How Did Trevor Bauer Become the Highest-Paid Player in Baseball?

Should we be surprised he is now MLB's most expensive player? There's a lot to unpack.
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It’s difficult to think of a free agent in recent memory whose contract has been more difficult to predict than Trevor Bauer.

He’s coming off a career-best Cy Young season. (A clear point in his favor.) But, of course, that season came in a pandemic-shortened year and marked a clear outlier from much of his past experience. (Okay, smudge that initial point a bit.) And teams’ willingness to spend big amid ongoing pandemic uncertainty remained a question mark through the fall and early winter. Then again, he was the only premium pitcher on the market… but he’s also a polarizing figure with a record of inappropriate behavior that raised questions about how teammates and fans alike might respond to a signing. Add in the fact that he’d been open about his interest in potentially unorthodox contract structures, like requesting a one-year deal or a series of opt-outs, and it’s no wonder that it was a nightmare to try to figure out what was going to happen in Bauer's free agency.

Just look at the range in the public free-agent predictions made at the beginning of the offseason. ESPN’s was for one year at $30 million; FanGraphs’ was a four-year deal for $90 million; MLB Trade Rumors’ was four years at $128 million. That’s a fairly wide spread! Surely, you’d think, that assortment would be enough to capture something close to what the pitcher would actually sign for.

And you’d be wrong. Bauer announced Friday he is signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a three-year deal for $102 million, with opt-outs after the first and second season, and a pay structure that easily smashed the record for single-season salary: $40 million the first year, $45 million the second, and $17 million the third, if he sticks around until then.

Trevor Bauer will be the highest-paid player in baseball in 2021 and almost certainly in 2022. So how surprising should that be?

The most obvious answer might be very surprising; if you’d like to think that the highest-paid player in baseball should be the best player in baseball, well, even the most ardent Bauer supporters and the biggest believers in what he did last season would have difficulty making that case. But, of course, that connection between pay and talent is far from linear, and Bauer walked into what looked like his ideal situation. 

Trevor Bauer pitching

First, there’s the simple fact of having the best season of his career in his walk year. After being the subject of serious hype for his brainy approach to pitching for years—dating back to his college days at UCLA—he finally looked like a top-tier ace worthy of the Cy Young in 2020. That naturally leads to the question of whether those results will be sustainable going forward. The season obviously looked different from “regular” baseball in many ways, but it helps that there was a clear single factor here, rather than a loose collection of general improvements: His spin rate increased massively. (Just how he achieved that increase remains ... unclear.) Bauer’s fastball had the highest spin rate in baseball last year (2817 RPM), and if you were looking for a reason to buy into him as a totally changed pitcher, this offered some obvious data to back it up.

And then there’s the market he walked into. While other teams were thrown about as potential contenders here early on, as time ticked down until spring training, the list reportedly shrank to the Mets and the Dodgers. If you wanted any two teams to get in a bidding war for you this offseason, those are a particularly enviable two, both with significant financial resources and both in search of a statement move. The Mets are in the first offseason under new owner Steven Cohen and, even after their big trade for Francisco Lindor, still trying to make a splash. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are coming off their first championship in three decades and have watched the Padres do their best this winter to unseat L.A. as pennant favorites. It’s not so surprising that they’d both be willing to do as much as they could—far beyond what any other teams might have—in an effort to land him.

The lack of other serious options probably set the initial asking price high here, too. Months before the offseason even started, Bauer was clearly going to be the best pitcher available, but even more ground cleared for him in early winter. Marcus Stroman accepted the qualifying offer. Masahiro Tanaka decided to return to Japan. James Paxton’s health left him a huge question mark. Yes, some top pitchers were made available for trade, like Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. But the free-agent market for front-end rotation help was Bauer, and only Bauer, and that surely made it easier for him to drive the conversation here.

All this lays the groundwork for a winter where it was possible for Bauer to land $40 million a year. That doesn’t mean that it’s not still a lot to stake on what was just 73 innings of serious performance gains in 2020, or that it’s not still significant that the highest-paid player in the game would be one who has been so consistently dogged by concerns about his character. But surprising? Maybe not as much as you’d think.