The Indians' infield defense has improved dramatically over the last month, as BaseballProspectus.com noted Thursday in a profile on the defensive exploits of Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor. As I noted last week as well, the defensive improvement has been felt across the team, as their collective BABIP dropped from .321 to .266 as of July 2.
The improved defense should be very good news for the likes of Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber, two elite strikeout and walk pitchers who were getting killed by the team's inability to vacuum up the groundballs they were generating. Danny Salazar might also benefit from the improvement, though at .308, BABIP hasn't actually been the issue for him -- maybe the Indians can get Urshula and Lindor to move the fence back before Salazar's starts?
What about the other member of the Indians' high-ceiling foursome, Trevor Bauer? He has been just as inconsistent as ever since the Indians installed their new left side of the infield, but could the improved infield defense make a difference for him too? As we discussed on Thursday's episode of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, Bauer remains one of the biggest enigmas in baseball.
In his five starts since June 16, Bauer does sport a .256 BABIP, an excellent mark. However, that mark is down only slightly from the .268 BABIP he sported before that, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It is also why I am less willing to buy into him breaking out the way I could see Carrasco, Kluber and (to a lesser extent) Salazar.
Bauer isn't a groundball pitcher. Among the 10 pitchers who have started one game or more for the Indians, he has the second-lowest groundball rate, at 37.5 percent. Urshula and Lindor will help, to be sure, but not as much as they will help the other guys. That's because so many of Bauer's batted balls head for the outfield, and that is where the grass isn't so green for the Indians.
The Indians' combined outfield UZR is -10.9; that ranks just 25th in the majors right now. Their three most-used outfielders over the last 10 games are Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and Brandon Moss, with Moss the only one who comes even close to rating out as a positive defensive presence in the outfield this season.
The bigger issue, of course, is what happens to those fly balls that his defenders don't have any chance to get to. Bauer is always going to be a homer-prone pitcher, and that issue is compounded by the fact that he lets a high number of runners on base via the free pass. He has been better over his last few starts, but overall sports a 9.8 percent walk rate, the fourth-highest among starters this season.
You can live with a low groundball rate and the homers that come about as a result if you keep the bases clear and limit the damage. Matt Harvey is allowed 1.12 HR/9, but has a significantly lower ERA, FIP and xFIP because his walk rate is nearly half what Bauer's is. Bauer can look like an elite starting pitching talent -- as his nine-strikeout outing Wednesday showed -- but he is too limited to expect him to reach that ceiling consistently.
Coming off two strong starts, this might be a good time to sell-high on Bauer. If you believe in his talent then by all means hold on to him. To me, he looks like a league-average pitcher, and his 3.91 FIP and 4.12 xFIP back that up.
Bauer's raw ability is undeniable, but I just think he is bound to break your heart.