Cincinnati Reds starter Trevor Bauer was named the winner of the 2020 National League Cy Young award yesterday, in recognition of his dominant performance during the coronavirus-shortened season. Bauer pitched 73 innings over 11 starts, striking out 100 and finishing with an ERA of 1.73. It was the kind of season that baseball fans have been waiting for years to see from the 29-year-old former superprospect.
Bauer, who pitched at college baseball powerhouse UCLA and was on a vaunted pitching staff that included Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the third overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft. The Diamondbacks believed they were getting their hands on a franchise starter who could anchor their rotation for a decade, because that’s what Bauer was projected to be. ESPN draft expert Keith Law noted at the time that Bauer was capable of reaching 97 mph with his fastball, and had a “tremendous track record of missing bats in one of the nation’s best conferences.” Another scout described Bauer as a “guy you bet your career on.”
Bauer was traded to Cleveland after making just four starts for the Diamondbacks. He eventually managed to earn a spot in Cleveland’s rotation for the 2014 season. By that point, Bauer was busy hanging out in warehouses and trying to convince sportswriters that he had entered the league as some sort of scrappy underdog, for whom success would be a long shot.
Bauer failed to live up to his billing as a top prospect in his first four seasons in Cleveland. He never had an ERA below 4.19 in any of those campaigns, and he never pitched more than 190 innings. He did put up a 2.21 ERA and make his first All-Star appearance in 2018, but crashed back to earth again in 2019, finishing with a 4.48 ERA in 34 starts split between Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Now, nearly a decade after he was drafted, Bauer has finally put together the kind of dominant half-season that appeared to be his birthright when he was drafted at No. 3 overall. That he did so while dramatically increasing the spin rate on his pitches—something he surely must have achieved through natural means, given how critical he’s been of other pitchers whom he suspects to be using foreign substances in order to spin the ball faster—makes his achievement all the more impressive. If Bauer continues to pitch like this into the future, it will be a reminder that you can’t keep natural talent down forever.