History in the Making?
May 9, 2011

It's not a story yet but as the June amateur draft nears, Trevor Bauer's season may take on historic significance.  If the name doesn't ring a bell, it's not that surprising.  Bauer plays second fiddle to uber-pitching talent Gerrit Cole on UCLA's Division 1 collegiate baseball team.  Cole, a 6'4" beast of a pitching specimen, has been on the scouting radar since he drafted by the Yankees as a high school senior throwing fastballs in the high 90s.  The more human-sized Bauer, on the other hand, was the wiry kid with the weird pitching mechanics who only throws in the mid-90s.  That narrative has continued through the last three years as both pitchers have been in a somewhat friendly competition with each other for accolades.  Cole is widely expected to be among the first two players picked in this year's incredibly deep draft; Bauer's prospects have been rising, weird mechaincs and all, to a probable top 10 pick.

And while Cole is the darling of the scouts, Bauer is the one setting school records for wins and strikeouts.  What is not as well known is that Bauer has a legitmate shot at breaking the NCAA Division 1 record for strikeouts in a season, held by a little known Hawaiian pitcher named Derek Tatsuno.  Tatsuno pitched in the late 70s and like Bauer, was a fairly normal-sized human being with a solid assortment of pitches including an above average fastball.  Tatsuno's story didn't get much press because at that time, the vast majority of baseball fans didn't care much about the college ranks or the minor leagues.  Ten years later, fantasy baseball changed all that.  But I digress... Tatsuno was drafted by the Padres and offered $100,000 to sign.  As a Hawaiian of Japanese decent, however, the Japanese Leagues had great interest in him as well and offered him $750,000.  Unfortunately, because of an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Japanese League, no player drafted by major league teams could sign with a Japanese League team without permission from MLB.  And so Tatsuno ended up not progressing for three years as he was drafted year after year by major league teams and was unable to collect his payday in Japan.  Finally, he relented and signed with the Brewers after they drafted him in 1982, but by then his pitching career was largely over.  He stuck around for four years in the minors and then was out of baseball.  How good he might have become will never be known, but he was the first pitcher to ever win 20 games in a college season - he went 20-1 in 23 starts in 1979 - and struck out a still NCAA record 234 batters that year.  He was also among the first inductees into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. 

I bring this up now because Bauer is currently at 154 strikeouts this season, averaging almost 14 Ks per start (13.77 to be exact) and he has three more regular season starts before the NCAA playoffs begin.  UCLA is not a powerhouse team this year largely because of a weak offense, but with Cole and Bauer heading up their rotation, they have enough pitching to make some headway in the current playoff system.  After the regular season concludes they will no doubt get an invitation to the NCAA regionals where they could host.  With their formidable duo, they stand a very good chance of making the Super Regionals and from there they would be just two wins from a spot in the College World Series.   Bauer would likely get two starts, one in the Regionals and one in the Supers before a CWS appearance where he would be guaranteed at least one start and possibly a second.  That gives him at minimum four more starts this season with the possibity of eight more depending on how much run support the Bruins can generate in the playoffs.  He's still 80 strikeouts away, but depending on how many starts he gets, Tatsuno's record could very well be reachable.  Other high strikeout collegiate pitchers, like Stephen Strasburg, Tim Lincecum, Jered Weaver and Mark Prior have been close but lacked another star hurler on the team to get them deeper into the playoffs for enough opportunities to break the record.  With Cole as his partner in crime, Bauer doesn't have that obstacle.  And that's always been part of baseball's story: a big part of becoming great is having enough good team mates to get into the limelight.  Records are rarely broken by the great players who play on terrible teams.

Let me go back a bit because I've mentioned this in a previous piece: Bauer's "weird" mechanics are very similar to those of Tim Lincecum.  I've also mentioned that his pitch counts are very similar to Lincecum's during his final season at Washington State.  Both pitchers average more than 120 pitches per outing with Bauer topping 130 in his last five outings.  The main difference is that Bauer is two years younger and a little bigger physically, a few inches taller and 20 or so pounds heavier.  Before Lincecum, that kind of workload would have been grounds to hang the UCLA coach in effigy.  But what is interesting is despite what were originally thought to be dangerous mechanics, both Lincecum's and Bauer's throwing motions are now looked upon as mechanically very sound.  And given the heavy workloads that Linceum endured during his collegiate days yet still has not experienced any arm problems in his major league career, this conclusion seems to be validated.  Maybe heavy workloads are only bad for kids who have bad mechanics.

Strasburg, on the other hand, is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery and never even came close to the kind of workload that Lincecum and Bauer bear.  I don't have his pitching counts from his days at SDSU, but only twice in his final year did he pitch 9 innings and he never topped 100 pitches in any outing after he was drafted by the Nationals.  Obviously, throwing 100 mph puts a lot of stress on an arm, but I have to think there's more to his injury that that.  His mechanics are similar to those of Mark Prior, the previous title-holder of "best pitching prospect ever", and Prior's career was marred by injuries as well.  Both pitchers use what is called "scap loading" or compressing of the scapulas where both elbows are above the shoulders to generate power in their pitching motion.  I don't know much about bio-mechanics but I'm told this puts increased stress on the throwing apparatus (shoulder and elbow) and given the long list of scap loaders who've gone under the knife, I tend to believe there's something to this.  I'm not saying that scap loading definitely leads to arm injuries the way that smoking cigarettes leads to heart disease and lung cancer, but it does appear to increase the risk. 

Again, it could be that throwing a baseball 100 mph causes an arm to break down regardless of the mechanics, and maybe Nolan Ryan and Justin Verlander are the exceptions that prove the rule (although neither were/are scap loaders).  Or maybe it really is about mechanics.  If so, my previous suggestion that Strasburg could become the greatest pitcher ever is completely wrong.  As we've seen he's truly awesome when healthy.  But there's legitimate concern as to whether or not he can remain healthy enough to post the kind of career numbers that merit consideration with the immortals like Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson?  I'm not as optimistic as I once was.  Obviously it's still ridiculously early in his career, but perhaps a wiser head should consider other possibilities including some wiry kid with weird mechancs and endless endurance.