The starting pitcher is dying in baseball. At least, this is the narrative that has begun to creep into the discourse surrounding America’s Pastime in the last several years. Since 2015, the number of innings thrown by starting pitchers in MLB has steadily decreased, with the shortened 2020 season accelerating this trend. In 2018, a new term entered the MLB lexicon, that of the “opener.” The “opener” is a pitcher who normally would come out of the bullpen starting the game and pitching one or two innings.
This pitcher would then be succeeded by the “bulk starter” who would then pitch three or four innings, rarely the traditional five or more that baseball managers historically expect from their starters. This innovation was introduced by the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2018 season, due to having mostly pitchers whose numbers suffered when they faced opposing batters a third or even second time. This enabled the Rays to get maximum results out of a thin pitching staff, winning ten more games than they had the previous season.
Over the course of the 2019 and especially the 2020 season, this pitcher usage tactic spread to teams across MLB. In a 2019 article, The Athletic took stock of how the 200 inning per year pitcher, once considered the ideal number for a starter to reach, has declined. In 2005, 50 Major League starters threw 200 innings or more. In 2018, according to the article, only 13 did. In 2019, 15 pitchers did so. In 2021, when MLB teams will return to a full schedule after 2020’s abbreviated season of 60 games, the expectation is that the trend of the starting pitcher continuing to fade away will continue, as teams rely on them for fewer and fewer innings.
And yet, this supposed “progression” is not necessarily deterministic, and there is one MLB player who is attempting to show that there is another way for starting pitching to develop and grow as opposed to considering the diminishment of the starting role inevitable. And that would be 2020’s National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.
For some professional athletes, the physical gifts that would enable them to rise to the top of their respective sports were obvious even from a very early age. Trevor Bauer was not one of those athletes, as a 2019 Sports Illustrated profile of the the right handed pitcher (then of the Cleveland Indians, now of the Los Angeles Dodgers) reveals in fascinating detail.
Bauer, the profile details, does not have what would be considered the ideal athletic physiognomy. He has (or had, at the time of the article’s publication) a body fat percentage of 22 percent, which is considered to be in the “overweight” range for a male of his age. His testosterone levels test as below average. Playing in high school in Southern California, Bauer’s fastball velocity topped out at 84 miles per hour.
However, Bauer employed a series of unconventional training methods, such as the “long toss” (long distance throwing of the baseball in order to build arm strength), weighted balls, and “carrying around a six-foot-long, semiflexible, javelin-like tube wherever he went, which he would wiggle over his head and at his side to strengthen his shoulder.” By his junior season at UCLA, Bauer had increased his fastball velocity to roughly 94–95 miles per hour; he won the 2011 Golden Spikes Award for the country’s best amateur player, and was selected third overall that year in the MLB Draft.
Despite his pedigree as a prospect, Bauer took several years to develop, hindered in part by team coaching staffs that hindered his unique attempts to train his body to reach the levels he knew they could at the professional level. It was only in 2018 where he finally had his breakout, making his first All Star team and finishing seventh in American League Cy Young Award voting. After an inconsistent 2019 season, Bauer rebounded in 2020, winning the National League Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in baseball.
Since 2016, Bauer- despite his less than average natural athleticism- is third among all major league starters in innings pitched. This even takes into account the fact that he missed roughly six weeks during the 2018 season due to a freak injury- being hit in the ankle with a line drive- that had nothing to do with his throwing motion or training style. Had Bauer made six additional starts (one per week) that year and pitched his average number of innings for that season (six), he would be in second for that total.
Why does this matter? This is important for fans of baseball because of the many perceived issues the game is facing with regards to retaining old fans, atracting new ones, and dispelling its reputation as “boring.” While not the sole cause, the increase in the number of relief pitchers used (which adds time to the game through them needing to enter the game and warm up) , is part of the game’s “pace of play crisis,” as games drag on ever longer and have trouble retaining the ever-divided attention spans of viewers and fans, especially from younger generations.
Furthermore-and this is more of a holistic point rather than strict empirical data- starting pitchers throwing fewer innings dimishes their ability to serve as stars of the game capable of attracting new fans, the same way that previous generations gravitated to the likes of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, or even Tim Lincecum, the onetime Giants star pitcher to whom Bauer was often comapred as a prospect.
As the cliche goes, some stars burn out rather than fade away, and Lincecum was one such case. After a dominant stretch of pitching during which time he won back to back Cy Young Awards and helped the Giants win their first World Series title in San Francisco in 2010, Lincecum quickly faded from his former heights. When the Giants won their second World Series title in 2012, Lincecum had been relegated to a bullpen role at only twenty-eight years old. And during their third World Series title run in 2014, Lincecum’s role even in the bullpen was marginal.
Bauer took the dynamic pitching style of his idol Lincecum and, with the help of his trainers, made improvements and innovations in physical and mental training methods. Having turned thirty years old in January (the same age Lincecum was in 2014) Bauer has already demonstrated greater longevity as an elite starter than Lincecum ever did, as he is currently off to a strong start to the 2021 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and should his current pace continue he will turn in another Cy Young-caliber season, if not win the award itself.
Why single out Bauer in this conversation? There remain other pitchers in MLB who are still capable of carrying the traditional starter’s load- to give one example, Bauer’s former college teammate Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees. However, Bauer is significant due to his natural athletic limitations- he shows that application of the proper training methods, with the appropriately required discipline and commitment on behalf of the athlete, can succeed with someone who does not have unusual physical gifts.
This Friday, it was to the great frustration of this Giants fan that Bauer turned in his usual strong performance against my favorite team. He threw six and a third innings and one hundred and sixteen pitches, striking out eleven Giants and allowing only a single run. In addition to the innings pitched total, the number of pitches thrown in this start is notable, and typical of Bauer. MLB teams tend to limit their starters to 100 pitches, or even fewer, especially in recent years with more “advanced” or “metrics savvy” teams like the Tampa Bay Rays. Bauer leads all of baseball in pitches per start, another sign of how he has used cutting edge methods to recapture the traditional starter’s durability.
Baseball thinking has been, alarmingly for many lifelong fans of the sport, taking a deterministic direction in the past decade or more with regards to how advancements in technology and understanding can reshape the game. The reduction of the starting pitcher’s workload and rise of the opener, the increase in “platoon” matchups for hitters (which generally means having batters only hit pitchers of the opposite “handedness,” ie right handed batters only hitting against left handed pitchers and vice versa), and other trends that generally restrict how much batters and pitchers get to actually play, are all trends that have increased as the popularity of the sport has declined.
While this correlation cannot point directly to why new generations of fans are turning away from the sport, it is still worthy of concern. The more pitchers are strictly limited to five innings, or hitters are limited by platooning, the less likely the game is to produce new stars that can attract the next generation of fans. Trevor Bauer is important because he is showing that one can use innovative training methods to enhance the potential of the athlete to match the traditional benchmarks that were set by the greats of yesteryear, rather than accepting the deterministic idea that innovation necessarily means a departure from tradition.
Bauer has ambitions to take his experiments in durability to even greater heights, and this baseball fan certainly hopes that he succeeds, despite the fact that he pitches for the Dodgers. The 2019 Sports Illustrated profile of Bauer closes by hinting at the influence that he may yet have on future generations of the sport. It quotes Jim Wagner, who was critical in Bauer developing his training methods that have enabled him to do everything this article describes, saying “We see about 100 players per week, on average…everybody wants to be the next Trevor Bauer.” As someone who, despite the flaws and drawbacks of baseball today, wants to see it succeed and grow, I certainly hope that these words prove to be a sign that the future of the game will be made in the image of players like Trevor Bauer.