There’s very little clarity with baseball right now, from when it returns to how it’ll look when it returns. Heck, we still don’t know for sure if it’s going to return. The entire outlook gets foggier as the days go by.
Yet, somehow, despite very little development taking place with the 2020 season, Jake Bauers’ situation has become more complicated than it initially appeared in March.
Back then, the Cleveland Indians outfielder was facing two very clear paths.
The concept of a second spring training appeared to give him an opportunity to grab a roster spot which was escaping his grip in February. If the unexpected second chance didn’t pan out, no worries, he could just work on his new plate approach in the minors until Cleveland called him up.
Bauers’ paths have since become littered with potholes.
Sure, once the season start date is agreed upon, he’ll still take part in spring training 2.0. That said, his odds of earning a roster spot have taken a hit. If he’s unable to make the cut, a lack of minor league baseball will only hinder his ability to take necessary offensive strides.
So, despite all the efforts Bauers put in to fix his swing over the offseason, he may not get much of a chance to put it to practice in the months ahead.
This isn’t to say his earning a final roster spot is out of the question. In fact, you could argue MLB’s plans to expand team rosters to 30 players helps Bauers’ cause.
However, even with roster expansion, Bauers has quite a handful of outfielders to leapfrog in order to spend summer with the Indians.
It feels safe to say Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes, Jordan Luplow and Delino DeShields Jr. will each land a roster spot with Cleveland. In February, that appeared to leave one last availability for Bauers to snatch. Now, with Tyler Naquin fully healed from last year’s ACL surgery and the Indians potentially looking to ensure Bradley Zimmer doesn’t spend another year collecting rust, said availability may not be up for grabs anymore.
Bauers’ ability to play first base does give him a slight edge. Between him and prospect Bobby Bradley, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Indians tabbed the former to be Carlos Santana’s backup this year.
That said, would this create enough opportunities for Bauers to improve his ability to hit big league pitching?
Sure, it’d be better than spending summer among the taxi squad of reserve players. Still, he needs consistent at-bats if he’s going to successfully address some key holes in his offensive approach.
The biggest, it appears, is his struggles reading the shadow zone of the plate.
In each of the past two seasons, 43% of the pitches Bauers faced were thrown at or around the edges of the strike zone. His numbers against said pitches left a lot to be desired.
2018 -- 688 pitches, .174 batting average, 29.4% strikeout rate, .242 wOBA
2019 -- 752 pitches, .182 batting average, 31.6% strikeout rate, .245 wOBA
More specifically, opposing pitchers tended to attack the low, outside corner against Bauers last season. In doing so, they exposed one of his more notable flaws.
Simply put, Bauers was quite hesitant to swing at pitches low and away.
For a better look, below is a league zone swing profile, which breaks down average swing percentages by zone for left handed batters last season.
Next, take a peak at Bauers’ zone swing profile to see how it compares.
As you can see, compared to league average, Bauers has a much higher tendency to take pitches on the outside shadow of the zone, especially on the bottom corner.
This was something pitchers keyed in on last season. In fact, of the 1,741 pitches Bauers faced last season, 19.5% were thrown towards the low and outside shadow of the plate. Against these pitches, he boasted a .156 batting average and a strikeout rate of 43.8%. Bauers only swung at 18.8% of those offerings, whiffing 56.3% of the time.
At just 24-years-old with 811 total plate appearances, it’s hardly too early to claim this issue will prevent Bauers from seeing success in the pros. Still, he can’t develop a better read of the strike zone without facing more big league pitching.
It’ll be tough for him to do so if he’s only getting a start or two a week. It’ll be even tougher if the bulk of his plate appearances occur during taxi squad scrimmages.
Again, Bauers is still very young. The adversity facing him in the year ahead shouldn’t completely derail his development.
That said, considering the struggles he’s had in the majors so far, any backwards progress is unwelcome.
As noted here over the past few months, a shortened MLB season and a year without minor league baseball has created several complications for the Indians to navigate through. Ensuring Bauers gets an opportunity to prove he was a worthy investment is yet another one to add to the list.