He shook off the sign for the first pitch of his Major League career.
Think about that for a moment. There is anticipation, advanced hype, and the omnipresent pressure to live up to being a top draft pick with a big league paycheck swirling around. He was there to possibly be the savior for a season that was heading in the wrong direction quite quickly. The easiest thing to do would’ve been to simply follow along; it was only pitch one. But, he didn’t. He had a plan. He’s always had a plan. Most importantly, he believed in his plan even if he was told he was too young and that he was doing it far too differently.
At the age of 21, Trevor Bauer shook off veteran catcher Miguel Montero’s sign for the first pitch of his Major League debut. Some may call that cocky. Some may call that brazen or even immature. That may just be the type of conviction that will allow Trevor Bauer the opportunity to succeed using methods that run against long standing beliefs and practices. The very moment he was drafted, everything he has done has been viewed as different, unconventional, and dangerous even if they were the same methods that got him drafted in the first place. But, if Bauer is correct, he may have an even bigger impact than just being a top of the rotation starter. The journey has just started, yet he has already faced quite a bit of adversity.
Trevor Bauer was the third pick in the 2011 draft. The Arizona Diamondbacks not only signed their first round pick quickly, they gave him a four year, $4.73 million contract on July 25, 2011. Less than one year later, Bauer was making his first Major League start for the Diamondbacks. That June 28th start didn’t go according to plan as Bauer had control problems and wound up throwing 74 pitches in 4 innings, while allowing 5 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks, and 3 strikeouts. He would follow that up with another poor start before throwing 6 shutout innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers for his first Major League win on July 8th.
Seven days later, he would make his last start for the Diamondbacks, turning in another poor, wild performance by walking five batters in just 3 innings of work. The Diamondbacks would send their number one pick back to the Minors, this time to triple-A, a level that he had skipped on his way to the Major Leagues. Bauer showed a characteristic that all above average pitchers show. He showed that he could deal with failure. That’s a characteristic that separates the good pitchers from the pitchers who never make it back. Elite college and high school pitchers don’t really experience failure until they get to professional baseball. Some, like Bauer, don’t experience it until they get to the Major Leagues.
In Bauer’s first eight starts at the double-A level, he posted a 7-1 record along with a 1.68 ERA in 48.1 innings. He allowed just 33 hits and struck out 60 batters. He would, however, show that the strike zone would be a problem as he walked 24 batters. But, those numbers were good enough for the Diamondbacks to summon him to the Major Leagues in an effort to jumpstart their moribund season. But, control problems plagued the right hander and he was sent to triple-A Reno where he would make 14 starts. Bauer bounced back, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.84 ERA in 82 innings. He allowed 74 hits, 35 walks, and 97 strikeouts. He improved and did exactly as any organization would want its top prospect to do. He persevered and came back from failure.
That show of resiliency didn’t earn him a September call up. It didn’t earn him any praise from the Diamondbacks’ organization. It got him traded to the Cleveland Indians in a three team deal that saw the Diamondbacks get Didi Gregorius, Lars Anderson, and Tony Sipp. In the trade, the Diamondbacks gave up the best prospect and received the worst value of the three teams.
But, the negativity towards Trevor Bauer had already surfaced. There were rumors that he was stubborn. There were rumors that he was uncoachable. The rookie wouldn’t listen to the veterans. All of that criticism stems from Bauer’s throwing routine, which in comparison to the majority of baseball, looks odd and quite extreme. The two most startling aspects of Bauer’s routine are his extreme long toss and his final warmup pitch before each inning. Because Bauer has not conformed, he has been criticized by his former catcher Miguel Montero and was part of the Diamondbacks’ purge of players who didn’t quite fit their new model.
Long toss has been an exercise that has been around forever. Players have always long tossed, even if they didn’t know why. When long toss is used correctly, it builds stamina and arm strength. Today’s accepted long toss program was born out of the rehabilitation process. “Let’s say a pitcher just had Tommy John surgery or has a sore shoulder and is on shelf. Physical therapists will start a program with rubber tubing (exercises). Then there is a flat-ground, interval (throwing) program for adult baseball, which starts at 45 feet, and then proceeds to 60, 90, 120, and currently 120 feet. After that program, a pitcher will start throwing off the mound,” said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the Research Director of American Sports Medicine Institute.
Obviously, the benefits of long toss are clear. Pitchers who are coming off of surgery use it to rebuild. But, they stop at 120 feet. Why? Rick Peterson, the Baltimore Orioles Director of Pitching Development, has a theory. “That’s probably as far as the rehab therapists could throw when they first designed the program.”
Yet, that 120 feet distance is what the majority of teams adhere to today. It is why when someone sees Trevor Bauer conduct a long toss session that builds up to over 350 feet, people in baseball begin to get nervous. They get nervous because it is not the norm. They get nervous because it looks different. They get nervous because they simply don’t know. As progressive as Major League Baseball is with analyzing data and uncovering hidden talent, the industry is still in the dark ages when it comes to keeping pitchers healthy. Consider that the industry has paid over one billion dollars to injured pitchers over the past four seasons. While science continues to show that biomechanics can help and that not all pitchers are the same, Major League organizations continue to operate as if it were the 1950’s. They continue to implement a one program for all pitchers.
At 22 years old, Trevor Bauer has become a polarizing figure around Major League Baseball. He was the 21 year old rookie who refused to change his routine. Even when the results at the Major League level weren’t great, Bauer didn’t change the routine that he has followed his whole life. It is one that has helped him stay healthy despite logging many innings throughout his life.
“Trevor’s pitching coach brought him out (to our camp) when he was 12 years old. He learned our program at a very young age. I hadn’t done a whole lot of personal work with him, but his pitching coach worked at our camps for years and knows our program. He (Bauer) was a bright kid and hard worker,” said Alan Jaeger, the founder of Jaeger Sports, a company that has devised a long toss program catered to the individual pitcher.
Bauer has studied and implemented Jaeger’s program for 10 years. The program consists of physical conditioning, mechanics work, and that “extreme” long toss program. Bauer has also studied Perry Husband’s findings on Effective Velocity and is said to have a working arsenal of eight pitches. Jaeger believes that Bauer’s study of pitching along with his implementation of the yet to be accepted long toss methods are the reasons for his success and why he will be a successful Major League pitcher. “Trevor is ahead of the game on a lot of stuff. He approaches these things as an intellectual. He’s studied long toss, effective velocity, and so many other studies. He believes his approach will keep him stronger and healthier despite most of the industry wanting to change him. That says a lot. He has an approach that he feels works,” said Jaeger.
It appears that Bauer is a 22 year old who is being mislabeled as rebellious rather than scientific and purposeful. It appears his ex-catcher criticized, or perhaps misunderstood him, for being stubborn when Bauer was simply doing what all organizations should already be doing. It’s not all that surprising considering the industry’s slow response to pitching injuries and continued adherence to one size fits all programs. “Because it’s new. Baseball not only changes at a slow pace, it actively works against it many times. I don’t think Trevor has done himself any favors in selling the program, but it’s not his job to either,” said Will Carroll, Lead Injury Writer for Bleacher Report.
Carroll’s point about Bauer not selling the program is quite valid. With a program that is this different from the conventional norm, it is a difficult sell. But, Bauer hasn’t been the perfect salesman. Some believe he has ruffled feathers, done some immature things, and hasn’t been all that respectful. But, Jaeger sees things a bit differently. “He’s 22 years old. He isn’t going to be perfect. It’s difficult enough doing something you believe in when your team is telling you differently. The underbelly of that whole discussion is about a few things that buck the system. He has a lot of things that are effective,” said Jaeger.
But, are Bauer and by extension Jaeger’s program and beliefs valid? “Alan knows his stuff and has some good results, no question. I think it works for Bauer and that’s more important to me than any particular program. We don’t know of something that works for everyone, so why try to change anyone unless you can offer something substantially better or that you’re protecting a player?” said Carroll.
Again, Carroll brings up an excellent point. This type of long tossing works for Bauer. It may not work for everyone. In fact, ASMI released a study on long toss in 2011 that “advised caution when using these throws (maximum distance) for rehabilitation and training.” ASMI cautions that “maximum-distance throws produce increased torques and changes in kinematics.”
One size does not fit all. For some, maximum long toss may create unnatural movements that work against building strength. But, for Bauer, this is not the case.
Maximum distance long tossing does seem to fit Bauer, who hasn’t had an injury despite pitching from youth through high school and college and for Team USA. With an excellent Minor League track record, an excellent resume of success, and a clean health report, it is difficult to find a reason to trade Trevor Bauer, who projects to be, at least, a number two starter. The first person to do something different always gets bloodied a bit. Despite being a top three pick, Bauer has been bloodied in the press and throughout baseball as someone who is disrespectful and perhaps youthfully arrogant rather than being portrayed as thoughtful. The next person with a similar program will have it a bit easier, especially if Bauer succeeds.
There is a bit of pressure on Bauer in terms of his program. He has remained strident in his belief, but if he fails, it will be an indictment on his program, which looks odd to many. Between the gyrations in the outfield for his stretching routine and his extreme long toss program, there are many waiting for him to fail. Then, there is that final throw in warmups. Bauer stands behind the mound, takes a running start, and then appears to throw the ball as hard as he can to the catcher. It is an odd sight, but one that Jaeger sees the validity in. ”Sure, he is trying to throw it 100 miles per hour. But, he has a purpose as one of the things he does is a drill where he generates a lot of centrifugal force. It’s a positive reminder mechanically. It puts him in a good place physically and connects him with the drill. It’s a key for him to recall,” said Jaeger.
Jaeger is seeing some progress in the industry in its attitude towards the 120 foot long toss belief. He cites the Indians, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, and Astros, among a dozen organizations who are expanding beyond the 120 foot barrier. He also sees the Blue Jays becoming more progressive with the elevation of Pete Walker to Major League Pitching Coach and Andrew Tinnish as Assistant General Manager. Carroll, however, still sees the bigger problem. “It doesn’t seem like it (that organizations are taking a more scientific approach). Again, it would take an organized approach as well as significant scientific outlay. Even the clubs that got a bit progressive with things like tandem rotations and extending pitch limits don’t have firm commitments. The problem is that there’s no immediate payoff and baseball tends to be a win-now game. I’d like to see a franchise with a long-term horizon lead this, but it hasn’t happened. Some teams are starting to sniff around it, but most coaches especially at lower levels, aren’t looking to rock the boat,” said Carroll.
The Diamondbacks’ need to purge anyone who didn’t fit their mold may have been the best thing to ever happen to Trevor Bauer as he landed with the Cleveland Indians, an organization that has been progressive on many fronts. The Indians were quite busy this offseason and uncharacteristically spent big money on the free agent market, signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. But, their most important move may acquiring Bauer. The Indians lack an elite pitcher and haven’t had much success in developing that type of pitcher. They believe they have one in Bauer.
“We think Trevor has a chance to be a really good major league pitcher. He has top of the rotation stuff, and he combines it with a tireless work ethic and passion for continuing to develop and learn,” said Mike Chernoff, the Indians Assistant General Manager.
For the Indians, their investment is significant as they have targeted Bauer since he was in college.
“We knew Trevor well from our time scouting him in the draft. Our scouts did an exceptional job really getting to know him and understand his routines. Our pro scouts also observed Trevor’s transition into pro ball, and he was a pitcher that we targeted this offseason. One of the things that has always stood out about Trevor is his dedication to becoming great. His routines, throwing programs, and off-the-field work—whether conventional or unconventional—are all geared towards making himself the best pitcher he can be,” said Chernoff.
It may sound like GM-speak as every organization is going to be complementary to a player they just acquired in a deal that involved giving up their best all around hitter. But, the Indians are, at least for now, allowing Bauer to continue with his program without restrictions. “Chris (Antonetti) and Tito (Terry Francona) spent a lot of time getting to know Trevor this offseason after we acquired him. We want this to be a place where Trevor thrives and continues to develop into the pitcher that he wants to be and that we know he has the potential to be. As an organization, we want to be here to help facilitate that development for him and to be resources for him.”
“While we are very comfortable with his routines and what he does to prepare himself, they do not define who Trevor is or the pitcher that he will become. His work ethic and dedication to improving himself stand out to us as doing that,” Chernoff adds, “His routines are purposeful, and because of that they have evolved over time, as with any pitcher trying to constantly improve. Given that, I would imagine that over time with our organization we will learn from each other to help him continue to do what he needs to succeed at the Major League level.”
It seems Trevor Bauer found his ideal landing spot. He has found an organization that is comfortable with routine, one that is willing to learn, and one that is willing to help it evolve. That wasn’t going to happen in Arizona. Now, Bauer will have a chance to use the program that helped him become a scholarship athlete at the University of California and the number three pick in the 2011 draft. It is a program that he has studied, continues to study, and continues to work with based not only on science, but his own body. It is the exact direction that all 30 Major League clubs should be heading towards. The 100 pitch limit, the rest periods, and all of the other current practices are simply not working. Too many pitchers are still getting hurt. The science of biomechanics can offer so much yet few organizations embrace it. And, long toss routines over 120 feet can offer so many benefits. It will take an organization willing to craft individual programs for each of its pitchers. It will take organizations to be willing to strip away decades of practice and embrace private coaching and research. Baseball is very slow with those types of things.
Alan Jaeger equates Baseball’s attitudes towards new methods to the field of swimming. “What would happen if Michael Phelps was a baseball player whose private training has made a positive effect? He gets drafted because of that specialness and now you are going to take away those away. It doesn’t make sense, yet that’s what many teams are doing,” said Jaeger.
But, if there is one thing that the Baseball industry does quickly, it is copy. If Trevor Bauer becomes a top of the rotation pitcher as forecasted, teams will be calling the likes of Alan Jaeger or begin to develop their own long tossing programs. There will only be change if there is success. Trevor Bauer is the first true rookie to stick with his routine. Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy has his own routine, but he was drafted into a far more progressive environment. Bauer now has his environment. And, with his possible success comes possible monumental change.
That’s quite a bit of responsibility for a 22-year-old with just four Major League starts on his resume.
But, for a guy who had the conviction to shake off his first pitch as a Major Leaguer at the age 21, he may be just the right guy to carry that burden.