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The Los Angeles Dodgers sign RHP Trevor Bauer to a three-year, $102 million contract.
There’s an inherent logic to long-term, high-AAV contracts, the deals reserved for players with that precise combination of youth and talent to make records in terms of contract length or total value. The team understands the value the player brings now, and can be presumed to carry at least some distance into the future. The player has a track record to assuage the inherent nagging doubt of commitment to any player, especially a pitcher. The team trusts the player to be a front-and-center representative for the franchise for a long time to come, even perhaps after his on-field production wavers. In short, much as we might to pretend finances aren’t what it comes down to, a modern team wants a player who will be worth the outlay. It’s for these reasons Trevor Bauer, Cy Young in tow after one of his career’s two ace-caliber seasons, couldn’t touch the contracts garnered by pitchers like Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg.

It might seem harsh to ease into a discussion of Bauer by pointing out what he’s not, but his winding free agency, theatrical until the last, sometimes overshadowed someone who has for much of his career been a league-average starter. The 30-year-old’s career DRA- of 99 might not be perfectly illustrative of his current skills—it includes a -1.6 WARP 2014 season, and it’s probably not reasonable to consider continuous the version of him that struck out more like one in five batters (since 2017 he has surpassed a 25 percent punchout rate annually)—but his 100 DRA- mark from the last complete season is a stark reminder of his inconsistency. Bauer has been different pitchers not only at various points throughout his career, but within the last few seasons.

Bauer IP ERA K% BB% DRA-
2012-2016 552 1/3 4.42 21.4 10.0 119.2
2017-2020 637 2/3 3.46 28.9 8.0 79.1
2018 175 1/3 2.21 30.8 7.9 56
2019 213 4.48 27.8 9.0 100
2020 73 1.73 36.0 6.1 59

Bauer would tell you his mid-career Renaissance was the result of something more complicated than strikeouts and walks, but it feels comfortable assigning most of the improvement in that direction. The velocity spiked up for several seasons, but in 2020 dipped to 93.8 mph on the four-seam fastball, his lowest showing since 2015, and it was still the best year of Bauer’s career. The homer rate has bounced around, too, but in 2020 sat at 1.1 home runs per nine, just in line with his career rate. The career-best rates in both strikeouts and free passes were instrumental in that 1.73 ERA (as was a 90.9 percent strand rate, but at least some portion of that second-in-the-league showing is thanks to the high punchout rate). The skeleton key to modern free agency, though, is teams no longer deign to pay for what a player has done, being interested instead in what they are likely to do next. Can Trevor Bauer do this again, or more broadly, across a full season?

As to the latter question, it’s only fair to point out he largely did so, in a 5.7-win 2018. That year’s 0.46 home run rate is nearly half a dinger per inning lower than any other mark of the former third-overall pick’s career, however, offering no definitive answer to the question of if another Cy Young-worthy season can happen without an outlier mark—in home run rate, strikeout rate, or something else. Put another way, Trevor Bauer’s two non-consecutive exemplary seasons haven’t offered enough to establish him as an exemplary pitcher.

So, what does a player in Bauer’s situation do? The perennial answer is maximize earnings, which this contract obviously worked toward despite its unusual structure. Options and opt-outs in a contract always give their holder more power—it’s why Nolan Arenado got another opt-out added after waiving his no-trade clause to head over to St. Louis (and also got to head over to St. Louis), even if it’s not likely he’ll take advantage. The contract inked by the newest Dodger is best understood as three distinct contracts, the ultimate value determined by Bauer: one year and $40 million, two years and $85 million, or three years and $102 million. In the only aspect of the agreement that might be viewed as a disappointment for the righty, the third year means he won’t be shattering any AAV records, with both Strasburg and Cole’s contracts breaking the $34 million average salary. For a player to consecutively break the single-season salary record is its own accomplishment, however—and it does seem likely Bauer will hang on for the second year of the deal.

If he chooses to make his contract a two-year, $85 million deal, he gains several advantages: foremost, missing the protracted labor dispute that’s likely to affect next winter’s free agent class even more evidently than the short season did this winter’s. If he continues to pitch at a high level in those seasons, and with the durability that has been his most consistent trait throughout his career, ahead of his age-32 season would likely be his last opportunity to lock down a multi-year contract with some heft. For that reason in addition to the drastically diminished AAV, if Bauer elects to spend all three of the contract’s seasons in Los Angeles it will be an admission he’s less than the pitcher as whom he’s long represented himself. Finally, while it might seem impossible he walks away from a $45 million salary, a repeat or solid impression of his 2020 would make a one-year deal at least somewhat likely. Remember that for all his profession of inclination to single-season contracts, Bauer and his representation in all likelihood sought and continue to seek the largest payday available. 

While it seems probable he received four-year contract offers from some team or another (the Mets), the sum of this contract makes it seem unlikely that offer’s total value would have been more than $120 million—if you’re looking for bare speculation. After the coming season, Bauer will be owed two years and $62 million, more or less the same most players are guaranteed at the end of true megadeals. If he outpitches his 2.8 WARP projection, would it take more than, say, a five-year, $100 million contract to win his services? The bravado with which the pitcher comports himself and injected into his free agency proceedings makes a definitive answer hard to reach, but simply because of the nature of pitching, the offer of guaranteed money Bauer rejected beyond his ultimate $102 million is increasingly likely to make him look foolish the more was ultimately rejected. At $112 million, the inked contract represents a bet on oneself many could understand. At $122 million, you might start thinking about the pitchers who were here today, gone tomorrow in MLB. At $132 million, you might start making a list.

Writing about any player’s future is inherently speculative, being that PECOTA hasn’t become a perfect simulation of the coming season (yet!). Bauer only increases the necessity of speculation, being that certainty about who he is as a player is as scarce as evidence of his grating personality (which has already carried into at least one on-field incident) is comprehensive. PECOTA, being as a projection system inherently conservative, isn’t taking bets on Bauer’s latest, best turn being his true self. At all of the 1st, 50th, and 99th percentiles, he appears previous incarnations of himself:

Percentile DRA- WARP Most Like
1 99 1.3 2019: 100 DRA-
50 80 2.8 2017-20: 79 DRA-
99 61 4.6 2020: 59 DRA-

If PECOTA had sentience, we might accuse it of hedging, in so closely hewing its variances to those Bauer has shown in recent seasons. It’s easy to see how the system might see those as the most obvious cases, however: Bauer’s 2020 had a fairly different shape than his breakout 2018 effort, and while we might look at the peripherals and see more sustainability thanks to strikeouts, PECOTA has no way to know if a 36 percent strikeout rate can hold, particularly given its lack of information about pitch doctoring that may have helped the former Reds ace get there. The Dodgers would appear to be hedging along with PECOTA; Bauer has something like half the track record as a star one might predict of a mega free agent, so he gets half the guarantee.

***

But stardom infers something more than just on-field performance, and there, Bauer’s track record is equally problematic. It’s not necessary to go into the realm of speculation, here: First, it needs to be mentioned that the millionaire with more than 130,000 Twitter followers (at the time) spearheaded a harassment campaign against a college student, tweeting at her 17 times over a matter of days, including screenshotting a post that appeared to gesture toward underage drinking and captioning it with “deleting the tweet won’t save you.” You notice a lot of locked twitter accounts Bauer has replied to, going through his feed. To be perfectly frank I find his persona, which I truly hope is not his personality, repugnant in the same way you might that self-centered, slightly off-putting kid from high school, and so I’m going to limit any further talk on Bauer the person to his own tweets.

CW for anti-Semitism and racism in one of the tweets to which Bauer replies.

It’s possible you’ve seen many or all of these tweets before. That’s the whole deal with online; I fail to believe no one ever impressed upon Bauer that anything he puts online could be there forever. That he continues to act this way indicates he believes himself above consequences for his reactionary online presence, even as he is continually mired in the latest spat—a tendency that has already bled onto the field, in his final appearance with Cleveland. One more tweet, of which Bauer often finds himself the basic embodiment:

The thing with someone like Bauer, though, is he has the means, and evidently often the intent, to redirect his anger to those who are undeserving. He has the insularity to adopt clearly bigoted, harmful positions, and whether or not he’s doing so “ironically” is fully beside the point. He’s a 30-year-old man who has never learned to comport himself like the rest of society must, as so many other star baseball players and veteran professional athletes the world over seem to be capable of. That makes him a risk at least as much as his volatility on the field, even if the eventual contract would seem to affirm Bauer’s belief his online presence wouldn’t harm the arc of his career.

***

For now, Los Angeles has purchased a new face for their franchise. The Dodgers won the World Series in 2020, so it’s difficult to squabble with any of their rosterbuilding decisions. Rather, wondering why Bauer got the trigger pulled shows you about how the organization views its title defense. As with seemingly every team, Los Angeles is stocking up on starting pitching like never before. With the addition of Bauer (and with David Price back on the roster), the team has eight pitchers PECOTA projects for above-average DRA-.

Name proj. DRA- proj. WARP
Walker Buehler 75 3.3
Clayton Kershaw 64 4.6
Trevor Bauer 80 2.8
David Price 94 1.4
Tony Gonsolin 88 1.7
Julio Urías 91 1.5
Dustin May 98 0.9
Josiah Gray 97 0.1

While the Dodgers would be eager to shove Julio Urías and Dustin May in the bullpen as they have done in the past, the accumulation at work here should indicate they’re not preparing for that eventuality. Rather, the aftermath of the most staccato season in memory, wherein the average pitcher had less reps than at any point in the last 50 years or more, is likely to bleed into this season even if it’s a relatively normally scheduled one. Dead arm, reduced velocities, and total blowouts are in the futures of some pitchers, which is a true statement ahead of every single spring training. The uncertainty here is one of scale, and if this signing is the Dodgers tampering with their weights, it’s only fair to read the expectation of a coming exodus of arms to be biblical. Should that prove to be the case, the addition of a pitcher as durable as Bauer—his most enduring non-personal trait is surely his workhorse status, with only eight pitchers having completed more innings since 2014—makes intuitive sense. Even if everything on the periphery comes together decidedly less harmoniously.

In terms of the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, this move seems to indicate the Dodgers will bust through to the highest tier, $40 million above the $210 million tax limit. Los Angeles currently sees its 2021 payroll (per the Competitive Balance tax accounting, which uses a contract’s AAV) at around $237 million, via Cot’s Contracts. $13 million might seem like a fair bit of wiggle room, but that room belies several complications. Teams tend to want to leave at least some wiggle room under that number to account for both performance incentives in player contracts and midseason additions, hence the Yankees selling the rights to reliever Adam Ottavino to break $10 million in not-cap space. The Dodgers are also presumably still in the market for Justin Turner or a replacement bat of some sort, and trading prospects to staunch some of the payroll blow of acquiring stars has never really been their M.O. Finally, if Bauer opts out after the second year of his contract, as the $28 million drop-off between the ‘22 and ‘23 salaries implies is likely, MLB will probably adjust the luxury tax implications at that point. Per Cot’s Jeff Euston:

if Bauer opts out in October after making $40 [million] in 2021, the Dodgers 2021 hit is bumped up to the full $40 [million] for 2021. MLB would make a similar adjustment if Bauer opts out after 2022 …

To me, the third year at an artificially low number sounds like a mechanism to hold down the AAV, with the club hoping (expecting?) the entire luxury tax system to be changed with the next labor deal.

A reminder of what’s at stake with the luxury tax, in the present case of the Dodgers exceeding for the first time in several years:

  • A club exceeding the Competitive Balance Tax threshold for the first time must pay a 20 percent tax on all overages
  • Clubs that exceed the threshold by $20 million to $40 million are also subject to a 12 percent surtax. Meanwhile, those who exceed it by more than $40 million are taxed at a 42.5 percent rate the first time
  • Beginning in 2018, clubs that are $40 million or more above the threshold shall have their highest selection in the next Rule 4 Draft moved back 10 places unless the pick falls in the top six.

If that doesn’t seem that massive a demerit, you’d be right—even if the Dodgers spent $10 million beyond the third tax threshold ($260 million total), next winter they’d owe $16.65 million in luxury tax ($4 million + 6.4 million + 6.25 million), also seeing their first draft pick drop by ten spots (a $508,800 value, per MLB’s 2020 slot values). As second- and third-time surpassors of the CBT (with the same $260 million payroll), the Dodgers would see penalties of $21.9 million and $31.9 million—though recall it seems widely accepted the luxury tax system will be drastically altered when the CBA ends after this season. Regardless, it’s not that much money, to be frank, in terms of either the team’s overall salary commitments (even that final, nearly $32 million penalty would be less than an eighth of the inputted payroll) or its $3.4 billion valuation. If the foremost question the Bauer signing and this breakdown of the luxury tax leaves you with is why for Bauer, and for no one sooner?, I’d say you’re thinking along the right lines.

The Dodgers finally won in 2020, as you might have heard about. One might think that championship would have cured the Dodgers of the need for a player who could sow discord in their fanbase, but perhaps they’re hoping it goes the other way. Maybe Los Angeles broke $100 million on the condition Bauer hires a social media manager, or for a vow that he’ll shift into emoji-ese tweeting like the face of the franchise the county over. Or perhaps the Dodgers are hoping Bauer will keep them winning, and that winning will paper over any unsavoriness that might transpire in the meantime.

***

Fantasy Impact

Trevor Bauer ( – )

I guess, setting aside the Trevor Bauer of It All, this is probably a decent move for the righty’s fantasy stock. While he won’t have the luxury of facing exclusively Central Division offenses moving forward, going from the Great American Ball Park to Dodger Stadium is a sizable upgrade in home digs. Additionally, while the Reds made waves in the offseason before the 2020 campaign, they were one of the worst scoring offenses in baseball, producing roughly 100 fewer runs than the Dodgers (who led the league). Needless to say, Bauer should have some run support. 

How much he will need that run support is the bigger question. A couple of things–Bauer won the Cy Young award last season. It can be debated (rather easily) whether that accolade was merited, but it happened. He won it. For 73 innings, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting an ERA under 2.00 and striking out a gaudy 36 percent of opposing hitters. Still, his DRA was over a run higher, and there are some other metrics that point to serious regression looming. Part of Bauer’s success stemmed from leaving over 90 percent of baserunners stranded. Shane Bieber’s strand rate was slightly higher, but both Bieber and Bauer were over five percentage points clear of the third-highest rate in the league. The league average is just under 72 percent. Also, batters hit .215 against Bauer on balls in play. Even if his stuff was incredible (and that’s not a claim I’d deny), that number should trend back up toward the league average in the .290s. And let’s quickly get back to his dominance against the Central Divisions. It’s true that he didn’t pick his opponents–I get that. However, just to hammer home how truly awful those offenses were, in Bauer’s 11 starts, he faced a top-15 scoring offense just once, and a top-20 scoring offense just three times. So yes, he was fantastic against the competition in front of him, but that’s a little like a walk-on college basketball player beating up on a JV highschool team.  

Also, much has been made about Bauer’s emergence as a dominant starter. The truth is, Bauer has been good before, but hasn’t yet had a sustained run of success spanning multiple seasons. In 2018, Bauer made another run at hardware, tossing 175.3 innings with a 2.21 ERA/2.48 DRA. Otherwise, in the remaining seven big-league seasons for his career, Bauer has posted a DRA under 4.00 just once. It’s a little unbelievable that someone would be willing to take the plunge on a pitcher like Bauer, one who did something this season that hasn’t been done in terms of significant improvement of spin rate and other metrics, while also not being consistently dominant for more than one season at a time. Perhaps I’m a little risk averse, but I’m definitely not as high on Bauer as it would seem that the fantasy community might be. It’s possible he puts up something resembling Good Bauer in 2021, but it’s just as easy to envision an ERA sniffing 5.00 and plenty of tantrums. All I’m saying is that it might be useful to pump the breaks. Bauer is almost always good for volume, and that’s important. It’s just that he hasn’t shown the ability to consistently be more than that. —Mark Barry

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Ace
2/06
This contract led me down a thought spiral. While I know Bauer’s contract doesn’t fit into this situation (because of the opt outs) but why don’t rich owners front load contracts to artificially inflate their own players values? Seems to me that in today’s game contracts are equally as valuable as the players their attached to. Why don’t rich owners front load contracts to mediocre players to increase their trade value?
H
2/07
I don't think this thought spiral is accurate (if this were the case we wouldn't have seen so many recent non-tenders).

But I think you're nonetheless on to something. It reminded me of a comment by Fangraphs' Longenhagen.

Fangraphs Audio 896 - 25 minutes in - there's essentially a hypothesis put forward for a potential Jeff Lunow (& disciples) school of artificial scarcity : (1) don't sign minor league free agents (2) grab older hitters from small colleges and give them a month in high A (3) if they're hitting well, promote to AA (e.g. A Joss Rojas).

You create artificial scarcity which allows you to find out early if some of these guys can hit at a higher minor league level which will make some models assume they're a more valuable prospect than they actually are which allows you to flip them for more true talent.

These lower tool guys will look like they have a lot more value than an equivalent minor league free agent.
ofmontreal
2/08
Nice breakdown. Something lost I think is that Bauer has been saying(for years) he prefers a contract like this and that long term deals are for suckers (I paraphrase). Maybe that is obscured in the twitter/quote storm that follows him in general. I was honestly expecting a one year deal and think it's interesting that teams weren't satisfied with that option. Especially now that his comp pick is expended.
Pat Folz
2/11
Yeah, I was actually kind of surprised he *didn't* end up on a one-year deal, given his public desire and how teams were handing out so many of them this winter. I honestly wonder if this deal wasn't a compromise between player and *agent*, who must have been pulling their hair out trying to convince Bauer that being guaranteed more money is, you know, a good thing. I can't fathom that a team would prefer this opt-out business to a straight one-year deal, especially since that second year has such a high number that he'd only opt out if his 2021 performance were Cy Young-caliber (or if there's expected to be a massive bump in overall player salaries in 2022, I suppose, but that seems highly unlikely, given everything).

In some ways I admire his chutzpah, betting highly on himself - and of course, he's getting plenty of money no matter how things turn out - but wow, there is a very good chance that a few years from now he's looking back wondering why he made so much less than Johnny Cueto.
tonyfranco
2/17
I'm curious which Bauer emerges. His 2020 season must be viewed with a grain of salt. Not only because of abbreviated schedule, but also because who Bauer faced. May have been easiest schedule of any SP. In 10 of 11 starts he faced a team that was in the bottom 10 in scoring. Cubs (2 starts, ranked 20th); Tigers (2, 23rd); Royals (1, 24th), Brewers (3, 26th), and Pirates (2, 30th). The NL West will be far more difficult.