Trevor Bauer: A four-start story

Trevor Bauer spends part of his offseason at a ranch in Texas. It’s essentially a baseball laboratory, where he studies his mechanics with the assistance of high-powered cameras and analyzes how each of his pitches comes off his finger tips and ponders the mysteries of time and space and their relationship with a flying sphere. If there was a sweet science behind pitching, this would be it, and Bauer does it to “identify the phenomenon of what’s really going on.”

He thinks about hitters and himself, the ways in which they are vulnerable and the circumstances in which he is something less than unhittable. He hunts for his own weaknesses, clinging to an anxious youthfulness that drives him to clog holes in his skill set and move closer to a finished, polished product. In the winter months, he works.

People have criticized Bauer, but nobody has ever accused him of being short on talent, desire, work ethic or ambition. His personality may have clashed in Arizona, but by all accounts, he does not have poor makeup and genuinely yearns to be better. He won’t turn 22 until Jan. 17.

But what can come with a young and exceptional and intelligent talent is a mind full of ideas and, sometimes, limited capacity to shed them for another thought. I don’t know if that is what ultimately made Bauer the centerpiece to a three-team deal that landed him in Cleveland – perhaps doubts about his command and control had something to do with it, and the desire to trade pitching surplus for a franchise shortstop definitely did – but it does seem like he clashed with catcher Miguel Montero over pitch selection and brought not only his big arm, but “his” game plan with him to the big leagues. And, well, I’m not too sure how manager Kirk Gibson took to that. (And I wonder how the conversation went when Bauer said, “Hi, I’m Trevor. I have nine pitches.”)

Regardless, this is a fact: Arizona made Bauer the third overall pick in the 2011 draft and traded him 18 months later after he had made four starts in the major leagues. From the outside, it seems like a remarkably quick hook on the kind of young player organizations usually build moats around.

We can’t make any sort of definitive conclusions on Bauer’s skills based on that sample size. Sure, there are some interesting things and some red flags. In 16.1 innings, Bauer had a 6.06 ERA (4.75 fielding independent pitching when adjusted for his home park), so that’s not very good. He also had a 22.1 percent strikeout rate, which would put him right there with Jake Peavy and Adam Wainwright and Matt Cain, some quality company. But, of course, he had a 16.9 percent walk rate, and this is what you need to know about that: Among the 85 qualified starting pitchers last season (Bauer didn’t have enough innings), that was 3.8 percent worse than the worst (Edinson Volquez).

And given Bauer’s propensity to spray the ball around the strike zone (and out of it), whatever tendencies and patterns he’s shown thus far will likely change as he refines his arsenal, improves his command and advances his approach. With a fastball that can reach the mid-90s, a plus curveball and, a plus change and a slider (and variations of those) and a high baseball IQ, as some baseball folks would call it, the odds seem to be in Bauer’s favor of figuring it out. Battling a groin injury in the big leagues also didn’t help.

Walking fewer batters and being more aggressive in the strike zone is adjustment No. 1 for Bauer. But let’s take a little closer look at his four starts last season and highlight a few things that stand out (again, on all figures, keep in mind the incredibly small sample):

  • Against right-handers, Bauer is aggressive inside with his fastball and doesn’t command the outer-half well. His game logs say he throws 30 percent of his fastballs away from righties, but that doesn’t account for the times he tries to go in and just pulls the pitch (a tendency). He likes to elevate his fastball, but part of this seems to be from a young bravado that convinces Bauer he can win on pure velocity. Sometimes he’s right. But a polished righty with good velocity picks his spots to elevate (Bauer elevates out of the zone a disproportionate amount in 2-2 counts, which isn’t an ideal count for that pitch).
  • If Bauer doesn’t try to blow his fastball by a righty, then he tries to get him to chase a curveball. Both have the potential to be great out-pitches, but without great command of either one, it’s too easy for a quality big league hitter to simplify the at-bat. For instance: Bauer threw about 17 percent of his curveballs in the zone with two strikes, and the ones he did were elevated. So a hitter can eliminate that threat, knowing if he sees a breaking ball, he’ll have a decent chance to at least foul it off. Now the hitter sits on the fastball in. Bauer will either give you that pitch, or he’ll throw a fastball high out of the zone. Those aren’t always easy to lay off of, but this two-strike scenario isn’t nearly as daunting for a right-handed hitter as it should be given Bauer’s stuff.
  • Bauer threw 24 curveballs against left-handers, and not a single one of them was in the strike zone on the outer third. Combine that with …
  • Out of 20 changeups to lefties, only two were away for strikes, so what we have is 44 off-speed pitches to lefties, and two strikes away. Bauer’s only weapon on the outer third to lefties is what he calls a “reverse slider,” which, as he says, is a cross between a sinker and a screwball. In simple terms, it’s really an 88-90 mph 2-seamer with about five inches of movement.  So here’s the plan for left-handed hitters: fastballs. And if you want to sit on something more specific, sit on a 4-seam fastball inside, because one is most certainly coming.
  • Why sit it on a 4-seam fastball inside? Because of the 82 fastballs that Bauer threw to lefties, two … two TWO TWO!!!!!!! … were thrown for a strike on the outer third.
  • Bauer’s changeup can be nasty and miss bats, but he doesn’t yet have great feel for it – meaning, the ability to throw it for a quality strike in counts where hitters could be overaggressive. That’s odd, too, because Bauer does some advanced things with his, manipulating the movement on it. He can get it to fade against lefties and cut against righties by altering his grip. So he’ll throw the pitch to both lefties and righties, but they’re everywhere, with many of them sailing high (possibly from just overthrowing it). The change is a feel pitch, and when Bauer can throw his two versions down for strikes when he needs to, then it’ll become a big weapon to get back into counts with laying a fastball over (and will likely get him some cheap outs too).

It may take a veteran pitcher who is equally enthused about video analysis and some of the advanced things Bauer studies to work with him and show him how to present his ideas in a way that is more likely to be accepted. Terry Francona will probably be a great influence on Bauer.

It’s also worth remembering that when the Giants drafted Tim Lincecum out of Washington, his father told the club, “Do not touch his delivery and the way he prepares himself. Give him a chance to succeed first, and if it doesn’t work out, then he will change.” To San Francisco’s credit, it stood back and watched. And we know how that turned out.

Maybe the Indians will give Bauer a little bit of leash to see if he can become the guy he was at UCLA. Then it is on Bauer to perform or become open-minded to other ideas.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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