Will Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish thrive … or struggle? What to expect from 2021’s MLB aces in new places

spring training last weekend, Trevor Bauer threw the first inning with his eye closed. The fact that he did it against the Padres, the Dodgers’ new rivals in the National League West, suggests it might have been a game-breaking technique, although Bauer tried to explain it differently after the game. I like to be uncomfortable and turn different things upside down in my own way and find a solution to that, he said. That’s how you get better. Find a way to get uncomfortable, get comfortable and do it again.

Of course, in true Bauer fashion, he also scored on himself, and I figured if they couldn’t score with one eye open for me, it would be hard to do it with two eyes open for me.

All we know is that all eyes will be on Bauer in 2021. After his Cy Young season in Cincinnati, Bauer signed a complicated three-year contract with the Dodgers, who will pay him a minimum of $38 million in 2021 and a maximum of $47 million in 2022 if he chooses to leave after that season. If you want to be a reigning Cy Young winner, one of the reigning World Series champions, and now one of the highest paid players in the sport with an active and sometimes controversial social media presence, you better deliver on your promises. You could argue that no player is under more pressure in 2021 than Bauer.

However, he’s not the only Cy Young to switch teams this season. Four days after Christmas, the Padres officially acquired 2020 Cubs runner-up Yu Darvish and 2018 American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell in one of the most impressive one-day deals in MLB history, raising expectations in San Diego. So the pressure on these two is acute as well.

Like Bauer, Snell is brimming with confidence. He spared no criticism of manager Kevin Cash after Cash controversially took him out of the game in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series when the Rays were leading 1-0. At the beginning of spring training, he cleverly played on the Dodgers rivalry and joked: When Boston traded Mookie [Betts], I was super excited, courtesy of Boston. Now I need to get to know Mookie a little better. I withdraw my thanks.

Darvish’s transfer to San Diego will be exciting. After signing with the Cubs for $126 million in 2018, he struggled to adjust and deal with injuries in that first season, finishing 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA in eight starts. He turned things around in the middle of the 2019 season, going 12-7 with a 2.40 ERA at the 2019 All-Star break. Only Jacob DeGrom, Jack Flaherty and Gerrit Cole have had a better ERA since then, and no starter has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Darvish, who is 211-for-21 (in 157.2 innings).

Days after Padra’s exchange, Darvish told reporters that he was shocked by the exchange, though he quickly clarified that he was shocked in a good way. I actually wanted to pitch against the Padres last season, just to see how good I was, he said through his interpreter. So I’m very excited to join a team as strong as the Padres.

It’s hard to imagine Bauer or Snell saying something like that. The Padres wisely acquired Darvish’s personal catcher, Victor Caratini, in a trade, which should help his transition.

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Bauer could also get some extra pressure for his home team. He grew up playing at Dodger Stadium and pitching at UCLA. When introduced after signing in February, he said in his Zoom call that his time with the Dodgers wasn’t so much a return to Los Angeles as it was a team capable of winning it all. I want to win the World Series, he said. I finished second in college and in the big leagues. I’ve had enough.

I decided to see how the Aces performed on their new fields in their first few seasons at a new club. Looking back over the last 15 seasons, I found 15 pitchers that I subjectively labeled as aces changed teams. I didn’t include pitchers who were traded during the season, or Gerrit Cole or Hyun-Jin Ryu from last offseason because of the shortened 2020 season.

Here’s an average for these 15 pitchers:

The former team: 16-9, 2.98 ERA, 221 IP, 194 H, 47 BB, 217 SO 5.4 WAR

New team: 15-8, 3.13 ERA, 204 IP, 180 H, 46 BB, 201 SO, 4.9 WAR

Darvish’s performance in 2018, and average WAR rises to 5.3 – almost identical to his collective mark from last season. I was a little surprised that the totals were so similar. Take a group of players who have had great seasons, and you would expect at least a slight decline, or for a group of pitchers, more injuries.

Of course, the Padres didn’t acquire Darvish and Snell in one season, as both are under contract through 2023. Based on the contract structure, the Dodgers likely have Bauer for two seasons (if he accepts 2023, probably because he’s injured). Although our group of aces did well in the first few seasons, they later suffered injuries.

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We also have to take into account the strange nature of the 2020 season. Bauer had an ERA of 1.73, but only in 11 starts (only one of which was against a good outfield club). It’s unrealistic to expect him to have an ERA of less than 2.00. Once again, he moves to a pitcher’s park with a great defense behind him. Maybe the Dodgers will even let him pitch on three days’ rest from time to time, as Bauer would like.

Darvish has only had one season in his career where he made 30 starts with an ERA under 3.00, and that was eight years ago. As good as he may be after the All-Star break in 2019, I don’t expect an ERA anywhere near the 2.01 he posted in 2020. The Padres should hope he feels right at home – they have two series against the Dodgers in April.

Snell is probably the biggest question mark of the three, mostly because of his health issues and the way Ray has handled him with gloves the last two seasons (he’s averaging just 4.6 innings per start). Snell has the best pure stuff of any left-handed starter in the game, but he needs to prove he can sustain over 180 innings like he did in 2018.

But if history is any lesson, the pressure of a big contract or deal doesn’t seem to be a big factor. I think all three will play at a high level if they stay healthy – and maybe, like CC Sabathia in 2009 or Patrick Corbin in 2019, win the World Series in their first season with their new team.

Here are photos of the 15 pitchers in the study:

2019 — Patrick Corbin (signed to the Nationals).

In addition to his improved walk rate, Corbin had a similar season when he finished fifth in the Cy Young in 2018. His WAR actually increased by 1.6 runs when he faced tougher opposition in 2019, and he finished the season with three scoreless innings as a reliever in Game 7 of the World Series.

2018 — Yu Darvish (signed with the Cubs)

Darvish was a borderline ace here, posted a 3.86 ERA for the Rangers and Dodgers in 2017, but he has 209 fans in 186.2 innings and had a 3.42 career ERA and dominant stuff. As previously stated, his first season with the Cubs was a disaster.

2017 — Chris Sale (traded to the Red Sox).

Sale had a dominant season, striking out 308 batters, leading the AL in innings pitched and finishing second in the Cy Young election.

2016 — David Price (signed to the Red Sox).

Price won 17 games and was a workhorse with 230 innings, but his ERA went from a record 2.45 to 3.99 and his WAR went from 6.3 to 2.9.

2016 — Zack Greinke (signed to the Diamondbacks).

After a 19-3 record with a 1.66 ERA in 2015 and a second-place finish for Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young voting, Greinke has gotten off to a terrible start with seven runs allowed on Opening Day and nine strikeouts the rest of the season. He also missed July with an oblique arm sprain and finished with a 4.37 ERA, his only ERA above 4.00 from 2011 to 2019.

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2016 — Johnny Cueto (signed with the Giants).

The rest of his big contract with the Giants didn’t go well due to injuries, but Cueto had a great first season there, going 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA.

2015 — Max Scherzer (signed to the Nationals).

One of the best free agents of all time, Scherzer went 14-12 with a 2.79 ERA, 276 strikeouts and a career-high 6.9 WAR so far (he’ll earn it in 2017 and 2018).

2015 — John Lester (signed with the Cubs).

In 2014, Lester had a 2.46 earned run average with the Red Sox and A’s (though he allowed 16 unearned runs, so that’s a bit misleading). He went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA in 2015 with nearly identical peripheral data and was even better in 2016, where he finished second in the Cy Young voting.

2013 — Zack Greinke (signed to the Dodgers).

With Doandrew Friedman, the Dodgers signed Greinke and won their first NL West title since 2009. They have not finished in first place since. Greinke went 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA.

2013 — R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays for sale)

Dickey had a 2.95 ERA in three seasons with the Mets and won the Cy Young Award in 2012. So he was a real ace when the Mets traded him for a package with Noah Syndergaard. Knuckle didn’t dance much in Toronto, and he posted a 4.21 ERA in 2013 while his WAR dropped from 5.7 to 1.9.

2011 — Cliff Lee (signed with the Phillies)

Lee, the Phillies’ number two pitcher, has the second best WAR on this list: 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA in 232.2 innings, which is worth 8.5 WAR. He finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay (it was a good season for starting pitchers).

2010 — Roy Halladay (transferred to Phyllis)

Halladay also had an 8.5 WAR season after leaving the Blue Jays, going 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and, unlike Lee, winning the Cy Young Award. He also pitched 250 innings, which seems like a Herculean task today, even though it wasn’t that long ago.

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2010 — Cliff Lee (exchange with the Mariners)

Ten years later, it is still one of the most amazing works of art of the century. The Phillies acquired Lee from Cleveland in 2009 and reached the World Series before inexplicably trading him to Seattle. The Mariners sucked, they ended up selling Lee to the Rangers. He recorded a 3.18 ERA and a 5.1 ERA in 212 innings (in 28 starts). The Phillies lost the 2010 National League Championship Series to the Giants without Lee and then lost the 2011 Division Series to a losing Cardinals team with a rotation consisting of Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. And then, just like that, the franchise was over. Since then, the Phillies have not finished above .500.

2009 — CC Sabathia (signed with the Yankees)

He was one of the most celebrated free agents of the last 15 years, as he helped the Yankees win the World Series in his first season. Sabathia went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA, 6.2 WAR and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

2008 — Johan Santana (traded to the Mets)

Mets fans act like Santana’s contract is a disaster, but he had three good seasons before getting injured. He particularly stood out in his first season, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting with an NL-leading 2.53 ERA and 7.1 WAR.

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