Trevor Bauer never cared about conforming.
A tireless worker who long ago established an eyebrow-raising, pole-to-pole pregame long-toss routine, the 23-year-old UCLA product was judged to be something of an attitude problem and be a potential failure before his career had really begun. Only 18 months and four major league starts after the Arizona Diamondbacks had chosen him third overall in the 2011 draft, they traded him to Cleveland in a puzzling three-way deal.
Why would the Diamondbacks give up on a kid whose lively right arm had helped him become their minor league pitcher of the year in 2012? What was wrong with him?
Maybe Bauer, who was a standout at Hart High in Newhall and was 38-4 in three seasons at UCLA, simply needed to grow up, needed to spend most of last season in the minor leagues to work on his mechanics and his mental approach. He’s scheduled to make his first start at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, a destination he has reached by staying true to himself.
“People either hate it or they love it. I guess I kind of polarize people,” he said of his unusual routine. “But the people who actually take the time to get to know me don’t find me that different.”
To know him is to realize he detests being labeled or told there’s only one way to do things and it isn’t his way.
“Everyone’s so absolute in this world. Everything’s so final,” he said Tuesday. “I didn’t have success in four starts in Arizona and then I have a bad year last year so it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s done, he’s a bust.’ You hear all that stuff because of social media these days and all the reporters ask questions and all the people, family and friends want to tell you to do this, and you’re not doing that. I try not to pay attention to that stuff as much as possible and just focus on getting better.
“I knew that last year was going to be a struggle and it set me up in a position where I can hopefully have success here in the near future and over the course of a long career, hopefully. I try to focus mostly on what I can do to get better and stay in that mind-set.”
Bauer has yet to record a win on the road in his career: he’s 0-5 with a 6.94 earned-run average in eight career road starts. He has faced the Dodgers once before, while with Arizona on July 8, 2012, holding them scoreless while giving up two hits over six innings.
That season he pitched 161/3 innings over four starts, walking 13 and striking out 17 while compiling an ERA of 6.06. Last season, in 17 innings over four starts, he walked 16 and struck out 11.
His numbers are much better this season: 20 walks and 52 strikeouts in 531/3 innings, with a 2-4 record and 4.39 ERA. With the Indians’ approval, he’s still doing the long-toss routine, occasional heavy bullpen sessions, extensive stretching, and crow-hop before unleashing a 90-plus-miles-per-hour warmup pitch before every inning. But he’s also listening to their suggestions and incorporating them into his routine.
“He’s not unorthodox at all anymore and he never has been with me,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “He does some different things but it’s all just preparation. And everybody prepares different.”
Manager Terry Francona couldn’t recall his first impression of Bauer but has strong impressions now. “He came to spring training this year and seemed to be in a much better place to compete. And it’s starting to show,” Francona said. “He’s able to do some things now that maybe he wasn’t able to last year — throw his fastball for strikes, and make teams respect his fastball so he can throw his off-speed over.”
That’s just the technical stuff.
“He’s learning himself. He’s learning the league. And we’re seeing him improve,” Francona said. “He’s 23 years old. There’s a lot to love about him as a pitcher.”
Bauer has become a pitcher, not just a thrower, and he credited the Indians with creating a productive, positive environment in which he can learn and grow. On Wednesday he will get to show off his growth in front of his father, Warren, mother, Kathy, and friends who have helped him during a journey that appears to be getting a second and stronger launch.
“I’ve learned a lot since last year in all aspects of life,” he said. “Baseball-wise and personally and interacting with teammates and interacting with family and friends, and what is important and what’s not.”