Trevor Bauer has become the first Cincinnati Reds pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. It’s natural for the media to push narratives about award-winners, giving fans an understanding of what so-and-so did and what his journey to the mountaintop was like.
So now we’ve arrived at Bauer’s Hero’s Journey, and it seems to be pointing in one direction: he’s the underdog. This is patently ridiculous.
Side note: it blows my mind that the Reds have never had a Cy Young winner in their 900-year history. But anyway…
Incredible amateur career
Underdogs come from humble beginnings, do they not? No one expected them to flourish once they started playing with the big boys, yet they found a way to excel. That ain’t Trevor Bauer, folks.
Bauer got a full ride to UCLA after an outstanding high school career. He was a Freshman All-American after his first season in ’09. He was named a Golden Spikes finalist after his sophomore season. Finally, he went 13-2 with a 1.25 ERA his junior season, good enough to be win the PAC-12’s Pitcher of the Year Award, the Golden Spikes Award, and be named Baseball America’s College Player of the year, among a slew of other accolades.
Big league organizations recognized his talents, and he was drafted third overall by the Diamondbacks in 2011.
That sound like an underdog to you? Sounds like a guy destined for greatness to me. Are we surprised a man with this résumé won a Cy Young?
Pro career, pre-Cy Young
Ok ok. Maybe Bauer had the look of a future star in college, but his career veered off course? Is he a Josh Hamilton-type guy who seemed like a lost cause for one reason or another, but was eventually able to hone all of his talents? Nah, not Bauer.
Finding his way
Bauer was excellent in the minors. He posted a 3.23 ERA and held hitters to a .241 AVG, striking out 350 men in 323.1 innings. Bauer made his big league debut in 2012 for the D-Backs and struggled across 16.1 innings. He was shipped off to Cleveland that offseason in a three-team deal that involved Didi Gregorius and Shin-Soo Choo, among others. Bauer had another cup of coffee in the Show the following year for the Indians, but again struggled (over 17 innings).
He held his own in 2014 and 2015, averaging 164 innings, a 4.38 ERA, a 94 ERA+, and 8.6 K/9. Hardly All-Star material, but somewhat respectable. Bauer showed some steady improvement over the next two seasons, averaging 183 innings, a 4.23 ERA, a 107 ERA+, and a 8.9 K/9. Still not an ace, but a solid 3-4 starter.
The next step
2018 was when Bauer showed what he was capable of. He finished with the fourth best ERA+ in MLB, at 196, and put up a minuscule 2.21 ERA. There was little luck involved in Bauer’s breakout season; his 2.44 FIP was the lowest in the league. He finished 6th in Cy Young voting, although he would have finished higher if not for an injury late in the season. Trevor Bauer became an ace in 2018.
2019 represented a reversion to the mean for Bauer. His ERA+ again hovered in the low 100s (106), although much of his struggles might have come from adjusting to the launching pad that is the Reds’ Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati traded for Bauer mid-season in the midst of a playoff push, but he got shelled across ten starts for them. Average that out with the first chunk of his season for Cleveland, which was excellent, and you have just a decent year.
Cy Young season
Now we arrive at Bauer’s 2020 Cy Young-winning season. What has he done up to this point? He’s been a collegiate legend, a top-5 pick, a top-100 prospect, an All-Star, and has received Cy Young votes. Bauer has accounted for 17.5 bWAR by age 29. Hall of Fame trajectory? Hardly. But an underdog? Get out of here with that.
Everything came together for Bauer in 2020, similar to his 2018 season. He led the league in ERA, CG, SHO, ERA+, WHIP, and H/9. You do that, you win the Cy Young Award. Trevor Bauer got 27 of 30 first place votes, which is appropriate when you were as dominant as he was. He will make lots of money for the next team he plays for.
So what’s with all the “underdog” talk?
He’s a different breed
Wanna know why some people seem to gravitate towards Trevor Bauer being an underdog? I’ll tell ya why. It’s because of his personality and approach to his craft, that’s why.
Bauer has long embraced an empirical approach to his performance, tirelessly collecting data and tinkering with his mechanics and strategies in order to maximize his output on the mound. He is not the only baseball player to use technology to its full effect, but he might be the one who trusts in it the most.
This makes the the old-heads of baseball BIG mad. This also helps create his underdog persona, since he is considered “anti-establishment.”
Trevor Bauer is also an abrasive fellow, both in real life and on social media. He is willing to spout his opinions no matter what the topic is. Many of his ideas are controversial, and his approach to expressing them can be a mixture of douchey, condescending, arrogant, and cruel. No one is safe from Trevor Bauer’s wrath when he disagrees with something.
People don’t like that. Stuff like that makes you the enemy, and no one wants the bad guy to win. When you’re not favored to succeed, that can contribute to becoming an underdog.
He’s not, though. Not a real one anyway.
Trevor Bauer is and always has been good at this sport
An underdog has to have a few qualifying factors in my mind: they have to be held back by physical limitations and/or environmental circumstances, but still succeed in spite of those hurdles. Trevor Bauer enjoys pointing out that he isn’t the most physically-gifted athlete, yet he still succeeds. Sure, he doesn’t have Noah Syndergaard’s measurables, but he stands above six feet, has a strong lower half, is flexible, and has been throwing gas since high school. If he did have any limitations, he’s long figured out how to overcome them. Let’s not treat him like he’s 5’6″ José Altuve.
Any environmental circumstances holding Bauer back? Negative, ghost rider. He had every opportunity and resource at his disposal as an amateur player, and has segued that into a wildly successful professional career. The Diamondbacks weren’t completely on-board with all of his techniques, but the Indians and Reds clearly have been. Bauer hasn’t had to overcome much in terms of external inhibitors.
Trevor Bauer is no underdog; he’s a very good pitcher who occasionally flashes brilliance, sometimes for an entire season. He can also be a very big jerk who uses very big computers to solve his problems on the mound.
Enough with the underdog narrative.