- Trevor Bauer flummoxed the Yankees in Game 1 thanks to his curveball. If the Yankees can't figure out how to hit breaking pitches, they'll soon be gone from the 2017 playoffs.
CLEVELAND — To become a better pitcher, Trevor Bauer would have friends shoot him with paintball pellets in the middle of delivering a pitch in offseason bullpen sessions, the better to sharpen his focus. Other times he would blast loud music while throwing. He would throw a 3.5-ounce baseball 114 mph from the kind of running start you might see from a javelin thrower. He would play long toss from the absurd distance of one foul pole to another. He bought a $30,000 Trackman system and expensive, super high-speed cameras to learn precisely how his pitches spun through the air.
“Eccentric” was one of the kinder words thrown his way by the baseball establishment, especially the Arizona Diamondbacks, who traded him to Cleveland at age 21, just 18 months after taking him with the third pick in the draft.
“What he always has been,” Indians teammate Cody Allen said, “is ahead of the curve.”
The rest of baseball is catching up to Bauer, though that would not include the hitters on the New York Yankees. Bauer gave a clinic on state-of-the-art pitching in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. It wasn’t just that he took care of the first 20 outs as the Indians dismantled New York, 4–0, in ways the Yankees almost never have seen in their storied postseason history. Only twice in their 381 postseason games have the Yankees struck out 14 times or more without a run: to Cliff Lee and the Rangers in the 2010 ALCS (15 Ks), and last night to Bauer, Andrew Miller and Allen (14 Ks).
The cutting edge involved here also was that Bauer did so with an encyclopedic knowledge of how to make a baseball move through space. While artistry and mystery remain in the craft and always will, pitching has evolved into the scientific realm with the aid of technology. The radar gun, once the lone tool of measurement, now is to pitching what the abacus is to computing.
This much I know: if the Yankees are going to win this series, they are going to have to solve the new paradigm of pitching that the Indians execute so well. They are going to have to hit breaking balls—otherwise Cleveland is going to spin its way right through them, the same as they did to Boston and Toronto last October.
Bauer threw 36 curveballs among his 99 pitches. Combined, Bauer, Miller and Allen fed the Yankees 39% breaking balls (58 out of 149). The Yankees managed one hit out of those 58 breaking balls.
Once upon a time, a pitching coach would tell his pitchers, “Establish your fastball and mix in your breaking ball,” because, well, because an old pitching coach he had once told him that. Now you better have a virtual degree in advanced pitching metrics to understand pitching today. The Cardinals and Mets are the latest teams looking for new pitching coaches who speak this language, a language no team knows better than Bauer and the Indians.
The Indians threw the lowest percentage of fastballs (two-seamers, four-seamers and sinkers) than any team in baseball: 48.05%. And all they did by de-emphasizing the fastball was to strike out more batters than any staff in the history of baseball.
Last year Cleveland pitchers threw breaking balls with 24% of their pitches, which ranked 22nd in baseball. Before the postseason began, pitching coach Mickey Callaway sat down with every imaginable metric and realized something that was happening around baseball, especially with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, their AL playoff opponents: fastballs get hit, breaking balls don’t. So Callaway told his pitchers they were going to dial up the percentage of curveballs.
“It made sense because of who we were playing,” Allen said. “But it also so happens that we have a lot of guys who spin the baseball really well, guys whose best pitch is a breaking ball. And this time of year, you never want to get beat on your second- or third-best pitch.”
Callaway’s crew continued the barrage of breaking balls against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. It nearly carried them to the title. Cleveland increased its breaking ball percentage in the postseason to 36%, the highest among the 10 playoff teams. The Indians held Boston, Toronto and Chicago to a .196 average against those breaking balls.
This season, emboldened by those results, Cleveland boosted its regular season breaking ball percentage to 29%. Opponents hit .166 against Cleveland’s sliders and curveballs, the lowest such batting average in the league.
Beginning as a high school freshman, when his goal was to throw 100 miles an hour—he was throwing 80 mph at the time—Bauer dove into not just learning how to pitch but also into understanding the whys and hows of ball flight. He studied in a Quonset hut at the Texas Baseball Ranch, and later ventured to a warehouse in Kent, Wash., where Driveline Baseball doesn’t just give archaic “pitching lessons” but offers “data-driven baseball performance training.”
“We have these conversations about how to create spin and maximize your body movements,” Allen said. “He knows more about this stuff than anybody.”
A quiet revolution in learning is happening in the sport. People who never played the game professionally have become many of the game’s best teachers, if only because they have studied pitching, hitting and the kinetic chains of those disciplines better than anybody else. It’s no different than the ones running major league organizations or the best swing coaches in golf. The expertise no longer is found in those who simply had the physical gifts to excel in the doing, but those who brought boundless curiosity, passion and technology to understanding the subjects better than anyone else.
Bauer’s evolution from the third overall pick in the 2011 draft to a reliable postseason starter has been a checkered one. He has overcome, for instance, his own stubbornness.
“Finally,” said his personal catcher, Roberto Perez, “I’m getting him to trust me a little more.”
Perez estimated that Bauer shook him off in Game 1 “maybe two or three times. That’s it.”
Midway through the season, Perez sat Bauer down and told him he had become too predictable. He pulled out some numbers, for instance, and showed Bauer he gave up way too many hits on 0-and-2 curveballs. So they decided to mix in more breaking balls early in counts and more fastballs at 0-and-2.
All of Bauer’s lessons seemed to coalesce in Game 1. His pure stuff, which always has been exceptional, was made better by improved pitch selection and sequencing.
His curveball was made better by the two-seam fastball he learned with the help of his Trackman machine. Bauer watched Kluber in 2014 dominate hitters with his two-seamer. The pitch had saved Kluber’s career. Kluber was a 26-year-old journeyman stuck in the minors when he tried the pitch during a bullpen session in May of 2012. The ball behaved like magic, especially against lefthanded hitters, who jackknifed out of its apparent flight path, only to see it break back over the inside corner for a strike.
Bauer broke down Kluber’s two-seamer has if studying the genome. With the help of his Trackman and high-speed cameras, Bauer did everything he could to clone Kluber’s pitch, trying to get his hand position, spin rate and spin axis just right. It has become an effective third pitch for him, behind his curveball and four-seam fastball, and in Game 1 he twice carved it back over the corner against unsuspecting lefties for third strikes.
(Trackman, though, couldn’t help Bauer’s four-seamer spin even faster. Bauer learned that he could manipulate the spin of every other pitch, but that four-seam spin rate, with his pure backspin, was immutable, a God-given marker, like eye color or fingerprints.)
Bauer’s work at Driveline also paid off in Game 1 with the deception he creates in “tunneling” his pitches. A hitter reads and decides on a pitch mostly in the first 17–20 feet when the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand. What Bauer does extraordinarily well is to keep two distinct pitches—the four-seam fastball and the curveball—traveling in the same narrow path, or tunnel, in those key first 17–20 feet.
The real trick is to have his 78-mph curve and his 94-mph fastball look exactly the same out of his hand. He does this by not having the curveball first pop “up” out of his hand—a tipoff to the hitter that a breaking ball is coming—but to have it travel in the same tunnel as his fastball.
Only when it’s too late will the hitter learn whether the pitch holds its plane (the fastball at the top of the zone) or dive bomb (the curveball that drops into the zone). The Yankees were caught several times taking hittable fastballs and curveballs because they simply couldn’t tell the two pitches apart based on their similar path, even with dissimilar velocity.
Bauer in particular bamboozled Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. They fouled off or took rare fastballs camouflaged amid a downpour of raindrop curveballs. In all, the two young Bronx Bombers batted eight times in the game without getting a hit or a ball out of the infield. Judge tied the franchise postseason record with four strikeouts by a position player, an indignity last suffered by Johnny Damon but also experienced by the likes of Derek Jeter and Mickey Mantle.
The last piece of putting Bauer together was the emotional side of pitching. Asked before the game about the warning signs he looks for when Bauer is courting trouble, Callaway said, “Body language. It’s not stuff. It’s body language. A call doesn’t go his way, a bloop hit falls in, and his shoulders sag or he kicks the dirt. Those are the things I look for.”
There were no such warning signs in Game 1. Even after Bauer lost his no-hit bid in the sixth—Aaron Hicks slashed a curveball off the wall in leftfield for a double—he gave away nothing with his body language. Shortstop Francisco Lindor, perhaps remembering older versions of Bauer, sprinted to the mound and said something to him.
“I said, ‘Don’t let up,’” Lindor said. “’Don’t you dare let up. You’ve got to keep going.’
“Plus, I wanted to know the signs. They hadn’t had a runner at second base until then.”
Said Callaway, “I think we’re one of the best teams in the league at not showing emotion, and not letting it affect the next pitch.”
“People think ‘what took so long’ with Trevor,” Allen said. “What they forget is that he’s only 26 years old. He’s young. He graduated high school a year early. He may have six [big league] years in, but he’s still only 26.”
Bauer left the game in the seventh inning to heartfelt applause and thanks from the Progressive Field crowd. He stalked toward the dugout in that purposeful, mechanical walk of his, but steps from disappearing he broke from his game face mentality to doff his cap to the crowd.
It served also a nod to what else is coming at New York: Kluber’s breaking ball, Carlos Carrasco’s slider and more of Miller’s slider, Allen’s curveball and Bauer’s curveball. The Yankees’ world is spinning right now, and this is the new world of baseball.