clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Dodgers Have Landed the Best Free-Agent Pitcher—and Everything That Comes With Him

Trevor Bauer will earn $40 million in 2021 and potentially $80-plus million more over the next two years. It’s a massive bet he can repeat his performance on the field and not become a nuisance off of it.

Getty images/Ringer illustration

The best team in baseball has signed the top free-agent pitcher on the market. Trevor Bauer, a Southern California native, former UCLA Bruin, and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, has signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for up to three years and $102 million. At first glance, it’s a straightforward deal: the richest team went out and bought the services of a top free agent. That’s been the way of things since the days of Reggie Jackson. But because Bauer’s involved, reality is quite a bit more complicated.

There are three issues to deal with in turn: the contract, which is itself unique in form; Bauer’s unusual history on the mound; and his record of troubling behavior off of it.

Your garden variety top-end pitcher contract is very long, with a very flat average salary. Gerrit Cole’s nine-year, $324 million deal calls for an even $36 million salary each season, with one opt-out after the 2024 season. Stephen Strasburg gets paid a base salary of $35 million over seven years, though his deal contains the salary deferrals that are part and parcel of any big-money deal with the Nationals. Zack Greinke’s six-year deal also contains some $62.5 million in deferred money, but his annual base salary only varies by $1 million throughout his contract.

The longer contract term allows teams to pay the pitcher less than he’s worth early in the deal and spread out the financial cost of acquiring the player. There’s an implicit understanding that the pitcher probably won’t live up to his salary by the end of the deal, but the hope is that a World Series title or a Cy Young or two will soften the blow years down the line.

Bauer’s deal, in addition to being shorter, is extremely frontloaded. He’ll make $40 million in 2021, then $45 million in 2022 (both records for single-season salary) with an opt-out after each of the first two seasons. Cole, Bauer’s college teammate and sometime professional nemesis, remains the highest-paid pitcher in terms of total contract value, with a deal three times as rich as Bauer’s. But Bauer will out-earn him in each of the next two seasons, with a chance to revisit the market and cash in again if he pitches well.

Pitchers tend to like deals like Cole’s because the job is dangerous. They’re always one over-stressful outing or one mishandled slurve from Tommy John surgery or a torn rotator cuff, which would mean at least a season on the sideline and the risk of diminished effectiveness forever. Cole won’t set a new AAV record each year, but his grandchildren are going to be Habsburg-level rich, so who cares?

Bauer isn’t willing to leave any meat on the bone. In 2018 he told Jeff Passan, then of Yahoo Sports, about a standing bet with a friend: If Bauer ever signed a multi-year free agent contract, the friend would be entitled to shoot the righthander in the testicles with a paintball gun from 10 feet away. Bauer appears to have softened his stance, but the principle of the deal is the same: he’s taking less guaranteed money in order to maximize his earning potential.

Perhaps some pitchers value the stability of a seven-year contract—the stress and uncertainty of perpetual free agency might make Bauer’s approach more trouble than it’s worth. But the Bauer model is an interesting alternative to established procedure for players willing to tolerate a little more risk. And it’s only a little more risk. Bauer is still guaranteed $102 million, a sum nobody you know in real life can comprehend spending. Even if his arm had fallen off at the grocery store before he came to terms with the Dodgers, Bauer would still walk away with $47 million in pre-free agency earnings; he’s hardly playing the lottery by seeking a shorter contract.

So what will the Dodgers get for this record-breaking financial outlay?

Last year, when Bauer won the NL Cy Young, he led the National League in ERA, shutouts, complete games, and hits allowed per nine innings. He struck out 12.3 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.3. It was an incredible walk year.

It came in just 11 starts, and over an 11-start sample worse pitchers than Bauer can put up Cy Young-caliber numbers. For example: In 2013, Jarred Cosart posted a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts, and unless you were a fan of the Phillies, Astros, Padres, or Marlins when Cosart was a perennial blockbuster trade participant in the mid-2010s, you’ve probably never heard of Jarred Cosart.

There’s not a giant red “FLUKE” scrawled on Bauer’s 2020 stat line at Baseball-Reference, but there are specific reasons not to expect him to repeat his season. Bauer’s career year coincided with an increased fastball spin rate; there’s considerable circumstantial evidence that Bauer achieved that breakthrough by using some illegal substance that allows him to grip the baseball better. This is an extremely common practice throughout the league. But Bauer spent more time complaining about this practice than most pitchers spend talking about anything on the record before (allegedly) adopting it himself. The foreign substance usage itself isn’t particularly odious, but Bauer’s noisy low-stakes hypocrisy is a little grating.

Sticky hands notwithstanding, Bauer spent all of his 2020 regular season facing the weakest competition in MLB. Because of last season’s regional schedule restrictions, Bauer faced only teams from the two central divisions. Here are Bauer’s opponents, with their final record and weighted runs created plus:

  • Brewers (three starts): 29-31, 89 wRC+
  • Tigers (two starts): 23-35, 89 wRC+
  • Pirates (two starts): 19-41, 73 wRC+
  • Cubs (two starts): 34-26, 92 wRC+
  • Royals (one start): 26-34, 91 wRC+
  • White Sox (one start): 35-25, 113 wRC+

In other words, eight of Bauer’s 11 starts came against teams with losing records, and 10 of 11 came against bottom-10 offenses. He deserves credit for dominating bad competition the way he did, but 2021 isn’t going to be nearly so easy; the Padres alone will offer stiffer resistance than anyone Bauer faced in 2020. Bauer also got pretty lucky last year: he stranded 90.9 percent of his baserunners (league average was 71.8 percent) and allowed an opponent BABIP of .215 (league average: .291), both second-best among qualified starters.

A critical view of Bauer’s 2020 would paint him as an inconsistent pitcher with a career 3.90 ERA who got lucky in his walk year. That’s true, but it’s also somewhat reductive. The Dodgers, who are going to spend more on Bauer in 2021 than some teams are spending on their entire roster, know about Bauer’s strand rate—they can access FanGraphs in Los Angeles, after all.

So what are they actually paying him for?

Bauer was still really good in 2020, even if he wasn’t quite as good as his surface numbers would indicate. That career-low BABIP came against a backdrop of a career-low hard-hit rate, and while his DRA was more than a run higher than his actual ERA, it was still fourth-best among qualified starters. And when Bauer faced an awesome Atlanta lineup in the playoffs, he struck out 12 Braves and allowed only three baserunners in 7 2/3 scoreless innings.

Bauer performed like an ace only twice—in 2018 and 2020—but even in seasons when he’s been streaky or struggled to find the plate, he’s usually been a very durable, effective MLB starter. And in a world where pitchers rise and fall with the changing of the seasons, the certainty of 30 good starts might be more valuable than the possibility of 30 great starts with the risk of injury or ineffectiveness. Is Bauer as good as Cole, Strasburg, or some of the other top free-agent pitchers from years past? Probably not. But no other pitcher in this free-agent class could offer such a high probability of volume and consistency.

And while some teams would’ve had to hang their entire season on Bauer’s ability to replicate his 2020 form, the Dodgers don’t. They already have Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, plus Julio Urías, Dustin May, David Price, and Tony Gonsolin to round out the rotation. If Bauer wins another Cy Young, great. If he’s merely very good, the Dodgers will still have one of the best rotations in the National League.

Bauer and Masahiro Tanaka became full-time MLB starters the same year—2014—and since then have had fairly similar careers. Bauer’s been worth 18.2 bWAR in that time, Tanaka 17.6. Bauer’s pitched to a 115 ERA+ in 1,156 2/3 innings; Tanaka has an ERA+ of 114 in 1,054 1/3 innings. Bauer has a 2.94 ERA in 11 postseason appearances (seven starts), while Tanaka has a 3.33 postseason ERA in 10 appearances, all starts. Both were free agents this offseason. And there are probably 10 news stories and opinion pieces about Bauer for every one about Tanaka, despite Tanaka playing in New York, where news comes from and opinions are louder.

The reason for this is Bauer’s relentless self-promotion. From the moment he appeared in the national baseball consciousness, he’s painted himself as an iconoclast. He’s clashed with coaches over conditioning methods, helped popularize high-tech training and pitch development techniques, and maintained an active social-media presence in a league where too many players hide their personalities under a bushel. Even the paintball-gun guarantee stems from a personality that doesn’t care what others think. In 2019, he famously told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter that he has two skills: “throwing baseballs, and pissing people off.”

He’s right. In signing with the Dodgers, Bauer has achieved a personal first: changing teams without being rage-traded by fed-up management. He lasted just 18 months in the Diamondbacks organization before he was shipped off to Cleveland on less-than-ideal terms. In 2019, he threw a temper tantrum when he was pulled from his last start with the northern Ohio club, earning a stern talking-to from Terry Francona and, three days later, a trip down I-71 to Cincinnati. Bauer didn’t win any friends when he called out the Astros’ (alleged) pine tar usage in 2018, and ended up on the losing end of a war of words with Houston third baseman Alex Bregman.

From the outside, all this is fun. It’s theater, and in putting himself out there, Bauer’s managed to position himself as one of the most prominent and talked-about players in the game. He courts controversy and attention. He’s erudite and makes for good copy, so he’s easy to cover. He’s an easy rallying point for analytically focused writers, as he presents himself as an unremarkable athlete who transformed himself into a Cy Young winner through hard work and smart training. This creation myth is somewhat ahistorical; Bauer can throw 98 miles per hour for strikes, which is impossible without considerable God-given talent, whatever his sprint speed or body composition or testosterone levels might suggest. But it’s an easy thing to latch onto for writers and fans who speak that language. For a long time, I was positively enchanted by the young pitcher who spoke his mind freely and told a backward-thinking Arizona front office what he thought of them, and the horse they rode in on.

Bauer’s behavior is often described as such euphemistic terms as “controversial” or “outspoken” or “polarizing,” when in reality those terms don’t quite paint a clear picture. He’s expressed skepticism about the nature of anthropogenic climate change, defended the Chief Wahoo logo, and blamed Apple and Twitter for presenting him with “liberal-slanted anti-Trump articles.”

He’s far from the only ballplayer who holds such right-wing views; Bauer told one interlocutor “almost all of my teammates support Trump sooooo.” Given that MLB players are mostly rich white men, there’s no reason to doubt him. But those teammates mostly have the sense not to maintain the online presence of a college freshman who just got back from a Turning Point USA summit.

And most ballplayers don’t use their platform to attack fans. In January 2019, a female college student chimed in on the Bauer-Bregman feud by saying Bauer was her “least favorite person in all of sports.” Bauer responded by tweeting at her dozens of times over the next 12 hours, while going through her likes, digging up old tweets for dirt, and encouraging his then-134,000 followers to pile on.

Bauer never really apologized for this ugly incident; he chimed back in a couple days later with a statement that began, “I often defend myself against internet trolling, bullying and slander.” This characterization misstates the facts. Bauer wasn’t slandered, and while nobody wants to hear that they’re someone’s least favorite, one tweet from a stranger hardly qualifies as trolling or bullying.

Bullying requires one party using an imbalance of power to pick on another. The power dynamic between player and fan is easy enough to understand. Bauer, as a professional athlete, not only has a larger platform but the fierce loyalty of thousands of fans who can carpet-bomb an unsuspecting young woman’s mentions with far worse invective than she ever directed at Bauer. It’s not sticks and stones when someone’s being subjected to targeted online harassment for no reason in particular.

MLB would do well to remind its players and other powerful employees of their responsibility to treat others with respect—a lesson most kindergarteners take to heart. An imbalance of power in a social and professional setting is what allowed former Mets GM Jared Porter to sexually harass a reporter, and allowed Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway to reportedly make unwanted advances on five women in sports media. What Bauer did doesn’t rise to that level of maliciousness, but it’s a lesser sin born out of the same sense of superiority. And while Mets team president Sandy Alderson promised to reform the team culture after Porter’s firing, the team still courted Bauer without stopping to consider how behavior like his might encourage worse.

Bauer has been less belligerent on social media the past couple years, and the Dodgers are apparently confident that Bauer won’t misbehave in the future. But he’s a celebrated—and now embarrassingly wealthy—ballplayer who never really reckoned with his own history of cyberbullying. Bauer would have nothing to lose by offering a sincere apology and espousing a newfound appreciation for treating others with respect and not tormenting the less powerful. Most kindergarteners pick up those lessons easily enough; surely a man of Bauer’s intelligence would be able to grasp them as well.

But until and unless he does, signing Bauer sends a message to those who find his behavior odious, reprehensible, or even threatening. He’s a very, very good pitcher, but he’s good at two things, and the Dodgers now have to live with both.