What Trevor Bauer Teaches Us

As you may have heard (either out in the mean streets of the World Wide Web, or even earlier today here at The Platoon Advantage), the Diamonbacks, Reds, and Indians made a sweet three-team deal. The major pieces are Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Donald heading to Cincinnati, prospect Didi Gregorious, reliever Tony Sipp, and huge bust first baseman Lars Anderson off to Arizona, while wunderkind Trevor Bauer is the main return for Cleveland.

The biggest surprise in this trade, if there was one, was that Bauer would travel from Arizona to Cleveland. Despite his name being bandied about in trade rumors (we'll get to this later), Bauer is a top pitching prospect. Usually that brings back quite a substantial return in a trade, like a Denard Span or a Carlos Beltran. What's the deal here?

Here's a quick primer on Trevor Bauer: Bauer was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 Rule 4 Draft out of UCLA. He was the No. 3 pick because he was a boss at UCLA, and in each minor-league stop in 2011 and 2012, he was appropriately boss-like. Bauer held a strikeout percentage of 28% or better at each stop in his minor-league trek, and by the time he was done with Triple-A in 2012, Bauer had reduced his most glaring weakness — bases on balls — down to a 10.1% walk rate. If you add all this up, factor in his age (he's going into his age-22 season), and divide that by his solid mechanics … well, what you get is a top-flight pitching prospect. If Bauer isn't one of the top 20 pitching prospects in the game, he'd be awfully close.

So why would the Diamondbacks trade him for a shortstop who can't hit, a reliever who's no good, and a failed first base prospect?

 

I can see three possible reasons, and the first is the most unlikely. Bauer definitely struggled in limited major league action in 2012. When I say that he struggled, that might be a bit of an understatement. He walked everybody. I think he walked a guy playing in a beer league softball game down the street in the middle of his start against the Reds on July 17. It was a bad scene.

At any rate, I don't think the Diamonbacks' front office would put too much stock in the actual performance of a 21-year-old pitcher making his major league debut over 16+ innings. I'd like to think that reason would win the day, and that the Diamondbacks, while hoping to see Bauer dominate right out of the gate, understand that sometimes young pitchers hit a development snag when faced with their first taste of big league lumber. That seems reasonable enough, and not a reason to completely bail on a guy with Bauer's stuff and pedigree.

The second reason for trading Bauer, one that I think applies on some level, if not the total reason for the trade, is that the Diamondbacks wished to trade from a position of strength, to fill a position of need. I imagine that the team probably thinks that the "shortstop who can't hit" in my analysis could eventually hit one day. The Diamondbacks' rotation is very strong right now, with Kennedy, Cahill, McCarthy, and Miley already in the fold, and Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin waiting for their shots, so losing Bauer won't hurt too badly. Didi Gregorious, the slick-fielding shortstop who the Diamonbacks got from the Reds as part of the deal, fills a position of need for the Diamondbacks. While Chad Pennington isn't chopped liver, he's also probably not a steak. Chad Pennington's a ham sandwich with too much mayonnaise — he fills a need (in the metaphor, a need for lunch), but is eminently forgettable and might leave a slightly bad taste in your mouth.

But there's a third reason why the Diamondbacks might have felt Bauer was expendable. Past reports indicated that the Diamondbacks weren't happy with Bauer's attitude, and that he showed an unwillingness to make adjustments. This is a pretty big deal. This is not a small concern for front office personnel, given how important learning ability can be in a player's growth and development.

The Bauer situation shines a fine light on learning ability in baseball players, a subject that was tackled in some depth by Russell A. Carleton over at Baseball Prospectus back in September. Russell is uniquely equipped to talk about the value that learning ability has, given his background in both psychology and in major league front offices. In my own slightly inferior way, so am I, as my day job is that of an instructional designer and learning consultant, and I have my own background in educational psychology.

When designing learning or education, what you're trying to teach falls into one of three major categories: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Of those three, generally speaking, the toughest to teach is anything having to do with attitudes. It's not as cut-and-dried as trying to learn basic knowledge or cognitive / physical skills. Learning a new attitude often requires us to change our mental models of the way we perceive the world. This is, to put it bluntly, hard as hell. There are barriers that we put up to any kind of learning, whether it's existing schema that we have discard or adapt to make way for the new, or how we organize new information to have it make sense and be able to be recalled on demand. But attitudinal shifts require us to be highly motivated. Without the proper motivation (through any part of the ARCS model — attention, relevance, confidence, or satisfaction), attitudinal changes are tough to stick. Change management techniques can help, incentivizing on a short-term basis can help, but it's a long process and one frought with difficulties. And in the case of that much effort going towards a single baseball player, it just might not be worth it.

Look, if Bauer really isn't interested in taking coaching — whether because he has legitimate, founded disagreements with the Diamondbacks' pitching methodology, or just because he thinks he knows best — it's eminently reasonable that the D'backs would look to deal him. Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks' staff have years and years of expertise on how to build a better ballplayer. The odds that they are wrong in telling Bauer, a 21-year-old kid, about how to make adjustments is probably somewhat lower than the odds that no, Trevor knows more than they do. It's not impossible, but I'd probably put my money on a franchise, especially one that's done fairly well in developing starting pitchers recently.

A pitcher who is unwilling or unable to make adjustments has a much higher likelihood of failure, given how fast the game adapts around him. If hitters learn that they can wait you out while you struggle to find the strike zone, you'll get beat. If you lose a few mph on your high-end fastball, and still expect to handle premium hitters the way you used to, you'll get beat. And if that doesn't provide you the motivation (in this case, attention-driven motivation and satisfaction-driven motivation) to improve, if you still think you know better, then you might be a hopeless case. Let's hope Bauer doesn't get to that point.

But whether the Diamondbacks are telling Bauer to make "good" adjustments or "bad" adjustments is almost irrelevant. If he can't or won't make any at all, how  can the team trust him to improve, to adapt, and to thrive?

What Trevor Bauer is helping to teach us — especially those of us that are sabermetrically-inclined — is that intangibles are not just important, but extremely important in prospect valuation. And when it comes to things like this, there just aren't any statistics to tell us whether or not Bauer has a flaw in his makeup that he won't be able to overcome. If this flaw is exposed more and more in further big league innings, maybe this is the right return for a player of his caliber. Instead of seeing a B+ pitching prospect, maybe the Diamondbacks see him as a B, B-, or even a C+. And if other teams still see him as a high-value prospect, now is absolutely the time to move him.

… and yet, Trevor Bauer is 21 years old. If I had a nickel for every dumb thing I did as a 21-year-old, or for every time I thought I knew better than someone else when, really, I had no idea — let's just say I'd have a lot more money than I do today. That same Nick Piecoro report that I cited earlier, the one that noted Arizona's concerns with Bauer's makeup, also states how Bauer tried to mend fences with the franchise in the off-season. So in addition to indications that Bauer's makeup might have some red flags, there's also a few that say maybe he's just a kid with some growing up to do, and there's the potential that he will be able to adjust as needed. Perhaps that attitude shift is already happening, and the Indians (and Bauer) will be the ones to benefit from it.

At any rate, Kevin Towers probably isn't a moron for making this trade, despite the perceived talent gap. He and his staff have plenty of information that we don't, and he likely made a careful decision based on that information. That's perfectly reasonable. We'll have plenty of time to see if Trevor Bauer is able to leverage his learning ability into a successful pitching career, but now we'll see him try with the Indians.

(But the Diamondbacks still should have gotten more than Didi Gregorious, Tony Sipp, and Lars Anderson. I'm just saying.)

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