable. He makes $13 million this year (a good bargain for what he is) in his second year of arbitration, and he will make more next year, and then he will hit free agency, where he has claimed he will sign one-year contracts for the rest of his career to maximize his value (I suspect he would accept a 69-year, $420 million contract from somebody as a joke). He’s a fine player, and even with my ability to compartmentalize how annoying he is, I’d give up a non-zero prospect for him. But he isn’t Noah Syndergaard. He isn’t even what we thought Chris Archer was last deadline. And the fact that he’s on a team within striking distance of first place (granted, one that allegedly is looking to sell) means the Indians can afford to hold out for a big-time prospect. But I wouldn’t give up Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman, or even Randy Arozarena. If Cleveland were willing to accept Jose Adolis Garcia, sure. But some other team would offer a more lucrative package, because the perception of Trevor Bauer: Pitching Genius has spread so pervasively throughout the sport.