CINCINNATI -- During the final Spring Training workout at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., Melky Cabrera stepped up to the plate inside the fenced-in bullpen area. He tracked a few pitches -- down and in, down and away, up and in -- then turned his head to catcher Jacob Stallings.
“You know this guy?” Stallings asked between pitches. “He was the best pitcher in the National League in the second half last year. He had a one-something ERA."
Trevor Williams' second-half ERA was 1.38, to be specific, and it was 1.29 over his final 13 starts of last season. Only American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell had a lower ERA after the All-Star break. Zane Smith is the only Pirates starting pitcher since 1933 to produce a stingier second half.
That run followed the worst stretch of Williams’ young career, a nine-start struggle during which he allowed 37 runs in 41 innings. He knew something had to change.
“I was getting embarrassed,” Williams said, “and I didn’t want to be embarrassed ever again after that.”
But how did he turn it around? How, in this high-velocity era, was a starting pitcher so effective with a 91 mph fastball? And how, after putting up Bob Gibson-like numbers for 13 starts, did Williams decide he can improve?
“The challenge to do that again, I love it. I can pitch up to that intensity,” said Williams, who will make his season debut on Sunday against the Reds in Cincinnati. “I can’t repeat that. I can only do better or worse."
The tipping point came during Williams’ July 6 start against the Phillies -- a 17-5 loss for the Pirates. In the third inning, he served up a three-run homer to Odubel Herrera. He was out of the game three batters later, but he knew something was wrong after that home run.
It wasn’t the pitch. Or the result. It was his reaction.
“It was the first time I gave up a homer in my career where I wasn’t [upset],” Williams said during an interview with MLB.com. “I wasn’t angry. I was kind of like, ‘Aw, man, here we go again.’”
Williams’ intensity helped get him to the Majors. But he convinced himself to “pitch bored,” he said, after being over-amped and giving up eight runs in three innings at Dodger Stadium in his first start of 2017. Over time, his intensity faded.
“I didn’t recognize it, but I could feel my intensity getting lower and lower and lower and lower,” he said. “I was afraid to pitch ‘up’ again. I was afraid to pitch like a madman, like I was.”
Williams throttled his energy more than ever pitching in his hometown of San Diego on June 30. He felt like he was going through the motions that night -- a far cry from the pitcher who grunted and grinded his way through the second half. Then came the Phillies start and the Herrera home run.
After that outing, Williams sat in Pirates manager Clint Hurdle’s office at PNC Park and considered his options. He talked with pitching coach Ray Searage in the outfield during batting practice and they came up with a plan. Williams, admittedly in fight-or-flight mode, vowed to “pitch angry” again.
“In his mind, it was all fight,” Hurdle said. “There wasn’t any flight.”
On July 11, Williams pitched five shutout innings against the Nationals. It was the beginning of a 21-inning scoreless streak. He allowed just 11 runs the rest of the season.
“From pitch one, I’m throwing the first punch. I’m not waiting to see how they’re going to attack me. I’m going to attack them with my stuff,” Williams said. “They know what they’re going to get. It’s no secret what I throw. This is what you’ve got. See what you can do with it.”
Williams’ success is a study in contrasts. He was one of baseball’s best stories in the second half, but he probably received more media attention when a waiter in San Diego confused him for Bryce Harper this offseason. He’s a heavy metal aficionado who listens to classical music during his early morning drives to the ballpark during Spring Training. He has a bulldog mentality and a game built around finesse.
And his competitive pitching persona doesn’t align with his affable attitude in the clubhouse or amusing commentary on Twitter.
“Super chill, super low key. Very easy to hang out with off the field, easy to have conversations with,” Pirates starter Jameson Taillon said. “But there definitely is something about his start day. He’s a different animal.”
When Williams gets to the ballpark, he turns up the frenzied metal music on his headphones and … sits down with a crossword puzzle. Or a Sudoku. Or a game of Spades on his phone.
“What I want to create is a controlled chaos,” Williams said.
That’s the essence of pitching -- hyper-focus amid all the noise -- so Williams attempts to simulate that “controlled chaos” hours before he takes the mound.
“He eliminates everything else, everything around him,” Pittsburgh catcher Francisco Cervelli said. “His focus is on the catcher and hitter, that’s it.”
He studies scouting reports, then talks to Searage and his catcher. Two hours before his start, Williams turns on a more mellow playlist and spends 15 minutes in stillness, breathing and visualizing his outing. He used to carry that zen-like mentality onto the field to help him “pitch bored.” That changed last season, too.
Before he leaves the clubhouse, Williams cranks up the volume on two heavy metal songs: “Back Burner” by August Burns Red and “Omerta” by Lamb of God. Now, he said, he’s ready to roll the moment he steps onto the field.
“It’s scientific,” he added, dryly. “But not really.”
Williams’ competitive edge only extends so far. He’s intense when he needs to be, but he’s not racing anybody to red lights in traffic. When he played basketball as a kid, he said, he was an apathetic defender at best.
“I’m really only competitive in certain aspects of my life. In others, I couldn’t care less,” he said. “I don’t care about basketball. I care about baseball, and I care about certain other things.”
That includes card games (much to his wife Jackie’s chagrin), but also his charitable work. Williams’ father, Richard, taught him a lesson that he demonstrated as the founder of the Marine Corps League Injured Marine Fund: At a certain point in life, your responsibility is to help others who are less fortunate.
So Williams is using his platform with a greater purpose in mind.
“The gift that God gave me to be a ballplayer right now, what am I doing with that gift as my gift back to God? How am I using baseball to build the kingdom of God?” said Williams, a devout Catholic. “That’s how my wife and I look at it. It started at home, that this is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to help.”
He created the Project 34 foundation with former Arizona State teammate Cory Hahn to help people, like Hahn, living with spinal cord injuries. He was the first professional athlete to partner with Underdogs United, a company that funds clean water initiatives for schools in Kenya. He and Jackie are involved in more initiatives, but they’re not doing it for the attention.
“We want to help as many people as we can,” Williams said. “My wife and I will always support foundations and charities that understand there is a greater good.”
No matter how well he pitched, Williams noticed, @MeLlamoTrevor would be mentioned on Twitter before every start by fantasy baseball experts warning of an impending collapse.
“Every fifth day, like clockwork. ‘There’s no way he can do this again,’” Williams said. “Then this entire offseason, ‘What’s he going to do? Regression.’
Some metrics call for regression. His 3.86 FIP was higher than his 3.11 ERA. His .310 xwOBA was higher than his .287 wOBA allowed. But the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks, who also relies on pinpoint command more than raw stuff, has spent the last three seasons outperforming his peripheral numbers. Why can’t Williams?
“To say ‘there’s no way’? There is a way. I have done it,” he said. “Will regression happen? Maybe, maybe not. … You have to adapt. It’s adapt or die. Hitters are trying to pick up on me. They’re doing their homework, just as I’m doing my homework. Everyone’s trying to gain an edge.”
Williams is no exception. He’s a habitual note-taker. He can’t listen to certain podcasts while driving, for instance, because he writes down anything he wants to remember. Every year since college, he’s kept a notebook that details his routine and results.
“I call it my brain,” Williams said.
His “brain” includes daily notes -- about his workouts, his bullpen sessions, how he felt throwing on flat ground, what he saw on video, etc. He prints out heat maps of his pitches each year and tucks them into the book. He writes down goals for each start then later notes three things he did right, two things he could have done better and one thing he’s going to work on.
In the second half, Williams carried that attention to detail into his bullpen sessions. He intentionally worked on sequences and pitch execution with a plan in mind. His fastball command became more consistent. He kept hitters off-balance and used their aggressiveness against them.
“A lot of guys go through scouting reports and stuff, and when they get that first punch delivered, they black out and go into survival mode. Trevor really sticks to a plan,” Taillon said. “He never comes out of his game.”
Williams doesn’t miss a ton of bats, so creating soft contact is critical. From July 11 on, Williams posted the sixth-best “barrel rate” (3.6 percent) among 116 qualified starting pitchers (tied with Hendricks and the D-backs' Zack Godley). During that stretch, he held hitters to a .216/.277/.301 slash line despite striking out only 58 in 76 2/3 innings.
“He is a guy that’s diving in to be a master craftsman,” Hurdle said, “and his power tools are different from other people’s power tools.”
Williams didn’t rest this offseason. He wanted to keep his arm active and maintain a feel for his release point, so he never stopped throwing. He only threw six curveballs last year, so he made that pitch a focal point of his Spring Training work. By the time the Pirates left Florida, he was comfortable with his ability to throw it in any situation.
The league is going to push back against Williams this year, so he knows he can’t repeat the second half of last season. He can only be better or worse.
“This is the beauty of sport, finding out where he can take it,” Hurdle said. “That’s a big enough challenge out in front of him this year: Let’s be the best pitcher we can be for the entire season.”
“Do it again and do it better,” Williams said. “We’ll see.”