Cleveland Indians: Jake Bauers must take step forward in 2020

The Cleveland Indians have a multitude of questions facing them at the moment. When the 2020 season arrives, Jake Bauers must provide one of the answers.

Jake Bauers hit a few impressive home runs in 2019. He even hit for the cycle in mid-June. That’s about the extent to which his first season with the Cleveland Indians can be evaluated positively.

Bauers was largely a man without a position, and his bat never made it essential to keep him in the lineup in spite of his below-average defensive ability. Of course, that didn’t stop the Indians from giving him regular playing time for the entire first half of the season. A lack of other options in the outfield contributed, but it was nonetheless difficult to watch at times.

When the Indians acquired Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig at the end of July, there was no longer any justification for continuing to start Bauers. He spent a month with Triple-A Columbus before rejoining the Indians in September when rosters expanded.

September brought much of the same lack of productivity, as Bauers managed to go 25 days and 29 plate appearances without recording a hit. His final line for the season included a 27.2% strikeout rate, a .371 slugging percentage, and a 78 wRC+.

Now, roughly a year removed from the trade that brought Bauers to Cleveland, there are naturally questions regarding whether he can become a key contributor for the Indians next year. But if we dive into his splits, courtesy of FanGraphs, we can find the glimmer of hope we’re looking for.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Bauers’ rough 2019 season is that he was a downright liability at Progressive Field while serving as a pretty effective hitter on the road. He posted an impressively low 36 wRC+ at home, but slashed .279/.360/.452 with a 116 wRC+ in away games.

Does this sound like the sort of statistical anomaly that will probably correct itself going forward? The idea of a hitter struggling to that extent in home games but coming in well above league average offensively on the road would be unheard of over a large sample.

In the wake of an otherwise forgettable season, it’s certainly encouraging to believe that Bauers could improve considerably in 2020 if he’s able to shake off whatever it was that caused him to play so poorly in the friendly confines of his own park.

On the other hand, any impending regression to some sense of normalcy could also apply to his road numbers. Bauers’ BABIP at home was .212; on the road it was .356. Both of those numbers are likely to meet somewhere closer to the middle in the future, meaning he could become more of an across-the-board average hitter in 2020 regardless of venue.

Either way, there are few directions in which to go other than up for Bauers. As Cleveland’s roster stands at the moment, he could be looking at another go-round as a semi-regular starter in the outfield to begin the season. He’s likely to see some chances at first base and designated hitter as well, but those spots are going to be occupied primarily by Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes, respectively.

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Needless to say, any second-year acceleration from Bauers would be invaluable to the Indians’ lineup. Cleveland is currently treading through another unsettling offseason defined more by a high-profile departure (and potentially another) than by new acquisitions. If Bauers turns the corner in 2020, the relative lack of meaningful additions this winter won’t seem so detrimental in hindsight.

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