How Trevor Bauer Became an MLB Superstar—and Threw a Ball 117 MPH

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 10: Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at Progressive Field on July 10, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)
Ron Schwane/Getty Images

In 2016, with the Cleveland Indians in the midst of a postseason run that would ultimately carry them to Game 7 of the World Series, right-hander Trevor Bauer mangled his pinkie finger with a drone.

At the time, it seemed plausible that would be Bauer's legacy: the drone guy. 

He'd never posted a sub-4.00 ERA in five big league seasons, and he kept the trend going in 2017 with a 4.19 ERA. In an Indians rotation fronted by ace-among-aces Corey Kluber, Bauer felt like an afterthought.

This season, he's leaving the drone talk in the dust, garnering well-deserved award chatter and emerging as a superstar.

Through an MLB-leading 153.2 innings, Bauer has compiled a 2.34 ERA and 195 strikeouts. His 5.3 WAR, by FanGraphs' measure, is second only to the Boston Red Sox's Chris Sale's 5.6 among pitchers in both leagues. 

He's a legitimate Cy Young contender and an undeniable breakout stud—like it or not.

Some don't like it. In addition to the aforementioned ill-timed accident, Bauer started a Twitter war this season when he accused Houston Astros pitchers of doctoring baseballs to get better results. Clearly he's not averse to controversy. 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Results are results, though, and the 27-year-old is producing them in bunches.

"Like me. Love me. Hate me. Whatever," Bauer told reporters at the All-Star Game in late July. "Hopefully, you just remember who I was."

What has changed for Bauer in 2018? How has he gone from a mercurial mid-rotation piece to a front-line starter?

One explanation is his offseason workout regimen, which included throwing a three-ounce baseball 116.9 mph (what the heck, let's round up to 117 mph) in January:

Call it a stunt. Call it circus-style grandstanding. Just don't call it unimpressive.

Bauer has been noted for his live arm and unorthodox training methods since the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him third overall in the 2011 amateur draft. That same year, Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins compared Bauer to Tim Lincecum and Stephen Strasburg while outlining his grueling throwing program:

"Here is the modern pitcher, New Age but down-home, a product of both Southern California think tanks and East Texas back roads. Bauer throws at least six days a week with baseballs, weighted balls or medicine balls. He long-tosses 380 feet, even before starts. He warms up for his outings with about 45 pitches in the bullpen, and during especially long innings when his team is at bat, he heads back to the pen for more work. On his first warmup toss between innings, he crow hops across the mound and unleashes a fastball more than 100 miles per hour."

More than a half-decade later, Bauer is apparently reaping the rewards. 

He's also relied more heavily on his slider, throwing it 13.9 percent of the time compared to 5.6 percent in 2017 and 0.4 percent in 2016. His 94.9 mph average fastball velocity sits above his career average of 94.4 mph, but turning increasingly to the slider may explain at least a portion of Bauer's newfound effectiveness.

"Trusting his stuff" is a tired cliche when it comes to pitchers, as is "thrower versus pitcher." But they're cliches for a reason. Bauer is evolving into a guy who understands matchups and how to play the cerebral game as well as the blow-'em-away game. That matters.

In a recent showdown against Cincinnati Reds star Joey Votto, Bauer shook off catcher Roberto Perez eight times (no, that's not a typo) before settling on a pitch. 

"He can hit everything. It's a chess match, like I said earlier," Bauer told reporters afterward. "So I went to throw something that I don't typically throw in those counts. That makes it tough for 'Berto."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

There are tough things about Bauer. His brashness. His bravado. The strain he puts on his arm with his triple-digit tosses that inevitably conjure fears of future injuries. And, by the way, not-so-subtly showing up his catcher (though, to his credit, Bauer did eventually retire Votto).

Good as he's been this season, his body of work suggests the possibility for regression. Fewer than six months of sustained excellence don't make an unassailable No. 1.

That said, the Indians are unambiguously lucky to have Bauer in their starting corps as they waltz toward another AL Central crown and try to bust baseball's longest active championship drought.

Watching him perform on the October stage should be a ton of fun.

Provided, of course, he stays far, far away from drones.

         

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

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