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Q&A: Trevor Bauer, Pitching Savant

Trevor Bauer doesn’t really need an introduction to FanGraphs readers. The top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization already had a well-earned reputation when he was drafted third overall last year out of UCLA. A 21-year-old right-hander, Bauer is known for his in-depth knowledge of sabermetrics and pitching mechanics just as much as he is for having an extensive repertoire that includes an overpowering fastball.

Bauer, who is currently pitching for the Triple-A Reno Aces, recently addressed several aspects of his unique and highly cerebral approach. Among the topics covered were pitch sequencing, video and visualization, and why velocity is more important to him than location.

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Trevor Bauer: “Pitching can be as simple or complicated as you choose to make it. It goes from being as simple as the catcher setting up outside and you throwing the ball. It can be fairly simple on the brain, or it can be knowing which pitch you want to throw in what situation, and why. That’s from the mental side of things.

“Physically, it’s pretty complex. Obviously, you have a lot of moving parts. You need to have everything in sync — everything working together — and that’s pretty complicated. I guess it just depends on how you choose to look at it, and what your preference is as an athlete — how simple or complex do you want to make it?

“Most people looking at my approach on the mound would say that it’s very, very complex. I’ve been doing it for so long, and I’m so familiar with it, that it just kind of occurs naturally. But I’d say I’m definitely more to the extreme of being complex. I pretty much take everything I do, pitching-wise, and try to figure it all out. I find the last little bit of information that is going to help me out.

“For my mechanics, I look at video at 480 frames per second to see if I’m slightly out of sequence, or if this is getting slightly off, or if that is getting slightly off, or what’s going on. I look at how the ball actually leaves my fingertips, which you can see at that slow of a frame rate. I can see if my hand is slightly around the ball, or if I’m staying through it. I look at the axis of the ball and how it’s spinning; how the axis correlates to what movement it’s going to have; and how to generate different axes coming off the hand.

“There is a specific reason I throw as many different pitches as I throw. They all serve a very specific purpose in my attack, and how I sequence pitches. I don’t necessarily believe in throwing fastballs down in the zone, because when I look at the geometry of it — and creating deception to the hitter — it doesn’t make any sense to me to throw fastballs down. Petty much just everything I do pitching-wise can be explained and taken to be extremely complex.

“I do a lot of work on my visualization, and once I can see it in that slow of a frame-rate — how exactly it comes off my hand — I can sit there and visualize it for 10 or 15 minutes per day, in super slow motion in my head, to kind of train neural pathways. That helps build muscle memory without having to actually do anything. When I actually go out there and do it, I have an idea — a picture of it — so that I can associate a feel with the picture I have in my head and kind of blend the two together.

“Also, there is knowing the axis of the ball and how it’s supposed to break. Even if I don’t have a great feel for it, I have a picture in my head of what it’s supposed to do. Once I happen to stumble upon getting the desired break, I can kind of zero in on how to actually manipulate the ball by using the mental image that I have. I’m pretty good at seeing the mental image and replicating it physically. I don’t know if that’s something I’ve trained [myself] — or if it’s natural for me — but I’ve always had a pretty good feel for seeing in my head and then going out and doing it.”

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“I think the term `pitching to contact’ is kind of a catch-all phrase for throwing strikes. It’s ‘pitch to contact; we want you to throw the ball in the zone.’ I pitch to contact, but less than 80% on-time contact is what I shoot for. Once I get to two strikes, I don’t want anybody making contact.

“I think people misinterpret the phrase ‘pitch to contact’ as wanting guys to put the ball in play, as opposed to just wanting to throw strikes. Ideally, if you could throw three strikes to every hitter, and have them swing and miss at every single pitch, that’d be the ideal game to throw because they have no chance of getting on base. The more you pitch away from contact, the better chance you have to win, as long as you’re throwing the ball in the zone.

“That is kind of a dichotomy that people don’t really realize. To most people, throwing the ball in the zone means that you’re going to get contact — people are going to hit the ball. It’s true. If you throw the ball in the zone, people are going to make contact. But, if you understand the swing, and how long the bat is actually in the hitting zone, and how to work front to back with hitters, meaning changing speeds with one pitch at 95, the next at 80, the next 87, the next 75. If you can work front-to-back like that, speed-wise, you really disrupt the hitter’s timing so they’re never hitting anything hard. The whole pitch-to-contact term to me is like a catch-all, simplistic phrase. I don’t really like the term.

“My goal is to throw 75% to  80% strikes, and 75% to 80% first-pitch strikes, at different speeds and different movements. When my pitch count runs up on me, it’s because I just can’t locate anything like I need to that day. It’s not like I’m trying to pitch away from contact, or that I’m scared of throwing the ball in the zone, or anything like that. It’s just that I’m not really executing as well as I do some days.

“I never really change my approach, because if I execute how I want to, my pitch count is going be down. My goal is to have every at bat over in four pitches or less, and the only way you do that is by throwing three out of the first four pitches for strikes. That way they’re either on base with a hit, or it’s a ground out, a fly out or they strike out, because there were three balls in the zone they had gotten to hit. Keeping my pitch count down and my approach go hand in hand. It’s just that I have to get better at executing my approach.

“I pick a pitch to start a guy off with, then I read the hitter for how he reacts to the pitch. Did I execute it? When I throw certain pitches, I know exactly where they started off, and what other pitches I can throw in what locations to make them look exactly the same as the pitch the hitter just saw. That’s part of it as well, but mostly it’s just reading the hitter, and depending on how he reacts — where he fouled the ball off, what kind of swing he took — that goes into deciding what pitch to throw next.

“A lot of data is, ‘OK, does this guy walk a lot? Does he strike out a lot?’ If a guy walks a lot and doesn’t strike out very much, he has a pretty darn good eye. He knows the strike zone pretty well, so I’m going to have to throw the ball in the zone to get a strike. He’s not going to chase much. If a guy is striking out quite a bit, and not walking very much, I may be able to throw something just outside the zone that looks like a strike but isn’t a strike, and get a swing. It’s ideal if you don’t have to throw a strike, and can get a guy to swing, because it’s a lot harder to hit a ball out of the zone well than it is a ball in the zone.

“What is a guy looking for first pitch? Is his approach at the plate to yank a fastball, or is he going to look for something off-speed to sit back on and drive somewhere if it’s hanging? What is his approach? Those are kind of the things I look at. There’s a lot of other stuff, obviously, but I don’t use it as much yet. I haven’t found a use for all of it in my limited time.”

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“The ballpark really doesn’t play any role in how I pitch. My approach is designed to not let the hitters hit the ball hard. To hit the ball out of the ballpark, most hitters have to hit the ball about 90% of on-time, to have enough power transferred from the bat to the ball to get it out of the park. Obviously, in some smaller ballparks, you can miss balls and maybe hit them 85% or 80% on-time, and you’ll get them out of the park.

“If I can disrupt timing, so that they’ll be slightly jammed or even slightly out in front, they’re not going to be able to hit the ball hard enough to get it out. When I came to pitch in Reno, a lot of people said my approach wasn’t going to work there, because the ball flies and the PCL is an offensive league, but I seem to have fared pretty darn well, just like I did in Mobile. The two places are completely different: Mobile plays huge and Reno plays pretty small. If I execute, my approach works pretty much regardless of the ballpark.

“Velocity is an important factor for me. I look at speed as a way to get hitters out, more so than location. A lot of guys want to use their fastball and locate it down, and around the black, or even on the black. They’ve got to locate their fastball well. I don’t really try to locate my fastball too specifically. I try to throw it either in the upper or bottom half of the zone, or the inner or outer half. I pretty much work in halves, which is a lot easier than trying to work in ninths.

“When I have my good velocity, I can locate in those halves and get balls by people. I obviously set them up, so I know when I throw a fastball that it’s going to get by them if I can throw it in this area. So my velocity is pretty important to me. Obviously, I have to be able to throw a fastball for a strike when I want to, so location is still important. But I would say that velocity is a primary a factor, and location is a secondary factor off of that.

“When I’m going really well, I throw anywhere between 38% and 44% fastballs in a game. I find that’s when I’m most effective. If a hitter can’t sit on the fastball, because four out 10 times they’re getting a fastball, they have to adjust to every single pitch I throw. If I can get the hitter guessing between one of my six different pitches, six different speeds, and six different movements, they’re going to be successful guessing a very small percentage of the time. That’s the idea. When I start throwing 50%, 60%, 70% fastballs, that’s when I start getting hit, and getting hit pretty hard. If hitters know a fastball is coming, it doesn’t matter where you locate it, or how hard you throw. They’re going to hit it.”

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“I have variations of my pitches. My main ones are fastball, change, curve, slider, spli, and a reverse slider. I have variations on my changeup, my curveball and my slider that I use pretty regularly. If you want to count the variations, I throw more than six different pitches.

“My reverse slider is a cross between a sinking-fastball and a screwball. It acts pretty much like a left-handed cut fastball, or a left-handed slider, which is why I call it a reverse slider. It goes the opposite direction that you’d expect a right-handed slider to go. When I’m throwing it well, it has pretty much the same action as the slider that I throw for a strike does, just in the opposite direction. People will classify it as a sinking fastball or a changeup, but it’s not really any of those. I throw a changeup, and it’s completely different than that.

“My reverse slider comes in — when I’m throwing well — usually anywhere between 87 mph and 91 mph. My changeup is anywhere in the 80-82 range when I’m throwing it well — sometimes as high as 84 — so those two are completely different pitches. And I don’t throw a sinking fastball at all; I don’t throw a two-seamer. All I throw is four-seam fastballs.

“When I’m right and healthy and throwing the ball well, my fastball doesn’t get much lower than about 93. My reverse is anywhere 88-90 range, and 91 sometimes. My split is the 85-87 range. My slider is in the 83-85 range. Changeup 80-83. Curveball anywhere from 76 to 80. I pretty much cover every single speed between 95 and 75.”

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“I think the biggest thing in pitching, and command and velocity, is health. The only way you’re going to be able to improve your velocity is to throw, and the only way you can improve your command is to throw. But if your throwing has a movement pattern that isn’t healthy, you can’t do that, because you’re putting so much stress on your arm that it hurts. You can’t really get much done. You can’t throw enough to really make any improvement.

“People ask me about how I throw so much, and this that and the other, but no one ever asks: ‘How can you throw so much? What do you do mechanically that keeps you healthy?’ That’s really the biggest thing I have to offer to the intellectual side of the baseball community: how to keep an arm healthy, and address movement pattern issues that cause injuries. That’s something I’d like to see at the end of my career, so that somehow injury rates drop.”