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A heavy diet of curveballs is transforming Trevor Bauer

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The Indians righthander changed his pitch mix (again), but this time with quantifiable results

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

If Trevor Bauer played music, I’m positive that he would have the same setup as Nick Andopolis from the short-lived Freaks and Geeks. Rather than use a standard drum kit, why not fill an entire garage with every different variation of snare, cymbal, and cowbell?

While some pitchers cruise through a career with a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup, Bauer seems determined at times to sample every imaginable pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, he’s thrown seven different types of pitches this season alone. That doesn’t begin to tap into some of the other bizarre things he’s thrown in his career: reverse sliders, dot sliders, cut changeups — 19 total as of 2011 alone, according to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. Lord only knows how many others he’s sampled since.

As Jason Segel’s character in Freaks and Geeks illustrates throughout its ill-fated first season, a quantity of options often sacrifices the quality of results. For the last couple of months, it appears that Trevor Bauer may be beginning to understand that.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the mix of pitches thrown by Trevor Bauer this season, courtesy of Brooks:

Here is one important thing to note: Bauer throws two different curveballs. One is the knuckle curve with a stomach-wrenching 12-6 tumble at 75-77 mph. The other is closer to 80 mph and features more horizontal movement. We’ve seen very little of the latter as of late, and for good reason — the former is an excellent pitch, far superior to its brother.

It moves more than any pitcher’s in baseball except Mike Fiers. It generates more than five ground balls for every fly ball it allows. It is hit on a line about average compared to other curves, but is popped up or hit foul more than average. This is all according to the PITCHf/x leaderboard available at Baseball Prospectus.

Further quantifying its value are the numbers available from FanGraphs. By linear weights it’s been a top-25 curve, whether you take the aggregate score or the per-100 pitches score. It’s also, by far, his most valuable pitch when compared to the rest of his arsenal. His second best is the fastball.

Based on this, his current mix utilizes his two best pitches around 80 percent of the time. From the rest of his utility belt, he can pull other offerings in the situations for which they are best-suited — a changeup against lefties, a cutter/slider against righties, a sinker with a runner on first and one out (this one is anecdotal, but if there is data on it I want to see it).

It’s also important to look at the way Bauer is using his two main pitches. One more recent thought about pitching is that mixing a low curveball with the high fastball creates a synergy. The obvious change of a hitter’s eye level is complimented by the exaggerated perceived difference in the movement of the ball. A fastball’s backspin can give it the impression of “rising” when up in the zone, and a curveball dives. So, by playing the pitches off of each other in this way, the effect of either can be magnified. That’s what I keep reading, anyway.

Bauer, perhaps the most zealous student of advanced pitching thought on the planet, is using this technique. Here’s a recent example: his strikeout of Mike Trout in the sixth inning in his last start.

Bauer starts low with a fastball, setting Trout up. He gets a potential makeup call on the cutter, but this is where the game-within-the-game begins. Bauer pipes another low fastball to Trout, moving the count to 1-2. He then bends a curveball at the knees, which Trout fouls off. Having now seen three pitches at the bottom of the zone, and the last one a huge hooking curve, Bauer goes upstairs with the fastball at 94 mph to get the looking strikeout.

I believe this is the key to the recent progress we’ve seen from Bauer. By limiting himself to his most effective pitches and focusing on the best way to deploy all of his options, he’s excelling. Maybe that sounds a little simplistic, but for a guy who embodies the polar opposite of “See ball, hit ball”, it appear to be promising.

Time will tell if this change leads to permanent improvement. With Bauer, we might not even be sure that the change itself is a conscious, permanent one. The good news for Cleveland Indians fans is that we’re going to find out: Trevor Bauer is unlikely to be cancelled after a cliffhanger ending anytime soon.