Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/12/12
This post isn’t so much a trade analysis of last night’s three team trade between the Reds, Indians, and Diamondbacks, as that post wouldn’t be that interesting – the Indians got a ridiculously great value for one year of Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds turned a prospect they didn’t need into one year of a nice outfielder, and the Diamondbacks turned a pitcher they didn’t want into a guy they hope can be their shortstop of the future. For the Reds, this could be a good move if they can deal with the defensive deficiencies in center until Billy Hamilton is ready. For the D’Backs, they can finally stop trying to sell low on Justin Upton, so even if this trade in particular isn’t a great one, it has a nice side benefit at least. And, for the Indians, they turned one year of Shin-Soo Choo into six years of Trevor Bauer, which looks to be nothing short of a heist. Last year, both Marc Hulet and Baseball America rated Bauer the #9 prospect in baseball, at that was before he went out and posted a 2.41 ERA over 130 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 30% of the batters he faced along the way. Bauer’s almost certainly going to be ranked among the top 10 prospects in the game again this coming year. It is extremely rare for a team to turn a rent-a-player into a top ten prospect, especially when that rental is more of a nice player than any kind of star. The Indians got more for one year of Choo than the Twins did for three years of Denard Span. Cleveland fans should be thrilled with this return. But, at the same time, they should recognize that it might take Bauer a little while to live up to the hype. Yes, Bauer’s exceedingly young, and his ability to rack up strikeouts in the minors is a strong positive sign for his future. But, the list of similar pitchers who got to the big leagues at age 21 despite problems with their command show that this is an issue that is not always easily remedied. Since 2002, 23 pitchers have gotten to the big leagues as a 21-year-old rookie starter and walked at least 10% of the batters they faced during their initial exposure to Major League hitters. Some of those 23 guys were soft-tossing lefties who got to the show quickly because of their polish, and aren’t particularly great comparisons for Bauer. But, there are some pitchers with similar pedigrees who got to the big leagues at 21 despite command problems in the same way that Bauer did. Among those on the list: Chad Billingsley, 14.4% BB% Homer Bailey, 13.7% BB% Edwin Jackson, 13.6% BB% Edinson Volquez, 12.5% BB% Scott Kazmir, 12.2% BB% Rich Harden, 12.1% BB% Scott Olsen, 11.8% BB% Matt Latos, 10.9% BB% Matt Cain, 10.7% BB% Bauer is hardly the first young pitcher to get to the big leagues based on his stuff and struggle to throw strikes. And, of course, there’s some pretty good pitchers on that list. If Bauer turns into Cain or Latos, the Indians will be doing backflips, and this will go down as one of the best trades in franchise history. But it’s also worth noting that, in general, these guys didn’t figure it out very quickly. Bailey was worse at 22 than he was at 21, then was still pretty bad at 23. His peripherals finally started going the right way at age 24, but he just posted his first strong season in terms of results at age 26. For his career, he’s thrown 644 innings and has an ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- of 109/102/102. Same story with Jackson. Replacement level again at 22, still pretty bad at 23/24, then finally had his breakthrough at age 25. He’s been an effective pitcher for the last four years, but he took a long time to develop into a guy who threw enough strikes to make his stuff work. Volquez is even more of a cautionary tale. Like Bailey and Jackson, he didn’t really take a leap forward until age 24, and in his case, that leap wasn’t sustained. Tommy John surgery may have played a part in his regression, but Volquez has never figured out how to throw strikes consistently, so even with his premium stuff, he’s hung around the league as a below average pitcher. Kazmir, Olson, and Harden were good in spite of their command issues early, then ran into arm problems that derailed their stuff and their careers. For a guy with significant command issues, velocity loss can be a huge problem, and push them out of the big leagues entirely. It’s one thing to adjust your repertoire when you’re around the zone, but if you lose your stuff and you don’t throw strikes, there’s not much left to get big league hitters out with. Based on the published reports, it seems like Arizona was willing to sell low on Bauer mostly because of his personality and his unwillingness to adapt his style of pitching to their preferred development plan. However, there’s also some reasons to be skeptical of the idea that Bauer is ready to step in and contribute in the big leagues in 2013, and another year of walking the world would probably have lowered his trade value over the next 12 months. While this trade will likely be referred to as selling low on a top prospect, it is quite possible that Bauer’s value is going to be lower a year from now than it is at this moment. Of course, there’s also a pretty good chance that Bauer will eventually figure out how to throw more strikes, and turning into a Homer Bailey, Edwin Jackson, or Chad Billingsley in the long term would still make this a great trade for an Indians team that has time to wait for him to develop. But, we should at least note that pitchers with these kinds of early career skillsets don’t always figure out how to throw strikes, and they often need a few more years of struggles before they make the necessary adjustments. It’s a risk worth taking for the Indians, but for Arizona, the decision to trade Bauer away isn’t totally unjustified.
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