July 23, 2014

Trevor Bauer: Eccentric or just smarter than the rest of us?

20130110-103714.jpgIt was the summer of 1998 in Santa Clarita, California when Trevor Bauer threw his first pitch. A first-year player in what was largely a second-year team, his team’s starting pitcher had worked himself into a base-loaded, zero-out situation and the 7-year-old kid from North Hollywood was called upon to get out of the jam.

He remembers standing on the mound prior to warm-ups thinking to himself, “So, I have to throw this thing over there, huh?” He doesn’t recall if that first pitch was a strike. He doesn’t recall if a run or two had crossed the plate. But he knows that he managed to work his way out of the inning and would live to throw again.

Fourteen years later, Bauer finds himself in a cooler climate — having played in southern California, UCLA, and the ranks of the Arizona Diamondbacks — with similar pressure. Sure, the base paths are no longer cluttered with 7-year olds, but he has gone from one of the top prospects the game has to offer to being traded by the team which drafted him just two years earlier, given up for a shortstop who is predominantly known for slap-hit singles and his defensive prowess. But Bauer, clad in the colors of his new team, perched in front of the Cleveland Indians’ logo, knows that the trade — this fresh start — will allow him to operate in an environment that is more accepting of his mannerisms.

Playing in a game that has, historically, not been kind to change, Bauer is a bit of a different breed, marching to the proverbial drum of his possession. He has a well-documented warm-up ritual that can often begin as early as an hour and 20 minutes prior to a start. He isolates himself within a barrage of stretching exercises divergent of his peers. He often tops it off with a game of catch — or “long toss” — that can typically extend up to 400 feet and involving multiple cut-off men who help return the ball back to that day’s pitcher. Encapsulating it all for those who can’t quite wrap their head the entire ensemble, the player who Bauer looked up to as a growing teen? The poster boy for outlandish and quirky behavior within the confines of Major League Baseball, Barry Zito.

But these tactics, as instilled upon him by Alan Yaeger, the famed trainer who focuses on the body as well as the mind, are not all that new. Other starting pitchers who studied under the Mind and Body ways of Yaeger include Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and Zito, three-time All-Star Cole Hamels and former teammate — and fellow top prospect — Tyler Skaggs. The numbers these rituals have produced are well documented. The struggles incurred once Bauer made it to the big-league level, however, allowed the lazy to hone in on the low-hanging fruit; Bauer does things differently, thus it is his eccentric behavior that is to blame for the increased walk rate and inflated earned run average1.

A quiet kid by all measures2, Bauer inherently comes off as arrogant and uncoachable. He’s even been called a head case. Truth is, what is being mistaken for introverted aloofness and social condescension is merely a result of Bauer being something that most individuals in his position are not: He’s just shy.

Bauer is not eccentric for the sake of being different; this isn’t some notion where an entitled athlete is out to prove his point. Quite the contrary, actually. He’s different because of the mental aspects that have allowed him to dig deeper in to the game. Trevor has always been fascinated by machines and mechanical models. He loves physics and calculus and polymers and the why and how as opposed to the what. The son of Warren Bauer, a chemical engineer, Trevor is wired just as much philosophically as he is athletically3. In high school, when Bauer was the best baseball player in his conference — a high-velocity pitcher well on his way to big things and bright lights — he didn’t talk much. While he would find out years later (having run into a former classmate during his senior year) that he had a reputation for “being stuck up,” the underlying currents were that Bauer spent a good portion of his high school career in search of a friend.

“I wanted a friend,” says Bauer. “I didn’t know how to go up and talk to people. I just wasn’t comfortable. But I didn’t know that was my reputation until my last year in college [2011]. It wasn’t intentional — I am easy to get along with.”

This reputation would unfortunately follow Bauer to Arizona where he struggled marrying his way with that of the team. Attempting to act like a rookie, Bauer — once again — did not say much and essentially kept to himself, not speaking unless spoken to. Then, in his first start, before his first pitch, he shook off the call from long-time Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero. The subsequent struggles would merely serve to amplify the scrutiny.

But underneath the kid who wore his baseball pants to high school and appears uninterested while sitting in his Indians-addled sweatsuit, is a 21-year old who is constantly analyzing. He has set up his own film studio which monitors his progression — and regression — from a mechanics standpoint. As Tim Keown wrote in a feature for ESPN The Magazine this past summer, “It’s not enough for Bauer to execute a pitch. He has to understand it, dissect it, improve upon it. He has to turn it sideways tilt his head and examine it from all angles.”

He has to know the why.

These mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, while they may not have meshed in the desert of Arizona, they are actually what has attracted the Indians to Bauer for several years. Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti spent two-and-a-half hours with the pitcher prior to the 2011 MLB Draft. There, they would speak largely about the game of baseball. Earlier this winter, Antonetti went down to the Texas Baseball Ranch to get to know the person, to get to talk about things outside of the game, to see what “makes him tick.”

Bauer throws eight different pitches — a four-seam fastball, two variations of a change-up, two curve balls, two sliders, and a pitch he describes as a “reverse slider” that seems to be a twisted test tube creation that melds a screwball together with a cut fastball. How he came up with the latter is unknown, but it is safe to assume that similar thought went into how he comes up with the requisite 400 feet needed for his pre-game longtoss.

“If it’s 330 feet down the lines, that’s about 469 feet between the [foul] poles,” Bauer casually quips as if geometry is common knowledge.

For all of the struggles Bauer has had growing up with the inability to socialize with his peers, he is undoubtedly doing his best to talk to fans and those who want to pick his brain on the intricacies of the game. Bauer has a Twitter account — @BauerOutage, one where he states he thinks about every tweet before it’s sent — as well as a Facebook fan page and a YouTube channel. He recalls how much it felt when he obtained Zito’s autograph prior to a game; Twitter, for better or worse has essentially become the modern-day John Hancock. Just don’t expect many rants about politics or music, or pictures of what he’s eating at any given moment. A recent fan asked Bauer about his mechanics in high school, and he replied that he did not, in fact, slam his back knee after his “pelvic load” — he was merely able to “create good separation by delaying his upper half.” When asked what his definition of “being connected” was, Bauer replied with, “The body working together in tight synchronization through anatomically advantageous positions and patterns.”

Got all that?

After all, it is this that will allow him to focus on his rotations, using human physics to create a velocity which typically touches 98 miles per hour in a given game. For good measure, Bauer throws harder towards the tail end of his starts than he does in the early innings.

Bauer shrugs off those who question independent thinking, preferring discussion and supporting arguments. He’s by no means stubborn — the much-discussed warm-up routine changes by the week, does not always include 400-feet of long toss and ends when he has a “certain feel” that hinges on existential items like, well, the weather – but why conform for conformity sake? While others want to point at Jaeger’s camp as an extremist cult that creates unholy mechanics which are not sustainable for a professional pitcher, Bauer deems his time there a “spiritual awakening.”

A lot has undoubtedly changed from the time when Bauer was a 7-year-old kid being summoned to the mound for the first time in what would be (and hopefully continue to be) a storied career at that very position. And while all of the analysis and dissection may go on between starts and for a good portion of the offseason, rest assured that once Bauer crosses over the white lines, as Antonetti says, the only thing on his mind is competing.

And having not been guaranteed a spot in the big league starting rotation, competing is all Bauer is here to do, regardless of the methods behind his, for lack of better term, madness.

(Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY)

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

  1. You know, instead of the groin injury that limited his rotation and back-leg mechanics []
  2. The emotions emitted from photo above provide stark contrast to the recent introduction of free agent outfielder and perpetual smiler Nick Swisher []
  3. He’d like to finish his degree, but it will depend on how much knowledge surrounding engineering that he loses while soaking up that of the game of baseball []
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Loved Scott’s #1 footnote – that’s how Indians fans have felt for the last few years. Tito needs to put the kids locker (assuming he makes the big club) next to Swish’s!

  • SDA

    great read

  • mgbode

    on the title: He’s both :)

  • Garry_Owen

    Great article. Thanks, Scott.
    I’ve always thought that nobody understands an athlete’s body better than the athlete himself (or herself, ladies). Based on this, it appears that this could not be any more true than with Bauer. Let the guy be who he is. He understands how to get Trevor Bauer to pitch well better than any canned sports mechanics coach or psychologist. I hope that he’s open to other input, particularly when he gets in a slump and doesn’t see himself well, but I see no reason to force him into conforming to another program just for the sake of conforming.

  • Brad in ATL

    Great story Scott.

  • mgbode

    agreed this was a fantastic piece and i always like when athletes are willing to buck the norm but do so with the guidance of people with experience/knowledge in it.

  • Kildawg

    Good article. The general saying is that geniuses are often eccentric. The Myers signing wasn’t just to shore up the rotation, but to help Bauer out as well (given that both are on the age extremes of the 40 man roster). Bauer should also look at Verlander tape, given that both seem to get stronger as the game goes on (and boy do we have plenty of Verlander tape).

  • SDA

    I had the same discussion with my daughters high school softball coach years ago. They wanted her to remove the stride from her swing to speed her bat up. I laughed and told her coach just let her go and trust me she knows her own swing better than either of us. She hit over .400 for the year. Just because its different doesn’t make it wrong. The basics are there to ground you if something goes wrong but change just for the sake of conformity is just wrong.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Thank you all for the kind words.

  • Jaker

    I dig it. Now hopefully he can learn from Swish how to smile here or there. Smiling helps you get a friend.

  • akroninla

    hate to be a stickler, but he’s from santa clarita, not santa clara. it’s a 400 mile difference. besides that, great article. hope to catch him when he’s out here in SoCal (not NorCAl, where Santa Clara is.)

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I was born in Santa Clara. True story. I don’t remember seeing Bauer there, but then again, he wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye yet.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    If we were at a beatnik poetry reading, I’d be snapping my fingers vigorously. Well done.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    My fault. I mentioned SoCal — missed the “ita.” Fixed.

  • Woods

    Thanks for the excellent article.

    It seems like Bauer may have found the right team that will reinforce his desire to look at video and analyze his pitching motion.

    As an Indians fan it would be totally cool if Bauer and Jimenez strike up a friendship and feel comfortable analyzing each other’s throwing motions.

    I for one would like to see if Bauer can become the “Ubaldo Wisperer”.

  • BenRM

    Very well written! [slow claps]

    In an age of people continuously declaring, “I know what’s better for you than you do,” a guy like this is refreshing.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Who’s playing jazz flute?

  • http://www.facebook.com/cb.everett.9 CB Everett

    Ron Burgandy, I hope. I second the finger snapping.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Amazing thought… man that would be so good. This also reminds me of a couple lines from my current favorite show, “Happy Endings”:

    Dave – I’m the gift whisperer… gifts whisper to me and tell me who they’d be perfect for

    Penny – Oh really? Like when you said you were the “Horse Whisperer” whisperer, but you never ended up getting that DVD to work?

  • mgbode

    jazz flute is for little fairy boys

  • cmm13

    And if there’s any manager in MLB that’s going to let Bauer be Bauer but at the same time guide him to where we need him to be… it’s Tito.

    I have to say I am really on edge to see what Francona does with Masterson, Jimenez and Bauer this year.

  • Garry_Owen

    As long as it’s not beer and chicken, I’m cool with it.

  • cmm13

    who am I to deny a man some KFC and MGD?

  • Harv 21

    Looking forward to seeing whether this kid is so forward-thinking/shy, as opposed to disdainful of input/arrogant, that this will be a heist worthy of Lofton for Taubensee.

    But here’s what’s really caught my imagination about Bauer: until he died Bob Feller told everyone who would listen that the reason the arms of starters break down so often now is because they don’t throw enough when younger, building up those muscles and arm stamina. The monitoring of pitch counts drove Feller nuts. I sometimes wonder about guys like Satchel Paige, who would throw crazy pitch-counts multiple times per week, sometimes two starts per day, and do it from their teens until middle age. Were they physical freaks with bionic arms, or did all the throwing actually help?

  • Steve

    Physical freaks.

    Throwing more when you’re younger can build up your arm, but it also brings any injuries that are coming that much sooner. All the guys whose arms were going to blow out had it happen before they became recognizable major leaguers, meaning we forget about them. And of course the changes in medical science let us know what happened better. If you put 2012 Tomlin back in the 40s and 50s, everyone just figures he’s lost it, and he’s out of the majors for good. He doesn’t get some crazy surgery and a 12 month rehab plan.

  • simond

    great article, thanks. looking forward to see what he can do this year.

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    I think there’s a lot to be said for throwing advanced pitches at a young age, as well. When I was a youngster playing in Little League, the name of the game was throwing hard and locating. Now? If you watch the Little League World Series, these kids are throwing any assortment of pitches that torques out their joints, muscles, and ligaments when they’re 11 and 12 years old.
    That can’t be good for them, especially taken through the lense of arm health.

  • Steve

    Agree with all of this. I’ve heard enough guys who know the topic say kids should only be throwing fastball and change to be fully on board with that. And it might help with a recent trend (though this may be some serious selective memory here) that I’ve noticed where so many pitching prospects have to work on their changeup before they can get called up.

  • The Odom

    Saw Trevor pitch in Mobile, Al on 4/21/12 vs. Miami AA team. He consistently hit 95 with some good movement. Struck out 8 over 7 IP. Last pitch of 7th he hit 98 for his 8th K. Glad Tribe was able to get him.