LOS ANGELES—Built like a Clydesdale, with powerful limbs and broad shoulders, Gerrit Cole enters UCLA coach John Savage’s office on a January afternoon at Jackie Robinson Stadium, shutting the door behind him. He takes a seat in the middle of the room; he is a hulking presence settled upon a simple plastic chair that suddenly looks undersized. Cole is at ease, speaking confidently and quickly but occasionally pausing to rub his scruffy chin in thought.
After close to an hour, Cole exits, and Trevor Bauer replaces him on the chair, which now appears as it is—a perfectly suitable chair for an average adult man. And sitting where the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Cole sat a minute earlier, the 6-1, 175-pound Bauer looks pretty average. A bit gangly perhaps, with UCLA gym shorts and a workout shirt draped loosely on his lean legs and arms, but just a regular guy.
But Trevor Bauer is anything but average. Maybe he doesn’t tickle triple digits on the radar gun like Cole—his fellow All-American junior righthander at UCLA—but he can run it up there to 94 mph.
“I touched 96 this fall—six times,” he corrects. “And I’ll touch 98 this year. I’ve definitely added some miles an hour since last year, which was one of my focuses going into training. You can accomplish it many different ways. I mean, C.C. Sabathia’s huge, and Tim Lincecum’s not, and they basically throw just as hard as each other. Greg Maddux was very creative; they called him ‘the librarian’ because he doesn’t look like a pitcher. Then you’ve got guys with the typical pitcher’s body and sometimes they don’t pan out, they get injured or something like that. There are a lot of ways to get it done.”
Bauer’s definitely got some librarian in him—or maybe some scientist. He speaks much more softly than Cole, and much more slowly, pausing frequently to consider which words to deploy. Not that he is trying to be guarded; on the contrary, he’s uncommonly candid. He’s just uncommonly thoughtful, too—he’ll speak uninterrupted for long minutes at a time, expounding upon his theories about pitching and his unusual training regimen. And he’s uncommonly intense, with piercing eyes that seldom stray from his those of his interviewer in a conversation that stretches well beyond an hour. Bauer means business; even after cracking a particularly funny joke, he may not smile at all, or he may show just a hint of amusement, but his intensity never truly wavers.
They are polar opposites in many ways: the quintessential power pitcher with the prototypical power pitcher’s body and the traditional three-pitch repertoire, and the slender, physically unassuming analyst who throws six different pitches. Cole is a vocal clubhouse leader, while Bauer is more reserved. Cole uses his tree trunk thighs to drop and drive; Bauer relies on his hips, his calf muscles and his flexibility to generate incredible torque. Cole follows the same weight-lifting and training program as the rest of the Bruins; Bauer never goes into the weight room, instead working with medicine balls and resistance bands and exercises that focus on ankle flexibility.
They’re so different. But they just might be the two best pitchers in college baseball. And they are the biggest reasons UCLA heads into 2011 as a leading contender for the national title.
Not Fitting The Mold
Bauer does not miss a beat when asked about the cookie-cutter approach to player evaluation and development that places so much emphasis on physical profiles and traditional training methods.
“I think the cookie-cutter approach is good for cookies,” he says.
He pauses, then adds, “But not really for pitchers.”
The son of an engineer, Bauer has always looked at pitching as a science. In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Hart High in Valencia, Calif., Bauer spent three days at Ron Wolforth’s Texas Baseball Ranch outside Houston, where experts in biomechanics and shoulder health introduced him to advanced pitching concepts that resonated with his inner empiricist.
He went back to the ranch for three weeks the following summer, then five weeks the year after, and has kept going back every summer since. He learned about pitch sequencing and effective velocity and tunneling. He learned about full-body training, building his workout routine around explosive, fast-twitch movements in five-second bursts followed by 20 seconds of rest, simulating the rhythm of pitching. He learned about the rubber-band effect—the importance of creating tension with his hips and core, and then releasing it in sync.
“The more you can stretch things and the quicker you can release them, the more powerful it is,” he says. “When I was introduced to the whole use-your-pelvis thing—momentum toward the plate, arm action stuff—was right about the time Tim Lincecum came up in the big leagues. He was the best example of what I thought they were trying to teach, so I kind of patterned myself after him. I don’t think there’s anyone that has more efficient mechanics than Tim Lincecum, to generate that kind of velocity with his size.”
Bauer has studied video of Lincecum and other slightly built power pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt and Billy Wagner, trying to divine the secrets to their premium velocity. He also closely studies video of Trevor Bauer.
Recently, he has become engrossed by Perry Husband’s ideas about effective velocity—a theory of how to sequence pitches and disrupt hitters’ timing. As Bauer explains it, a ball thrown at the actual speed of 90 mph thrown down and away will look about 85 to a hitter—he can be late and still hit it the other way. A ball thrown at 90 mph up and in will look about 95 because there is less time to react.
“A 90 mile per hour fastball takes .44 seconds to get to the plate,” Bauer says, “so hitters have to make very quick decisions. Hitters have to decide if it’s going to be a ball or a strike in the first 20 feet of flight, so if you can get every pitch to look the same for the first 20 feet of flight, they’re already starting to swing, and then a fastball gets in on them, or a slider ends up in the dirt, and they’ve already started to swing. So they may hit the ball, but they’re going to be off target.”
To make use of these concepts, Bauer and his father constructed a camera mount that hooks to a chain-link fence, and he sets it up behind the catcher during every bullpen session. The camera is positioned in such a way that Bauer’s hand is exactly in the center of the frame when he releases the ball, so he can see how the ball travels and work to ensure all of his pitches come out of the same tunnel.
They also use a device that features a grid of bars with a 10-inch-by-13-inch opening in the center—the size of the strike zone at 20 feet if it was contracted from home plate back toward the pitcher’s hand. The device is placed 20 feet from the pitching rubber, and Bauer practices throwing all of his pitches—a fastball, curveball, changeup, split-finger, slider and “reverse-slider”—through that hole so they all look the same to the hitter after 20 feet.
Bauer’s unconventional methods have led to uncommon—there’s that word again—success. As a junior at Hart, he went 12-0, 0.79 with 106 strikeouts and 15 walks in 71 innings. Savage says he knew just how good Bauer was the first time he watched him pitch.
Eager for his next challenge, Bauer graduated in December of his senior year and enrolled at UCLA that winter, to be eligible for spring competition. After getting his feet wet in the bullpen, Bauer stepped into the Bruins’ weekend rotation as a freshman and finished the season 9-3, 2.99 to earn freshman All-America honors. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Savage says it was not easy for him, as a pitching coach, to step back and let Bauer do things his own way. He was wary that Bauer, the only Bruin who did not lift weights with the rest of the team, would be resented by his teammates. And Bauer had to learn to be a good teammate at the Division I level, and mesh with older players who had spent the fall bonding while he was finishing up his high school coursework.
“There was a little one-man-show approach—trying to strike everybody out, trying to do everything on his own, some body language,” Savage says. “There was some of that, no question about it, for how good he was. How many kids come into college baseball in January and are freshman All-Americans in June, without even having a fall? That’s how good this guy was.
“I think he knows the importance of everything else now: communication, teammates, bullpen, roles, sharing of info and knowledge, helping younger guys. And they know that when we give him the ball, no one’s going to out-compete him. I think he has the respect of his teammates more and more as this thing goes on. But he had to make an adjustment, and it’s taken some time for him to realize it takes other people to get where you want to get to; you can’t just do it yourself.”
More confident and comfortable in his own skin, Bauer was sensational as a sophomore last year, going 12-3, 3.02 with a school-record, Division I-leading 165 strikeouts and 41 walks in 131 innings and earning a spot on the College World Series all-tournament team. On the big stage in Omaha, the general public learned of his story, and media accounts latched onto his pole-to-pole long-tossing routine before starts, his bullpen throwing between innings when the Bruins were at the plate, his dirty, faded cap and his professorial approach to pitching.
He became, like his idol Lincecum, portrayed as The Freak.
Asked if he has an appreciation for just how unique he is, Bauer says, “Yeah,” then pauses for a good 20 seconds before continuing.
“It goes both ways, I think. It gets kind of old sometimes when people say, ‘Oh, Bauer’s just different. He’s . . . a freak,’ or, ‘He’s weird,’ or, ‘He’s quirky,’ or whatever they put out there. Because I don’t really think I’m . . . weird, or different, you know? I just think I’m a very intellectual person. It’s a source of pride for me that people say I’m different, people recognize that the stuff I’m doing is different. But at the same time, I wish they’d just stop calling me quirky, that they’d just accept that, ‘He’s different, but it’s OK.’
“It extends a lot farther than the media saying ‘he’s weird’ or ‘he’s out there.’ It extends into the draft and into pro baseball. It’s definitely something that concerns me on some level. It’s not really with me all the time—I don’t really think about it too much. But I know that I do things differently, think about things differently. I’m well aware that might influence where I fall in the draft and how quickly I can move through the minor leagues. Personally I think that will help me, but I’m aware of the fact that other people think it may be a huge detractor, and most likely is to a lot of scouts and organizations out there. I know a lot of organizations firmly believe that you long toss at 120 feet. You don’t want to elevate the ball because you want the body to do what it’s going to do on the mound, which makes sense. But I like to throw long—350, 400 feet. I really feel like that’s one of the things that’s helped me stay loose with my upper body and really fits in with the way I pitch. And so if I go to an organization and they say, ‘Well, we’re only going to go 120 feet,’ that doesn’t really work for me.
“That’s the cookie-cutter thing. It will work for a lot of people; it won’t work for a lot of people. I think it really has to be individualized.”
A Late Bloomer
It’s hard to imagine that Gerrit Cole, the fireballer who was drafted in the first round out of Orange Lutheran High School and showed up at UCLA carrying expectations the size of Pauley Pavilion, was once a nobody to the scouting community—a non-prospect.
As a high school freshman, Cole’s fastball sat around 75 mph. Then it jumped up to 80 at the start of his sophomore year—still nothing to get excited about. As that season progressed, he began throwing harder, touching 85 midway through the spring. Toward the summer, he first hit 90. Then Orange Lutheran had a game against Cypress High and slugger Josh Vitters, who would be drafted third overall that June.
“I remember I faced Vitters and I was throwing 92,” Cole says. “That’s when it kind of clicked that, ‘Whoa, we’ve got something here.’ I think I walked Josh on four pitches, but they were all gas. After that, my dad took it upon himself to really structure my throwing and things like that, to be really careful. Then (former UCLA recruiting coordinator) Brian Green gave us a call, and then all the phone calls and e-mails started coming in, and that’s when it really became a reality.”
By the time Cole’s senior year rolled around, he was a full-fledged dynamo, tagged by scouts as the best high school pitching prospect to come out of Southern California since Phil Hughes in 2004. He posted a 0.46 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 76 innings that spring, blowing away hitters with a mid-90s fastball that bumped 97-98 and a sharp breaking ball.
He ranked as one of the nation’s top prep pitching prospects for the draft, but some scouts had reservations. They worried about his inconsistent command, his stiff front leg and his immature mound demeanor. And he was advised by the Scott Boras Corp., known for driving a hard bargain.
So 26 teams passed on Cole in the 2008 draft—the Mets passed twice—before the deep-pocketed Yankees pounced with pick No. 28. It seemed like a perfect match, especially since Cole grew up as a Yankees fan thanks to his father’s New York roots.
But that summer, Cole became set on honoring his commitment to UCLA. The baseball world was stunned when Cole did not sign before the August deadline, but Cole later said that the Yankees accepted his desire to experience college and that the two sides parted ways amicably.
Cole’s UCLA experience did not get off to the start he envisioned. The Bruins stumbled to a 2-10 start in 2009, and even after recovering to go 15-12 in Pacific-10 Conference play, they finished the season at 27-29, making them ineligible for the NCAA tournament. By the time conference play began, Cole was entrenched as the Friday starter, and for all his overpowering stuff, he absorbed tough loss after tough loss, finishing the year 4-8, 3.49 with 104 strikeouts in 85 innings.
“Being able to just taste failure, it makes you kind of want to throw up,” Cole recalls. “It makes you just hate the game. That miserable feeling you don’t want to go through again, that makes us work so much harder to prepare to compete every day at such a higher level, to make sure we don’t have that bitter taste in our mouths again.”
His freshman year tribulations helped Cole realize that his talent alone wasn’t enough to carry him. He had to embrace Savage’s emphasis on preparation.
“Gerrit has worked extremely hard. He’s learned the importance of in between starts,” Savage says. “He can tell you now, ‘Why do I condition, why do I do core work, why do I have a specific throwing program on this day, why do I throw a certain amount of pitches this day in my bullpen?’ He’s crossing his T’s and dotting his I’s now. He knows how important it is to be detailed because his freshman year was a learning experience. He lost some games 3-2, 2-1—he lost a lot of tough games, and a lot of it was detail stuff.”
Cole has also grown up during the last two summers with USA Baseball’s college national team. Bauer gets all the attention for being cerebral, but Cole considers himself a student of the game, too. With Team USA, he took advantage of the opportunity to pick the brains of his coaches and teammates to bolster his own pitching knowledge base. He would talk daily with Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray, breaking down how to attack hitters and visualize success. He tweaked his changeup grip based on what Cal State Fullerton’s Noe Ramirez taught him. He dabbled with a sinker picked up from Tulane closer Nick Pepitone.
Former Titans assistant coach Rick Vanderhook, who joined the UCLA staff before Cole’s freshman year, has played a significant role in Cole’s maturation, as well.
Vanderhook walks into the office as Cole is being asked a question about the hard-nosed assistant. Vanderhook hears his name and stops, wrapping Cole in a loose headlock.
“Yeah, you mentioned Vanderhook—that he’s been riding his ass for 680 consecutive days?” Vanderook interjects.
Cole smiles and shrugs it off—he’s had plenty of practice with that.
“I think he’s shaped everybody,” Cole says of Vanderhook. “He doesn’t just get on me, he gets on everybody. He has a few of his favorites, and I’m trying to work my way into that, but it’s a long process—it’s longer than Omaha, I’ll tell you that. He definitely came in with just full-bore Vanderhook, you know? To be able to deal with him kind of makes the game like a sanctuary, like a way away from him. You can’t control how mad he gets. You can control, I guess, what you do about it, what things you take away from what he says and how you react to what he says—it transfers over to the game.
“Coach honestly has made us harder, which I’m sure everybody knows about—running until we get to Florida and back. We had that ‘soft’ mentality, that ‘soft’ identity—a lot of talent, not a lot of grind. It was really evident freshman year. We went into sophomore year wanting it so much; we wanted it so badly. Building that grinder mentality, focusing on the process, focusing on the team—it took a lot more hard work than all of us expected, but we were up to the task because we were so shocked from the year before and so fed up with being that good team that has a bunch of high draft picks and is not going anywhere. We have a mission statement around here: ‘Establish the Bruin Way to play the game’ is what we tried to do. That was our goal—put that bar up there so everybody knows where to reach.”
Vanderhook and sports psychologist Ken Ravizza—a professor at Fullerton—helped Cole and the Bruins develop toughness and focus. In 2010, they avoided another slow start, racing out to a 22-0 record en route to a national seed. After cruising through the Los Angeles Regional, UCLA confronted old nemesis Cal State Fullerton in super regionals, coming back from the brink of elimination in Game Two to win a thrilling series and reach Omaha for the first time since 1997.
After Bauer struck out 11 to win the opener against Florida, Cole struck out 13 in a win against Texas Christian. The Bruins lost their next game against TCU, then sent Bauer to the mound again in the bracket-deciding rematch.
Bauer matched Cole with 13 strikeouts over eight innings to propel UCLA into the CWS Finals against South Carolina. When the Gamecocks won the championship in walk-off fashion, Savage said he saw Cole crying in the dugout as the Gamecocks celebrated, and he knew just how much the righty cared about his teammates.
Bauer was heartbroken, too. During the postgame handshakes, South Carolina’s Kyle Enders was carrying the national championship trophy. Bauer asked if he could touch it, then gave it a wistful pat.
But when the dust settled, UCLA had succeeded in raising the bar for its program.
“That was what I dreamed about forever, so that experience to me was just unbelievable,” Cole says. “That’s why I came here. It made it so much sweeter after the first year, being so disappointed. Being able to turn it around, just working so hard and seeing things go your way, and turning around the whole identity of the program—it was unbelievable.”
A Healthy Competition
Heading into their junior seasons, Cole and Bauer each have exactly 257 career strikeouts. And they both know it. Bauer won the national strikeout title last year with 165; Cole finished third with 153.
“They thrive off each other,” Savage says. “That strikeout thing was back and forth last year, and I don’t know if our team really knew, but I know those guys knew. We went so deep, and they were racking up strikeout after strikeout, and they’re competitive. They were trying to outdo each other every weekend, and it’s worked. It doesn’t always work that way.”
Cole and Bauer have great respect for each other, and they help each other out by sharing information about how to attack hitters. Bauer says they are driven to be better than each other, but they never root for the other to fail.
They are not particularly close off the field, but their relationship has improved significantly since 2009.
“It was definitely strained freshman year,” Bauer says. “I came in in January, and he’d been here all fall. We were thrust into two important roles freshman year, and we didn’t have a lot of time around each other.
“It’s interesting: A lot of things he does—” Bauer pauses again, “—annoy me. We’re two different personalities. He’s very loud, kind of a vocal leader, in a sense. So at practices, he’s the one getting guys fired up—you know, ‘Yeah, great play!’—that kind of stuff. I’m more of the sit-back, keep-to-myself, quiet, lead-by-example type. So when he’s out there yelling, for me it’s just like, ‘Oh Gerrit, just shut up.’ But I’m sure when I’m sitting there talking to someone about overlaying video and looking at pitch breaks and stuff like that, he’s probably sitting there thinking, ‘Oh Bauer, shut up.’ You know? So I think we have a pretty good relationship, for being two vastly, vastly different personality types.”
Cole says he works hard at being a good teammate, and he has embraced the co-captain role he earned this fall after veterans like Dan Klein and Garett Claypool moved on to pro ball. He has enjoyed taking the younger players under his wing, helping them avoid some of the pitfalls he fell into.
One way the Bruins foster communication between players is by having each member of their rotation chart pitches the day before he takes the mound, then encouraging them to compare notes. So last year, Bauer would chart when Cole pitched, and Rob Rasmussen would chart for Bauer.
“He’s interesting to watch pitch,” Cole says of Bauer. “He’s probably not as fun to chart—Rasmussen had the worst end of that deal because Trevor would shake like 64 times, and then he had to figure out pitches one to 11—it’s a crapshoot, a guessing game. He really focuses on setting guys up; he can really set somebody up and make them look stupid.”
“I like making hitters look stupid,” Bauer says. “That’s fun.”
Cole sees himself as a classic power pitcher, of course, and he playfully refers to Bauer as a “mixer.”
“Cole calls me a thumber because I have a whole bunch of different pitches,” Bauer says. “I only throw fastballs 40, 45 percent of the time. I consider myself a power pitcher because I’m trying to strike people out. I throw fastballs 40 percent of the time because I feel like that’s the best way to go about avoiding hitters being on time, and still accomplish the goal of striking people out. But everybody calls me a thumber because Cole does. So I say, ‘Ninety-six, that’s a thumber? I’m going to start calling you a thumber now when you have a velocity day that’s a little bit down.'”
Think of them as Felix and Oscar if you like. Just remember that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had a pretty good run together as “The Odd Couple.”
“I think the biggest thing is just the respect among the two,” Savage says. “Also appreciation for each guy being their own guy, going about it a certain way. They’re two of the biggest competitors I know. They do it differently. They train differently, their throwing programs are different, but when it’s game time they’re very similar. You can’t put a price on that—they’re just so competitive. And they’re very confident. They both share those two qualities, but they’re opposites in a lot of ways. They both know the importance of teammates, they both know the importance of roles. They love the program, they want to be the first national champions at UCLA. They knocked on the door last year and got as close as you can without winning it. They are very locked in on that goal.
“I’m just very proud of both guys. They’ve meant everything to our program, and the journey’s not over yet.”