Trevor Bauer’s top-secret curve
The answer is never going to be simple.
When you ask Trevor Bauer why something has been working for him, there will always be multiple layers to his response. From biomechanics to spin-rate studies to velocity training, there is always a lot that has gone into whatever topic is at hand. Months or years of training is hard to sum up with one simplified quote.
So, when Bauer was recently asked why his curveball has been so much more effective this year, his answer was predictable.
“There’s a lot of different factors that have gone into it,” Bauer said. “I’ve done a lot of work on it under wraps, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Or, maybe Bauer just knows the real details would require about an hour of discussion.
On the other side of Cleveland’s clubhouse, Chris Gimenez, who has become Bauer’s personal catcher this season, was willing to shed some light on the improved pitch. The way Gimenez explained things, the success behind the curve this year stems from the sequencing with his other pitches, combined with how Bauer has used the breaking ball within the strike zone.
“Honestly,” Gimenez said, “I think his curveball has gotten better because he has thrown more changeups.”
Let’s start there. Since Gimenez began catching Bauer on May 5, the right-hander has thrown 14.1-percent changeups. That’s up from 8.1-percent prior to Gimenez’s arrival (though it’s fair to point out that Bauer was in the bullpen for much of that time). Bauer threw 8.9-percent changeups in 2015.
Gimenez said the key to the changeup has been trying to get the arm speed in line with Bauer’s other pitches.
“I told him, ‘Listen, I don’t want you to try to baby it,” Gimenez said. “You literally need to throw it as hard as possible. And I know that’s something that doesn’t sound right, because a changeup is essentially a change of pace off his fastball. But, you want the arm speed to be the same. That’s what I think he gets in trouble with, is trying to manipulate the ball.”
And that brings us to the curve.
“It’s the same thing with his curveball,” Gimenez said. “He tries to manipulate it to throw it up or down. Throw it as hard as you can. If it’s a certain situation — 0-2, 1-2 — and we want to throw it in the dirt, OK.”
Throwing the curveball in the dirt was Bauer’s go-to approach prior to this year. That pitch was consistently out of the strike zone in 2015, making it easy to eliminate for hitters. When batters reached 0-2 or 1-2 against Bauer, they could spit on the curve, knowing it was almost always a safe bet to drop below the zone.
Here’s a look at Bauer’s heatmap for his curveball in 2015 on 0-2 and 1-2 counts:
And here is Bauer’s heatmap for his total curve usage in 2015:
“In the past, guys would wait him out, because he would throw a ton of pitches,” Gimenez said. “So, the goal is to attack the strike zone with everything you have. Throw it as hard as you can. Try to throw his fastball as hard as he can. He grunts. He grunts on his changeup. Those are things he needs to continue to do the exact same, or guys will pick up on it instantly.
“I think, especially in the past, they’d wait him out. If he gets to 3-0, he’s either going to walk you or throw you right down the middle and guys shellacked it. He’s shown signs in the past of being able to attack the strike zone, and that’s what I’ve tried to [talk to him about].”
In 2015, Bauer threw 26.9-percent of his curveballs inside the strike zone. This year, that percentage has risen to 34.6. What’s been incredible about Bauer’s curve, though, is that it is generating fewer swings. The swinging strike rate has dropped to 13.2-percent this year from 20.5-percent in 2015.
In fact, this is the second straight year that Bauer’s strikeout percentage has climbed with the curve, while the swing rate of batters has dropped against the pitch.
This is where Bauer’s fastball comes in.
“He uses his fastball up very well. That’s where he lives,” Gimenez said. “He’s not a very good at pounding the bottom of the zone. Let’s be honest and call a spade a spade. I tell him all the time, ‘Let’s make what we are good at even better.’ So I told him, for him to be more successful, he’s going to have to throw more curveballs for strikes.
“Every time he’d get 1-2 or 0-2, he’d throw a curveball in the dirt. And he’d be like, ‘Why aren’t they swinging at it?’ Because guys know you’re going to do it. And, out of your hand, everything you throw is up, and that one starts down lower. These are big league hitters. They can see stuff like that.
“He’s got to raise the sight on it. He’ll get a lot of strike threes on curveballs that pop up. Guys are like, ‘No, that’s a ball,’ but he’s got such depth on his. His is the epitome of a 12-6 curveball. He’ll get some strikeouts looking on that. But, what makes his curveball really good is when it starts at the top of that strike zone and it’s either out of the zone or it’s at the very bottom of the zone by the time it gets to me.”
Bauer has followed Gimenez’s lead, too.
Here is a look at Bauer’s curve heatmap on 0-2 and 1-2 counts this year:
And here is Bauer’s curve heatmap for his overall curve usage this year:
Compare those to the two heatmaps from last season. It is easy to see what Gimenez is talking about. Bauer’s curveball is finding the lower half of the strike zone more often this year and, when it drops below the zone, it’s often in that in-between zone for hitters. Should they swing or should they wait it out? With two strikes, waiting it out is now a much larger risk than it was in the past.
As the season has worn on, Bauer has turned to his curveball more often:
April: 13.3 percent
May: 14.1 percent
June: 19.9 percent
July: 23.7 percent
It’s hard to blame him, either. Among all MLB pitchers with at least 50 results, Bauer ranks first in opponents’ batting average against a curveball:
1. Trevor Bauer: .075 (5-for-67)
2. Mike Montgomery: .077 (4-for-52)
3. Clayton Kershaw: .079 (6-for-76)
4. Corey Kluber: .082 (8-for-98)
Given that batters have been fooled so much by the pitch to this point this season, it seems probable that they will try to make some adjustments down the stretch. In Bauer’s previous start, for example, while all six of his strikeouts came via the curve, five were swinging strikeouts by Twins batters. There could be more swings against the pitch from here on out.
“Absolutely. Without a doubt,” Gimenez said. “That’s the whole cat-and-mouse game of making the adjustments based on what other people do. I try to tell him every day, ‘Listen, you have four pitches that we can use on a daily basis, that you can get guys out with.’ I don’t want him to be so reliant on one pitch that every single time he gets to two strikes, we’re throwing curveballs. Or, every time, two strikes, we’re throwing fastball in. He needs to be able to recognize that and continue to attack.”
Keep all this under wraps, though, OK?
From Thursday: A look at the relationship between Gimenez and Bauer this year:
Stay tuned for more…