MLB — Real or Not? Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer is Cy Young favorite

Trevor Bauer doesn’t really care if you like him.

“Like me. Love me. Hate me. Whatever. Hopefully, you just remember who I was,” he told reporters last week at the All-Star Game in Washington, D.C.

He’s certainly making his 2018 season worth remembering. Bauer threw seven scoreless innings in the Cleveland Indians4-0 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday, snapping Pittsburgh’s 11-game win streak and improving his season numbers to 9-6 with a 2.32 ERA.

In a crowded American League Cy Young field, Bauer is right up there alongside Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Luis Severino as one of the favorites, with Corey Kluber, Blake Snell and Gerrit Cole also in the mix. Bauer leads the league in innings (3 2/3 more than Verlander), is second to Sale in strikeouts (197 to 192), ranks fifth in ERA (2.32 to Sale’s 2.13) and is fourth in OPS allowed.

Bauer has long been a favorite of statheads for his obsessive dedication to analytics but never really put everything together over his first four full seasons, with a 4.30 ERA and zero seasons with an ERA under 4.00. He made the news less for his pitching and more often for his off-the-field pursuits (playing with drones) or his Twitter spats (like earlier this season when he accused Astros pitchers of illegally doctoring baseballs to improve their spin rates).

Some believed Bauer made an improvement in the second half of last season, when he lowered his first-half ERA from 5.24 to 3.01. I wasn’t buying that because the big difference in his splits was mostly a result of sequencing. Check his opponents’ batting line:

First half: .269/.333/.454
Second half: .263/.324/.436

This year’s improvement is real, however, and it comes courtesy of an improved slider that he’s throwing a lot more often, giving him a big strikeout weapon. Against the Pirates, five of his 10 strikeouts came on the slider, but adding another weapon to his arsenal has also made his fastball more effective. Last season, he used his slider just 1.7 percent of the time; this year, he’s used it nearly 15 percent of the time and batters are hitting just .081 against it in 138 plate appearances that have ended with the pitch.

As a result, he’s increased his overall strikeout rate from 26.2 percent to 31.6 percent while lowering his batting average allowed from .266 to .212. His results with two strikes are vastly more dominant:

2017: .188/.252/.318, 45% SO rate, 2.8% HR rate
2018: .120/.193/.170, 55.3% SO rate, 0.3 HR rate

As you might expect, Bauer only went to the slider after more intense study in the offseason. He used high-tech tools to monitor its spin rate and talked about comparing his slider to those of teammates Kluber and Mike Clevinger, giving him the confidence to throw it more often. He has, and it’s taken him to a level — maybe a Cy Young level.

Fun baseball strategy! The Rays beat the Yankees 3-2 to take two of the three in the series, holding the Yankees without a home run in the three games.

Kevin Cash employed an old trick to finish off the game. Sergio Romo got the final two outs of the eighth inning, but with lefty-hitting Greg Bird leading off the ninth, Cash brought in Jonny Venters, while moving Romo over to third base. Venters retired Bird on a grounder to second, then Romo went back to the mound and eventually got the final two outs, striking out Brett Gardner to end it:

The Rays once again used an “opener,” as Ryne Stanek pitched the first inning. Since first using the opener strategy on May 19 the Rays are 31-28 (they were 21-22 through May 18) but lead the majors with a 3.16 ERA. Of course, we don’t really know if the opener strategy is a reason for that, or whether the staff would have fared just as well with a more conventional approach.

I was thinking about this as the Chris Archer trade rumors heat up, on a day the Rays traded starter Nathan Eovaldi to the Red Sox and starter/reliever Matt Andriese to the Diamondbacks. One reason against trading Archer would be that the Rays need somebody to start and soak up innings in the non-bullpen games — not just for the rest of 2018, but for 2019, too. If Archer is traded, the only conventional starter left would be Snell (who is currently on the DL with shoulder fatigue).

What would a pitching staff with no starting pitchers look like? We’re close to finding out. Put it this way: You need about 1,450 innings to get through a season. If you divide that equally among 12 slots on a staff, you would need 120 innings from each slot — though you will be moving guys up and down from the minors.

You can see one issue there: One reason modern relievers are so effective is because their innings are so limited. Rollie Fingers averaged 116 innings as a reliever from 1972 to 1980, but new Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman averaged just 54 innings over his final seven seasons. Modern relievers rarely get to 80 innings, so asking them to go 120 is likely to decrease their effectiveness.

Which is they the Rays have been collecting back-of-the-rotation starter types, guys used to pitching multiple innings. For Eovaldi, they acquired Jalen Beeks, a lefty starter with great numbers at Triple-A. Anthony Banda, Andrew Moore and Wilmer Font fit this mode. Ryan Yarbrough and Hunter Wood were starters in the minors.

Maybe this strategy can work with an entire staff of these guys pitching two- and three-inning stints. We’ll see. It’s an interesting experiment, and so far it’s worked.

Hoskins heating up: The Phillies took two of the three from the Dodgers with a 7-3 victory and Rhys Hoskins hit his fourth home run in five games:

Hoskins is up to a solid line of .255/.367/.486, which includes a terrible May in which he hit .161 and struck out 32 percent of the time. Since returning from a DL stint on June 9 (he had a small hairline fracture in his jaw), he’s cut his K rate to 19.4 percent. That’s the Hoskins I envisioned before the season and I think you’ll see excellent results from him the rest of the way.

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