For the last two months, the closest thing to Major League Baseball action that fans have been able to experience is watching free agency unfold. For the first time in half a decade, St. Louis Cardinals fans enjoyed the experience of rejoicing that their favorite team had signed one of the bigger available names on the market, ex-Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras.
In the film Moneyball, Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand character tells Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins.” This has been sabermetric orthodoxy in the subsequent two decades since the release of the Moneyball book, but particularly from a fan perspective, it’s not quite true, even if the curmudgeonly old school scouts which acted as Beane’s adversaries didn’t exactly hit the nail on the head, either. The purpose of acquiring players, ultimately, is to buy joy.
The Cardinals signed Willson Contreras so that he would provide joy and entertainment to fans which is commensurate with his salary–much of that joy will come from his sheer statistical production, but some of it will come from his personality, his style, how upset his ongoing presence will make fans of their fiercest rival. Consider the direct predecessor to Contreras as Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina–statistically, Molina wasn’t very good in 2022, teetering on the edge of Replacement Level. Perhaps a truly high-level star catcher would have provided more joy to the Cardinals, but the same absolutely cannot be said of some other Replacement Level catcher–Molina’s relationship with the fans of the Cardinals was worth something beyond the box score.
It is understandable why fans who are analytically-inclined would frame the free agencies of Aaron Judge or Justin Verlander or Trea Turner in terms of their raw statistical profiles–that could be quantified. Most of us haven’t met these recent free agents, though they at least publicly all present as decent-to-good guys, so when most people think of Aaron Judge, they think of a gigantic slugger smashing home runs left and right. When most people think of Justin Verlander, they think of a workhorse veteran who can still crank up the velocity in stages of the game when most starters have been pulled. When most people think of Trea Turner, they think of a well-rounded speedster with great two-way play.
When most people think of Trevor Bauer, they think of a monster.
This is why the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team as motivated as any in the sport to extract as much value as they can from their star players, were willing to designate the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner for assignment last Friday. The Dodgers will still owe Bauer the vast majority of the $22 million he is owed for 2023 (the original number was higher, but an arbitrator docked him fifty games pay for next season), but decided that the man who is coming off the longest non-lifetime suspension in the history of Major League Baseball was more trouble than he was worth, even with his cost being a largely sunk one.
I would make the case that, from a purely statistical perspective, Trevor Bauer is a somewhat overrated pitcher–he won his Cy Young in an abbreviated season and has only had one truly great season other than that, and over his last five full seasons in Major League Baseball, he had a perfectly good but hardly elite 3.64 ERA and 3.63 FIP. His closest comparable pitchers per Baseball Reference are the likes of Chad Billingsley and Julio Teheran. And Bauer hasn’t pitched in Major League Baseball since June 2021–granted, his absence has not been injury-related, but a year and a half of baseball inactivity isn’t not a consideration. But this degradation of his pitching acumen is really besides the point, because even the most ardent critics of Bauer’s pitching would agree without hesitation that, at the very least, he is good enough to be a part of any starting rotation in baseball and that signing such a player for the league minimum (what another team pays Bauer would simply reduce what the Dodgers owe him, not increase Bauer’s total earnings) would, in theory, be a no-brainer.
But Trevor Bauer’s potential statistics do not exist in a vacuum. The same guy who would likely add a handful of wins to the 2023 St. Louis Cardinals is the same guy who is coming off a 194-game suspension following a criminal investigation for assault, an accusation which has been repeated by at least two other women against Bauer. He is the same Trevor Bauer with a long and checkered history of being deeply unpopular with teammates–he got along with his high school teammates, including future MLB pitcher Mike Montgomery, so poorly that he graduated early to avoid pitching his senior year; he openly clashed (and still openly clashes) with UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole; he was quickly traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks after he fell out with multiple teammates, most notably catcher Miguel Montero; and today, Dodgers players were reportedly leading the charge to keep Bauer out of their clubhouse. While I am not exactly a fan of his tweets about politics or climate change denial or such, the truly concerning part of his social media presence is the harassment campaigns he routinely levies against people who have done nothing to warrant the wrath of him or the army of weirdos who jump at any opportunity to take a metaphorical bullet for a super rich guy they will never meet and who is not aware they exist.
I didn’t want the Cardinals to acquire Trevor Bauer back when I merely thought he was deeply annoying, before he was being credibly accused of physical, bodily harm against women. But at that point, had they done so, I probably could have gritted my teeth and simply dealt with a new least favorite Cardinal. But the Bauer situation has spiraled out of control and signing Trevor Bauer (which, to be abundantly clear, I do not think the Cardinals are going to do) would now be a thoroughly reckless decision. I don’t mind that Trevor Bauer, once he clears waivers, will be eligible to sign and play with a team, but that doesn’t mean I want a team to sign him, and I certainly don’t want my favorite team to be the ones to do so. Rooting for Trevor Bauer would even be beyond the grossness of rooting for Aroldis Chapman or Roberto Osuna or, to switch sports but to go with an example that is likely more resonant with a fair portion of this website’s readership, Tyreek Hill, because nothing Trevor Bauer has ever done suggests either contrition or even the slightest ability to ever shut up.
I do believe in forgiveness and personal redemption. I don’t believe that Trevor Bauer, as heinous as the allegations against him were, should have received a lifetime ban from baseball for the same reason I don’t believe anybody should. I want a world in which people have incentive to change, and there is a path, unlikely as it may seem, for Trevor Bauer to atone for his past and to become a better person going forward. But any team that signs Trevor Bauer in 2023 is not signing somebody who has been redeemed, nor even somebody who has signaled an interest in becoming redeemed–it would be a purely transactional move. It would make it more likely that the St. Louis Cardinals would win the National League Central, but it would also make the team considerably less likable. Ultimately, I would get more enjoyment from watching the Cardinals in their current form try to sneak into the 2023 postseason than I would get from watching Trevor Bauer lift the Commissioner’s Trophy in a Cardinals uniform.