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Because The Hat said so: Catching up with Diamondbacks RHP Prospect Trevor Bauer

February 29, 2012

Bauer 2009: He picked the school, but the hat picked him. (Photos: UCLA)

Pretty soon, there will be more e-bay pages of Trevor Bauer stuff than Trevor Bauer actually has pitches. And if you know anything about Bauer, you know that’s really saying something. One item I am most certain you will not see for sale anytime soon is Bauer’s legendary UCLA hat. I imagine the moment that Bauer first met this hat had to be something like the sorting hat scene from the Harry Potter movies: “This one is highly ambitious, clever and cunning, creative and crafty, not for the common mold. Oh, skipped his senior year of high school ball for this fitting? Send him to the house of Savage, and leave him be for three.”

And then, of course, the hat faded from Bruin blue to battery acid. At least the sorting hat got washed off every now and then, or at least I think it did. But like Crash Davis said, when you put up big numbers, you can do whatever the hell you want and the media will think you’re colorful.

As Bauer said to me a few days ago, “You were really the first person on the bandwagon before there was a bandwagon.” In 2009, literally a few weeks after we started the site, I went out and put Tim Lincecum Jr. on this guy. Then in the 2010 College World Series, he’s on TV, and we’ve got all these hits from Bristol…and the play-by-play guys are calling him Timmy Jr., thinking the fading hat is colorful, and wondering what the hell this guy is doing with the rubber bands and the wiggle stick.

As long as I’m writing in the style that makes sports editors wonder what to make of me but book publishers and my agent love me, let me be blunt – if you think he’s a freak, you’re an idiot. I just got through writing all summer about Warren Spahn. This guy is a right-handed Spahn. The dude’s dad is even named Warren. The Timmy comparison? Lincecum has weapons, but I would classify him as an instinctual warrior more than a precision warrior. That’s exactly what Bauer is. They are both warriors, yes. The sorting hat had that right about Bauer before he returned the favor by never washing the poor bastard for the next three years.

But I don’t expect to see Bauer smoke and In-N-Out his way out of his maximum potential. And if he ever does, I’ll know it. I think Bauer is smarter than Lincecum. I see him developing a mental framework like Spahn, who constantly evolved with a wide palate of weapons. I believe Bauer will mature in the same manner. And yes, I am saying I think Lincecum’s off-field habits make him an underachiever despite his success.

I also think front offices are stupid for not looking at the complete picture of every amateur player, short sighted when it comes to player research. This applies to Bauer. For the very reasons some think he is nuts, if he succeeds as he intends to, it will be because he wasn’t nuts. It was because he was a damn savant and you called him a freak.

I often say two things about professional baseball. One is that this thing is a cookie-cutter machine that embraces conformity and pathologically resents and fears independent thinking. The second thing I always say is that the only way to beat the cookie cutter is to have the GFE – once again, if you want to know what the GFE is, well then, you gotta know me and I gotta trust you enough to tell you that.

When I caught up with Bauer, down there kicking around the Texas Baseball Ranch, Nolan Ryan style, a pied piper of polished grips for pitchers who want to be like him, he talked about how the Diamondbacks have been very good about accepting who he is and letting him absorb what he has always done into the pro structure.

The Trevor Bauer years will be about one aspect of professional baseball that is a fatal flaw for many organizations – don’t mess with what got a guy there. Bill Wight, a former major league left-handed pitcher with a pick-off move that could nail you in a blink, became a scout and used to say that the worst thing professional baseball does is try to “correct” a guy. What did I just say about this being a cookie-cutter game?

When you get someone who has proven success with a system that is largely their own, if you try to fix him, you will break him. Baseball always attacks what it does not understand – you can be a Hank Greenberg, a Jackie Robinson, a Trevor Bauer, a John Klima – and if you come at this game differently than “the way major league baseball does things,” then I’ll be damned if you’re not a heretic, an outsider, Galileo in cleats. What do all four of those names have in common? Those are baseball thinkers as much as they are baseball players (and a writer, thinker, author, scout).

There is nothing baseball fears more than a baseball thinker, someone whose impressions of the game are better sorted by a fading hat than by someone who sits behind a desk or dispenses 4s, 5s, and 6s for a living. Greenberg was a thinker, oh yes he was. Got called every name in the book – go read his book and he’ll tell you what they called him. But he also taught himself how to play first base. He also became one of the first players to successfully navigate front office negotiations. He also proved that right-handed firepower was not a myth, that big tall guys from different ethnicities were bad ass when you let them be.

Robinson. Yeah, he got called names, too. But he also changed the way the game was played. Before Robinson, nobody went first to third on a bunt. Nobody got themselves trapped in rundowns to move runners up. Nobody stole home with two strikes. Nobody played as defiantly as Robinson, maybe with the exception of Cobb. People thought Rose was unique. Not so fast. Robinson did all that, and ran better than Pete in the process.

Bauer. Part of me hates that somebody who does something differently is called “a freak.” Nothing intimidates and terrifies baseball people more than individuals who adamantly demonstrate the combination of confidence and certainty. These individuals do not feel the need to politic, which is the skill that defines the vast majority of baseball careers.

Now I’m going to bet that there will be veteran ballplayers who will wonder who the fuck is this kid and what the fuck is he doing. And they will say it exactly the way I just wrote it. And I’m certain that by the time Bauer hears it in the big leagues, he will add it to the mental collection of people who have been saying this to him since he was in little league, or whenever he decided that, well, just having his name nailed to the outfield wall at Hart High with Jamie Shields wasn’t good enough.

And then he will flash the GFE.

And then there will be scouts and baseball men all along who, like generations before, came to the conclusion that, you know, Hank really is a right-handed power threat, and you know, Jackie really is a great guy at the top of the order, or you know, Bauer is like Lincecum, but he’s not a cheap imitation. And with me, hey, somebody will have the balls to hire the mind and pen to help them win. Until that happens, I’m going to go like Bauer – hell bent, strike throwing, watch my shit explode, I got a lotta weapons, I got a lotta books to write and I got a long list of doubters over the years I’m lining up to knock down.  I’m calm and down to earth, but damn I love to compete. But dude, I ain’t wearing that hat.

Why Trevor Bauer would have fit with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves: a) Would have picked Spahn's brain. b) Would have met Bob Buhl and said, "You remind me of Cole." c) Would have begged manager Fred Haney to pitch to Aaron and Mathews in Spring Training inter-squads d) Would have learned the spitter from Burdette. Check out "Bushville Wins!" I wrote the hell out of it -- John Klima


This interview is sponsored by Bushville Wins!: The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball, released July 3, 2012! Pre-order on Amazon or Barnes&Noble.

Klima: Ok, tell me you actually slowed down for two seconds and realized that you were pretty damn good in college and have achieved a lot of what you set out to do.
Bauer: I definitely did, though I wish I were more capable of doing that more times. After the College World Series (in 2009), I didn’t have time for the wow factor. While actually competing and playing was nice to have, you saw it on TV growing up as the Holy Grail and all that, but I could have been a little more wowed by it. But I was there to win and that was my focus so I didn’t really slow down to savor it like I wish I had. It was the same thing last year. I held myself to very high standards, winning, preparing start to start. During the season, it was: ‘Today was good but I sucked at this, I wish I could have done that.’ I never got on that ‘that was awesome’ thing. When I had the time off after this season, the first few weeks, I didn’t want to talk baseball, didn’t want to see baseball. I was so mentally fried after the roller coaster: fall ball, school, workouts, you get Christmas break for three weeks, then class, finals, then you got the important part of season is during second semester. We lost on a Sunday night in the bottom of the ninth after coming through the losers bracket. Then there was the trip to the east coast, the draft, and the season was very up and down. And you had all this leading up to the draft, and I wanted to sign early, because I knew that if I took too much time off, it would take me too long to get back to where I wanted to be.

In hindsight, I went for about a year straight where I didn’t have much time off from baseball. My body felt great, but I was so fried mentally. In the minors, I was only there for a month and a half. You’re there and you have to learn the signs and the structure. I get used to that and now I get bumped to double-A, so there’s a new routine. There’s a lot of new thinking and devices about how to get hitters out, how to work on my pickoff move and instruction coming from all different angles. I am very happy for everything that transpired, but it was so rushed and it was so frantic for the past three years that I was burned out when the season ended.

Klima: Wow. So did Bauer actually take a vacation?
Bauer: There were about six slow weeks. I didn’t really want anything, but those last two weeks, I was able to start talking more and thinking more about the past and the future. I started looking at video again and discussing its purposes and started asking the questions: what am I going to improve now as a pro, what is my plan.

Klima: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always pushed yourself to accelerate past everyone. My Mom used to break this out on me, “sometimes it’s very difficult to keep momentum if it’s you that you are following.”
Bauer:  When I went to college, one of my personal goals was to win the Golden Spikes Award and break Lincecum’s career Pac-10 strikeout record. I got the Golden Spikes and it’s an affirmation of a bunch of hard work. That’s the first thing in my baseball career that has taken on this aura about it. I was working for three years to get it. The goal was so out there, it was a shot in the moon, to go in a year early out of high school and as a 20-year old be the best college baseball player in the nation. Whenever I see that trophy, the whole experience of that, really takes on a superhuman feel. In those two weeks, I looked back, talked about a lot with my dad. And now I feel like I sort of took the time to enjoy it that I didn’t feel like I had the time to enjoy while I was playing in college. I think that was important for me, because now it’s a set of good memories, and I’m rested up.

Klima: How has your transition to pro ball been thus far, in terms of incorporating your stylistic and scientific routines into a more generic structure?
Bauer: Any sort of relationship, it’s a give and take, you give some and you take some. I’ll have to learn the ways of pro ball. The coaches and managers and those associated with pro ball, they have a lot more wisdom in certain things than I do and I pick it up, and you want to do that. I don’t know what it’s like to go through a long season at an advanced level and they have been through it. When your body feels like this, do that, drink that, work out harder, work out less, what I’m going to learn, I don’t know. But I’m definitely excited to learn.

That being said, I’m not one to abandon what has gotten me here. So I am trying to learn and assimilate what they teach and add to instead of revamp. I will say the Diamondbacks organization has been very good at allowing me the freedom to do what makes me good. Maybe I tweak this or that. Maybe I can’t long toss pole-to-pole all season, maybe I have to pick when it’s best to do it, but they are letting me go through on my own without telling me, ‘This is how you have to do it.’ I have to give them a lot of thanks and respect for allowing me to go through the process on my own. I consider myself a fairly intelligent person and have no doubt that given time and freedom I’ll learn quickly.

By them allowing me to go through it on my own, they are recognizing that this is how I learn best. I do not respond well to people telling me this is how I have to do this. They say, hey, this is my experience in pro ball, this works for me. Here’s some information, take from it what you can. I have no complaints with how they have handled me. I’m kind of a difficult person to get to know originally.

Then there’s this aura and reputation, all this stuff, he’s weird, until people are around me. I’m normal. I’ll talk all day about baseball. People don’t know how to approach me or get to know me. Some people say, they want to help, and then other people, well others I don’t know if I can talk to him, will he snap at me, will he chew my head off. Takes a while to get to know people, sometimes we get off to a rocky start, or if they ignore me. It’s gotta be the same for them, this reputation for being quirky, it’s good and bad.  I think, after awhile, people having time around me, seeing and understanding my routines and habits, that I’m a guy who gets his work in, but I like to eat sunflower seeds like the rest of them.

Bauer 2010: The hat is melting, but he doesn't give a sh*t.

Klima: You begin 2012 on the 40-man, major league camp for the first time, and 25 pro innings to your name. What’s next?
Bauer: As of now, it is go out and compete for a job, go out and out-pitch somebody. We will have a pretty good major league rotation, so I’m going to try to pitch to the best of my abilities, and not going to in expecting to be in the big leagues or be bent out of shape if they take someone else over me. The way I see it, this spring I get to face major league hitters. I’m going to go in and learn as much as I possibly can.

Klima: Along your track, it would seem that the next big step for you is to accumulate a familiarity, knowledge base and comfort level against major league hitters, the guys who will let you know when you missed.
Bauer: Its extremely important. Hitters are hitters, so there are certain things that will remain consistent. You still have to spot and there is a certain level of the game you get from being up against a hitter in general. I think I’m at the point, maybe for my own mental stimulation, not to sound cocky, that I need to face big league hitters. I am always looking for challenges.

So big league hitters are the next challenge. What gets them out? It becomes about seeing a pattern and a plan to fulfill my career goals and achieve all the things I would like to do.

Klima: So I hear you are a Duke basketball fan, which means Carolina is your sworn enemy. How does a guy from these parts wind up a Dukie? And tell us about your recent road trip.
Bauer: For my birthday, my Dad and I went there for the first time. I got to tour the facility and the locker room. Coach K, turned the corner and talked to us. Just a real great guy and pretty much lived up to billing. Got to sit in for the shoot around. My Dad grew up a Kansas fan. His dad grew up in Kansas and was around when Rupp was the man. So he was a fan of good coaches. Coach K was kind of the guy like Rupp I had to watch. I can name you the lineups of the great teams. My passion for them grew. Dad and I would always sit and watch those games. That’s our thing.

Klima: Did Coach K know who Trevor Bauer was?
Bauer: I don’t think he knew my name beforehand. But we got to talk to him later.

Klima: Well, you know, what have you done for me lately, win a Golden Spikes, third overall, 40-man roster. I mean, come on! I mean, you’re practically a busher! I don’t care how many pages you got on e-bay!
Bauer: He sets pretty high standards and so do I. I’m a total Duke guy.

Bauer 2011: From Bruin blue to battery acid, now boy and hat are as one.

Klima: I have to ask. Where is the hat.
Bauer: I have the hat in my house, in a very safe place.

Klima: I hope it’s a very dry place. Like, you might want to stick that thing in a ziplock bag from now on.
Bauer: I have plans for it. I’ll leave it at that.

Klima: Plans do not include dry cleaning, right?
Bauer: No.

Read Dear Cole and Bauer
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