1. Trevor Bauer might be figuring things out. The Cleveland Indians pitcher has long been a favorite of statheads because, well, he's kind of a nerd. He majored in mechanical engineering at UCLA, he adheres to his own unique style of preparation that includes long tossing at 400 feet, he plays chess and talks in terms like "neuromuscular programming." He's an iconoclast in a world of a conformity. Bauer is an interesting individual, but the attention given to him from the analytic community wasn't warranted by his performance on the field. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him third overall in 2011, but soon traded him to the Indians. His career ERA entering 2016 was 4.50, and last season, he led the American League in walks and served up 23 home runs in 176 innings.
He might have turned the corner, however. After throwing a three-hit complete game with 10 strikeouts to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-1, Bauer lowered his ERA to 3.20. He has thrown six straight quality starts, with a 2.22 ERA in those outings. The key numbers in that stretch: only 11 walks and one home run allowed in 44 2/3 innings. And the key to producing better results? Fastball command. His strikeout rate is identical to last year at 22.8 percent, his batting average allowed is nearly the same (.225 compared to .232 in 2015), but his walks and home runs are down. He's throwing his fastball more often in the zone:
2015: 53.8 percent
2016: 59.5 percent
Of course, it's not as simple as just throwing more strikes. You have to throw quality strikes. When digging into some of his numbers, a big difference has been the results against his fastball in hitter's counts:
When he fell behind last season, he was toast, either afraid to challenge guys or getting hit hard. That hasn't happened as much in 2016. That's only part of the complicated equation to his improvement, and it comes with a caveat: According to ESPN Stats & Info data, he's actually giving up a higher percentage of hard-hit balls on his fastball in hitter's counts (27 percent compared to 17 percent last year). On all pitches in hitter's counts, it's still higher: .234 to .176. Now, "well-hit average" is a subjective number, but it suggests that Bauer has maybe been a little lucky. But the lower walk rate is legit and he has also ditched his slider in favor of a cutter, which is another factor. Bottom line: If he keeps throwing strikes, it appears the Indians now have an additional power arm producing excellent results behind Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
P.S. The Indians have won six in a row and 11 in a row at home.
2. The Texas Rangers are scrambling in the rotation. Colby Lewis joins Derek Holland and Yu Darvish on the DL (I wrote about that here). Luckily, A.J. Griffin is back from his own DL stint and will start Friday. Kyle Lohse might fill the "undecided" spot next week. Meanwhile, Cole Hamels continues to roll along, improving to 8-1 with a 2.79 ERA as the Rangers beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-4 -- Texas stranded just one baserunner. There's some weird stuff going on with Hamels, however: He has the 2.79 ERA, but a 4.57 FIP. He has given up 15 home runs, but 11 have been solo shots, so the damage has been minimal. More importantly, he has a strand rate of 85.7 percent -- third best among qualified starters, behind only Salazar and Madison Bumgarner. History says that will regress a bit -- batters are hitting .184 with runners in scoring position against Hamels -- but it's also possible that he simply allows fewer baserunners and home runs moving forward and his ERA stays in that sub-3.00 level. Anyway, the Rangers are 32-12 since early May and their lead in the AL West is now 10 games.
3. St. Louis Cardinals sweep Chicago Cubs. Michael Wacha had a third straight solid start, and five of the runs in St. Louis' 7-2 win came off the Cubs' bullpen and not Jake Arrieta, but note that Arrieta went just five innings for the third time in six starts. Yes, Joe Maddon has said he doesn't want to ride Arrieta as hard this season in order to keep him as strong as possible for October, but Arrieta is going just five innings because he's running up high pitch counts. His past six starts:
5 IP, 106 pitches
6 IP, 112 pitches
7 IP, 105 pitches
5 IP, 108 pitches
7 IP, 107 pitches
5 IP, 93 pitches
I mean, he's not exactly struggling -- his ERA is still 2.57 over that span, but he has walked 15 in 35 innings compared to 20 in his first 63 innings. It appears batters are simply waiting him out, trying to lay off that slider and running up his pitch counts, hoping to get that soft middle of the Cubs' bullpen.
4. Noah Syndergaard's elbow is apparently OK. Syndergaard left his start Wednesday afternoon with elbow discomfort, but an MRI showed there was no structural damage and he has been cleared to resume his normal between-starts routine, though his start for next Monday against the Washington Nationals remains up in the air. Hmm. Why am I still worried? Before the game, Mini Thor threw out the first pitch:
5. Lots of Cubs will be starting the All-Star Game. This includes the entire infield and Dexter Fowler. Voting results are here. Voting closes on June 30, so there's still time for Cubs fans to get Jason Heyward into the starting lineup (he's fourth among outfielders).