Bauer drawing success from hard work, curious mind
CHICAGO -- You never know what's going to happen in baseball, at least not if you keep an open mind and a sense of humor. You can even give up three consecutive home runs and have it be a good thing.
Trevor Bauer did that this spring, and it's starting to look like a turning point of his career.
That's because Bauer laughed at himself when Indians manager Terry Francona arranged to have an Arizona police officer bring three baseballs into the clubhouse the next day. He delivered them to the former first-round pick, saying they had disrupted traffic on a roadway outside the stadium.
Everyone in the clubhouse howled, including Bauer.
"We all felt like he was at the point in his comfort zone with himself and the team where, if we did it, he would laugh, and he did,'' Francona said. "We want to make sure our guys know we're laughing with them. I think he's more comfortable, maybe not just in his own surroundings but his own skin. I think he definitely is.''
Bauer, 24, is starting to reward the Indians for giving him new life after the D-backs traded him for shortstop Didi Gregorius only 1 1/2 years after selecting him with the third overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. He threw seven scoreless innings before a ninth-inning rally against closer Cody Allen gave the White Sox an out-of-nowhere 4-3 victory on Monday night at U.S. Cellular Field, and now is 2-0 with an 0.95 ERA through three starts.
Bauer didn't allow a hit in his first nine innings this season and has given up only eight in 19 innings. He's walked 11 and struck out 26.
"They've been so different,'' Bauer said of one start against the Astros and back-to-back ones against the White Sox. "The first one, I felt like I had really good stuff, and I walked a lot of guys. The next one, I didn't feel like I had very good stuff and managed my way through it. I felt decent today. I can be a lot better than I have been. I need to get ahead more. My first-pitch strike percentage is really low.''
Maybe so, but his frustration is minimal compared to hitters facing him.
"He's impressive,'' White Sox GM Rick Hahn said. "He's changed who he is to an extent and unleashed that upside that he's always had. He's a dangerous guy. Any time he goes out there, he has no-hit stuff, and at the same time, you have to be patient and if he has on a given night the ability to get himself in trouble, you have to let him.''
Control remains an issue for Bauer, but if you've followed his story, you figure it's only a matter of time until that's under control, too. The son of a chemical engineer who reported to Spring Training with a drone he'd built in his spare time, he is as much of a self-made big leaguer as there has ever been, challenging conventional wisdom with his own intensive study of pitching at every step of the way from Little League to the American League.
Bauer, an advocate of long-tossing, began to warm up in right field at U.S. Cellular at about 6:25 p.m. on Monday. Nevermind that it was 46 degrees with winds in excess of 20 mph, he was playing catch from the deepest part of center field to the right-field foul line at about 6:40 p.m., long before John Danks left the heated home clubhouse.
This unusual pregame routine is only the most visible part of the routine he put together in an attempt to maximize his pitching skills, many of which came together during long stretches of summer spent at the Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, down a few state highways and county roads from Houston. It was not a traditional path for a kid from California who graduated high school a year early to jump-start his career at UCLA.
"Look, I'm not that big,'' Bauer once said. "I'm not that strong. I'm not fast. I'm not explosive. I can't jump. I wasn't a natural-born athlete. I was made.''
Bauer was the best college pitcher in the country in 2011, going 13-2 with a 1.25 ERA, a .154 opponents' batting average and 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings. He did all this while handling an absolutely insane workload that he endorsed (120-plus pitches in 13 of 16 starts, including a high of 140), yet White Sox manager Robin Ventura says the focus was on his preparation, not his pitching.
Ventura watched UCLA regularly while working telecasts for ESPN. The Bruins not only had Bauer but also Gerrit Cole, whom the Pirates selected with the first overall pick.
"[Bauer] was good, but most of the focus was on his workouts because they are a little unorthodox,'' Ventura said. "You got to see Gerrit and him together. Most of the focus was on his outside stuff and not just his pitching, but you could tell he had good stuff.''
Bauer went over 200 Major League innings in his stint against the White Sox. His career stats (9-12, 4.12 ERA) do not do justice to his skill or his work ethic, but it's clear that something has clicked for him working with Francona and 39-year-old pitching coach Mickey Callaway.
Bauer patterned his mechanics after those of Tim Lincecum, and he may have picked up some natural deception in the process. He gets swinging strikes on 92-94 mph fastballs, which he sets up with a plus-curveball and a plus-changeup, but, like Yu Darvish, says he has many more pitches. The count was once up to the mid-teens but now is down into single-digits, and he's not shy about shaking off his catcher. He's at his best, he says, when he's working out of trouble. The White Sox hitters were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position Monday, including a double-play grounder by Melky Cabrera that helped him escape a two-on, no-out situation in the third inning.
"I've kind of been able to do that my whole life,'' Bauer said. "I don't know if it's a focus thing. I don't know exactly what it is. But I don't get nervous in big jams. I always feel like I have a way out of it, even if it's bases loaded, nobody out. Maybe it stems back to my first outing. The first time I ever pitched I got brought in from right field with bases loaded and nobody out. Maybe that's the stem of it.''
Bauer says he was 7 years old at that time, playing in Pinto League. He doesn't remember the name of his team, but he'll never forget the result.
"I got out of [the bases-loaded jam], actually,'' he said. "Yeah, I do remember that part.''
Adios, right field. He's been hooked on pitching ever since.