Sunday Notes: Fathers Day Edition; Trevor Bauer, Marco Gonzales & more

In his own words, Trevor Bauer has “always been into math, science and engineering.” That will come as no surprise if you’ve heard the 23-year-old Cleveland Indians righthander talk about his craft. He addresses pitching in much the same way a physicist expounds on matter.

He inherited his mindset – and by extension his approach to pitching – from his father. Ironically, bloodlines weren’t responsible for his love of the game.

“He’s been huge in my development, both as a person and as a baseball player, but he actually didn’t play growing up,” said Bauer. “He wanted to, but his family couldn’t afford to buy him a glove. He’s always encouraged me, though. My first year of not playing tee-ball – my first year of kid pitch – it was bases loaded and nobody out and they brought me in to pitch. I got out of it and after that my dad was like, ‘We should get you some pitching lessons to make sure you don’t hurt yourself.’”

Pitching lessons became a part of his formative years, especially after he was introduced to the Texas Baseball Ranch.

“When I was 10, I started taking pitching lessons from a guy named Jim Wagner,” said Bauer. “In 2003, Jim went to the American Baseball Coaches Association conference and heard a guy named Ron Wolforth talk. A year later my dad sent me down to Ron’s camp in Texas. It’s fairly expensive, but he bought me six camps. I’ve been going back there every summer since.”

Bauer’s father has remained engaged every step along the way, and not just financially. Some of the support has been typical of father-son relationships. Other aspects have been outside the box.

“He would always encourage me to do my throwing,” said Bauer. “There were times in high school where I’d have a bucket of balls on each handlebar of my bike, a backpack on my back, and a glove on my hand, riding to the park to throw. He also came to all of my tournaments. But I think where my dad has been the biggest influence on me is with his background.”

Bauer’s father – after a short stint running a Dunkin’ Donuts out of high school – earned an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.

“He thinks about things very scientifically,” said Bauer, who followed in his father’s footsteps and studied engineering at UCLA. “You’re taught a very specific process. You have an ultimate outcome – you want to build a bridge or build a plane – and ask yourself, ‘OK, what are the components I need to get there? How am I going to go about getting the job done as efficiently as possible?’ I was brought up that way by him. I’ve always been into math, science and engineering, so we communicate very well in that respect.

“Whenever there’s something I want to do baseball-wise… say I want to throw harder. What do I need to do to achieve that? I need to get stronger, faster, more athletic; I need to change this or that about the physics of my mechanics. My dad and I will apply that process. We talk about that stuff a lot. A lot of the progressive training methods I’ve used are the culmination of work put in by Jim Wagner, Ron Wolforth, my dad, and myself. We’ve tried to design the most optimal training program possible. That extends to pitch sequencing and learning the shapes of my pitches.”

Math, science and engineering. It’s hard to overemphasize the degree to which the Bauer mindset is based on those disciplines. Their study of pitch movement – including how a hitter perceives an incoming pitch – is a good example.

“My dad built a series of Rebar,” explained Bauer. “He set it up 20 feet in front of the mound and I’d throw a ball through a small hole in it. He put a camera behind me, so when the ball passes through the grid we could generate coordinates. Basically, we created a coordinate grid for the ball going to the plate. We could say, ‘OK, at 20 feet out of your hands it’s at X, Y, and at the plate it’s at X1,Y1.’ We could figure out the average movement so I could work on throwing all of my pitches to look the same at 20 feet.

“My dad understands the Magnus force and how spin affects the way the ball moves. If I’m ever struggling with a pitch, I’ll play catch with him. He’ll recognize if the spin axis is wrong – maybe my curveball axis is tilted the wrong way because of how the ball is in my hand – because we’ve played catch and talked about it for so long.”

In many respects, the son has been the teacher as much as the student. Trevor grew up learning from his father – and still does — while Warren Bauer, chemical engineer who never played baseball, has become well-versed on the science of pitching.

“I’ve taught him a ton,” said Trevor Bauer. “Everything he knows about baseball is due to either me teaching it to him or him doing research because I play. Once I became interested in pitching, he started learning everything he could to help me out. The depth of his understanding about pitching is pretty impressive now.”

Like father, like son. Like son, like father.

——

It should come as no surprise that Marco Gonzales is the son of a pitching coach. The 22-year-old lefthander is one of the top prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals system thanks in part to an advanced feel for his craft. He’s moving fast. Twelve months after being drafted 19th overall out of Gonzaga University, he’s already in Double-A.

Gonzales’ father, Frank, is currently the pitching coach for Colorado’s short-season affiliate, the Tri-City Dust Devils. The former minor league hurler taught his son well. Marco has a 1.77 ERA this season between two levels and a 11.3 K/9 since a mid-May promotion to Springfield.

The younger Gonzales is known for his pitchability, a label he embraces.

“That’s my identity as a pitcher,” agreed Gonzales. “I throw in the low 90s, but by no means is that overpowering. The ability to command the strike zone and mix in three different pitches for strikes is definitely my strength.”

Until recently, the Fort Collins, Colorado native featured four offerings. He’s scrapped a pitch he developed – and used effectively – at Gonzaga. As a result, his curveball has taken on a somewhat bigger role.

“I threw a cutter the past two years or so, but in spring training I had a little minor forearm flareup and shut that pitch down,” said Gonzales. “I suspected that was part of the problem, so now I’m just fastball, changeup, curveball. The cutter is a pitch that uses the extensor muscles on the outside of your forearm, and that’s where I was getting sore. We kind of mutually agreed to shut it down for now.

“I’m throwing my curveball in different counts this season. It’s my third [best] pitch, but I still need to use it. That said, because of my changeup it does kind of get thrown on the back burners a little bit.”

The savvy southpaw’s signature pitch is a plus changeup that makes his otherwise average fastball play up. Well-educated on his craft, he recognizes which one should be prioritized to augment the other.

“My number-one pitch is my fastball, and I think that should be the case for anybody, unless maybe you’re a specialty closer,” said Gonzales. “As a starter, your fastball needs to be your best pitch. For me, that means locating it to both sides of the plate with some run. That’s what pitching is all about.

“I throw both a two-seam and a four-seam and use them pretty equally. If my two-seamer isn’t running on a given day I’ll go with more four-seamers, but if both are working I’ll throw both pitches to left- and right-handed hitters. I like to throw my two-seamer to the arm side of the plate, away to righties and in to lefties. There isn’t much velocity difference between them, maybe just one or two [mph].”

Mechanically, the lefthander is pretty much what you might expect from someone who grew up learning to pitch, as opposed to just reaching back and firing fastballs.

“There’s no max effort with me,” said Gonzales. “As a starter who isn’t overpowering, I don’t want to burn my innings out right away. My effort level usually stays pretty steady throughout the game. I feel my delivery is pretty clean. My dad, being a pitching coach, has always enforced balance, repeatability, driving off my back leg, and having a good finish. Those are things I focus on and feel I do well.”

——

It was especially fitting that Garin Cecchini‘s parents were on hand for his big-league debut earlier this month. The Cecchini’s are very much a baseball family. Glenn is the head coach at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His wife, Raissa, is an assistant coach. Garin’s younger brother, Gavin, plays in the Mets system.

After the game, I asked the 23-year-old Red Sox rookie about his first two at bats – a strikeout looking and an opposite field double.

“Walking up to the plate the first time, I was, ‘I’m not going to be nervous!” said Cecchini, who returned to Triple-A Pawtucket the following day. “Then I got in the box and it was, ‘Hmmm… OK, I’m nervous.’ But it was a good nervous. It was in my stomach. It was a happy nervous.

“On the hit, I was watching the ball a little bit running to first base. When I knew it was going to hit off the Green Monster, I put my head down. But I was smiling. I always have a smile on my face when I’m playing this game. I’m living the dream. Even if I’m in Triple-A, I’m living the dream. I’m playing baseball for a living.”

I asked Cecchini what it was going be like to see his parents when he walked out of the clubhouse a few minutes later.

“It’s going to be awesome, man. What else can I say? It’s going to be awesome.”

——

A player’s teammates are his second family, which means the happy-go-lucky Cecchini has plenty of brothers-in-arms in the Red Sox system. One of them is highly-regarded first-base prospect Travis Shaw, who is hitting .303/.386/.504 this year between Portland and Pawtucket.

“I was thrilled for Cheech when he got called up,” said Shaw. “I’ve played with him since [short-season] Lowell and it kind of hit home for one of my best friends in baseball to live his dream. Him getting his first big league hit was awesome. He came back down to Pawtucket with the biggest smile on his face.”

Shaw should make his own debut someday. When it happens, no one will be more excited than his father, former All-Star reliever Jeff Shaw.

“When I get called up, I know my dad will be on the first flight to where I’m playing,” said Shaw. “He’ll be excited. As a matter of fact, I think he’ll be even more excited than me. He follows my career closely and is going to be absolutely thrilled.”

Travis had plenty of thrills growing up as the son of a big-league closer. He even made it onto SportsCenter once – much to his embarrassment. It happened while he was a bat boy for one of his father’s teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Apparently I was disgusted about how my dad was pitching that night,” explained Shaw. “I was in the dugout and I threw my hands in the air. Later, SportsCenter had a split screen of him walking a guy and me throwing my hands up like, ‘What are you doing?’”

——-

Fathers, sons and baseball go together like hand in glove. With that in mind, I asked six players, and one coach, about the relationship they share with their fathers and the game they love.

Dave Martinez, Tampa Bay Rays bench coach: “My dad was hard on me. If one day I was two-for-four, he wanted to know why I wasn’t four-for-four. He stayed on me pretty good. When you’re young, you want to say ‘Hey dad, give me a break,’ but looking back now, it was a life lesson.

“When I was playing in the big leagues he’d call me up and say, ‘I watched the game on TV and you’re dropping your hands; you did this, you did that.’ Even to this day he’ll call me every now and again to ask, ‘Why did you guys do this, why did you guys do that?’ But that’s just my dad loving the game, and loving me.”

Evan Gattis, Atlanta Braves catcher: “I have to admit I cried when I was signed up for tee ball. But after that it was just what we did. At the side of the house there were these two little worn out places where my dad and I would play catch. There’s just so much love I have for my dad and for baseball. He still plays catch, too. If I ever go to home run derby, he wants to throw to me.”

Brock Holt, Boston Red Sox infielder: “My dad wasn’t a baseball guy. He was a football and track guy who played pretty much every sport but baseball, but we did play catch and he’d hit me ground balls. After a while, I got a little too strong for us to play catch. One time in high school, in the back yard, he missed my throw and it hit him in the leg. It’s kind of crazy to think he never played baseball, because kids normally do what their dads do. He let me follow my own path.”

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves pitcher: “My dad never played baseball but he’s really enjoying it now. He travels all over the country on his motorcycle to check out the ballparks and watch me play. He’s here in Boston now. He and a few of his buddies rode their motorcycles up from Alabama. He took the tour of Fenway and has also taken the tour at Wrigley.”

Wil Myers, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “My dad helped me along the way – he helped me with my swing and took me to practices – but the biggest thing he did for me was not sugar-coat anything. He told me the truth, whether I had a good game or a bad game. If I got two hits, he wanted to know what happened in the other at bats. He kind of backed off once I got into pro ball, but he still watches all of my games on TV.”

Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves infielder: “He wanted me to do well and succeed, but he mostly wanted me to have fun. I didn’t have to worry about him getting mad if I struck out or made an error. He was proud of me whether I did good or bad. My own son plays baseball – he’s eight – and I’m bringing him up the same way. I think he’s more competitive than I am. He gets really mad if he doesn’t win. He follows what I’m doing, but he’s more worried about getting his own hits.”

Michael Bourn, Cleveland Indians outfielder: “It was a marriage made in heaven pretty much. My daddy started me playing baseball when I was a little boy, just four or five. It’s a game he loves, and a game I love, so we had some good times growing up together.

“He was my coach for a few years and there was no slack cut. He was an old-school coach who was demanding and stern. He didn’t show me any favoritism. Now I’m a grown man and have my own son. He’s four, and I’ve already got him swinging a bat. I used to be the child and now I’m the father. It’s a completely different perspective. My daddy used to tell me, ‘You’ll see some day when you have kids.’ Now that I’m experiencing it first hand, I appreciate him even more. He pushed me, but he was also proud of me. I want to say ‘thank you’ to him for that.”



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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Thufir

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