Just another freak
Tim Keown [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
June 6, 2011
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This story appears in the June 13, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
A word of advice: See this kid now. See him while he's still double-hopping across the front of the mound to throw the first warmup pitch of every inning as hard as he can. See him while he's still free to play catch at 380 feet -- nearly foul pole to foul pole -- while singing along to the music in his headphones. See him while he's still playing Hacky Sack with the baseball as part of his pregame routine and wearing a bleached-out, three-year-old, salt-and-sweat-stained cap and not the pristine alternate version his big league team mandates for road Fridays. See him before the codes and constraints of professional baseball squeeze every last one of his idiosyncrasies into conformity.
You've never seen anything like UCLA junior righthander Trevor Bauer. He throws a seemingly endless variety of pitches. He subscribes to several theories of pitching and training that challenge baseball's established ideas of how to develop and maintain a hurler. He is statistically the best college pitcher in the country, a surefire top-10 pick in the amateur draft, a ridiculously talented 20-year-old with a 95 mph fastball whose main fault -- yes, fault -- seems to be that he has an arsenal of pitches that nobody in amateur baseball can hit.
So why can't many of baseball's decision-makers, those stoic guardians of the status quo, shake the queasy feeling they get from Bauer? Why would a major league front office exec, watching Bauer strike out 15 Oregon State hitters one week after striking out 17 at Stanford, say, "With the stuff he has, I've got to wonder why he has to throw so many pitches to put away college hitters." True, Bauer averages roughly 130 pitches per start, but is it his fault that he has swing-and-miss stuff and rarely gets the benefit of outs on the first or second pitch of an at-bat?
By the statistical measures that portend professional success, Bauer is the best pitcher on the board for the June 6 first-year player draft. He leads the country in strikeouts with 203 in 136 2/3 innings and had a 1.25 ERA in the Pac-10, one of college baseball's toughest conferences. His name has been on a steady rise up draft boards, from potential first-rounder at the beginning of the year to potential top five in June. Yet this kid, the most dominant college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg, whose style and stuff evoke legitimate comparisons to Tim Lincecum -- isn't even in the mix to be the top pick. Why not? It seems baseball still doesn't know how to handle guys who march to their own drum.
Here's a story: During one of Bauer's three years at Hart High in Valencia, Calif., before he left for UCLA halfway through his senior year because he was too mature to deal with another semester of high school silliness, he had an off-season routine of taking a bucket of baseballs to a local park to throw long toss as part of his arm-strengthening regimen. He walked to the park alone because he couldn't find anyone to throw with him. "I didn't have any friends," he says with the emotion of someone reading a grocery list. He threw baseballs from one side of the park to the other, each ball smacking a wooden fence surrounding a tennis court. He did this for close to a year, until a tennis coach decided to hold lessons on that court while Bauer did his throwing.
This was a problem. The tennis coach told him to stop. He refused. The tennis coach sent a letter to his baseball coach, who suggested Bauer stop. He refused. He told his coach, "Sorry if I wasn't taught to be blindingly allegiant to authority."
But that wasn't Bauer's main gripe with the tennis coach. The letter to the baseball coach included the phrase, "The unexpected repetitiveness of the ball hitting the fence." This upset Bauer's sense of order. His eyes widen, his voice rises. "How could something be repetitive and unexpected at the same time?" he asks. "If it's repetitive, don't you come to expect it?"
Enter the world of Trevor Bauer, where nothing is taken at face value.
He is a devotee of the teachings of Perry Husband, a former hitting coach who devised a theory of pitch sequencing called Effective Velocity. EV is complicated -- Husband calls it "the theory of relativity but with baseball" -- but it relies on a pitcher's ability to make each pitch look the same for the first 20 feet, at which point a hitter has to decide to swing. The deception relies on a pitcher's throwing each pitch through the same "tunnel." Bauer was not content to merely understand the concept of tunnels; he wanted to put it into practice.
According to Husband's research, a normal strike zone, when extrapolated to 20 feet from a pitcher's release point, measures 13 inches by 10 inches. So Trevor and his father, Warren, an engineer, built a metal contraption with a 13 by 10 opening. It is placed 20 feet from the mound, and Bauer throws bullpen sessions through it. In theory, each pitch that travels through the Bauers' homemade tunnel will not only be a strike but will also look the same beyond the point where the hitter must decide to swing. "I call them the Bauer Engineering Crew," says Ron Wolforth, the director of the Texas Baseball Ranch, the training academy where Trevor has spent many summers. "The stuff they do isn't in any manual. It's Effective Velocity 501."
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. Performance is simply a by-product of process. UCLA coach John Savage calls him the Mad Scientist of Pitching. Wolforth, who clocked Bauer at 102.7 mph last summer, says, "Trevor always has a million questions. Some of them are ethereal, but they're all insightful." Alan Jaeger, whose long-toss program is part of Bauer's training, says, "He pitches with the wisdom of Greg Maddux at 33."
Bauer entered UCLA at 17 as an engineering student but has changed majors to computer science, and he leaves nothing to chance. For instance: Believing he needed a pitch that would run away from lefthanded hitters, Trevor invented a "reverse slider," which differs from a screwball in that it's thrown 87 to 88 mph, about 10 mph faster than a screwball.
For many baseball executives, evaluating Bauer is a blind leap into the unknown. Subscribing to his regimen is almost like a dare. One scout watched Bauer run over the mound to fire his first between-inning warmup pitch and said, "He's got great stuff, but I'm not Freud."
Bauer's atypical approach will likely scare off certain high-picking clubs -- such as the Pirates and Royals -- that prefer pitchers who fit the traditional archetype. Of course, it's that kind of logic that caused Lincecum to fall to the Giants at No. 10 in the 2006 draft. Bauer's response to the critics is typically direct: "Just let me do my thing, and I'll be good for a long time. When I...
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