CHICAGO -- Trevor Bauer delivered his second straight great start for the Cleveland Indians, shutting down the White Sox in a 3-1 win, striking out seven while allowing just seven baserunners in 7 1/3 innings. But more than delivering a result, he was delivering another example that his focus on his craft might make him the dominant starting pitcher people have expected him to be since he was taken with the third overall pick of the 2011 draft.
"I feel a little bit better mechanically," Bauer said, reflecting on his success in this start after his 10-strikeout spin against the Cardinals on May 14. "I feel a little bit better attacking guys, my command's been a bit better and my intent to throw the ball hard and to a spot. Everything follows after that: Tempo, and guys start changing balls out of the zone because you're throwing more strikes."
"He threw all of his pitches for strikes, maybe not always where he wanted to, but he had a real good breaking ball and in this cold weather -- that's something. And he made them respect all of his pitches," manager Terry Francona observed after the game. "And because there weren't a lot of high-pitch innings, he was able to pitch deep into the game."
The one bit of trouble Bauer ran into was in the fourth. Even there, he betrayed the amount of thought he put into the situation and what he was trying to execute following Jose Abreu's two-out double after Bauer retired the first 11 straight.
"I yanked two balls to Abreu," Bauer said, "and I didn't really want to pitch to [Andy] LaRoche; I threw a couple of pitches kind of close to see if he would chase, but he didn't. I wasn't worried about that [at-bat]. I just had a brain fart against [Avisail] Garcia, trying to go with the fastball, and thought it'd be a good idea to deliver a two-seamer and run it off the plate, from the middle-in to the hitter there, down where he could get to it. Those innings happen."
While Bauer is already known as a pitcher whose extraordinary repertoire includes at least seven pitches he might throw in-game, one of the complaints has been syncing that breadth of stuff with success on the mound in the majors. In 26 starts for the Tribe last year, he provided an initial indication that he hasn't simply arrived, he's learning how to convert that breadth of stuff, including mid-90s heat, into reliable results.
This year, he's focused more on a primary quartet of pitches, following up on what Bauer says he worked on in the offseason.
"I worked a lot in the offseason on commanding my ‘strike' pitches, so basically my four-seam [fastball], my cutter, my changeup and my two-seam [fastball]," Bauer said. "A lot of times the two-seam and four-seam get grouped as fastballs, but they're two different pitches and I use them very differently. The cutter and the changeup, I try to mix those in evenly."
It's the expanded use of the changeup that has served him especially well. This year, he's throwing it around 15 percent of the time, but he's also changed how he throws it to generate better results: His strikeout rate is up to 25 percent (from 21.6 percent last year), and while he's a fly-ball pitcher, an increasing number of balls in the air are infield popups (up to 22 percent from 13 percent in 2014).
Asked about it, Bauer got into what he's getting it to do with it within his mix, saying, "My changeup's running more and sinking more than it was last year, and I'm using more of a two-seam grip than a four-seam grip. That fact makes it easier to throw, because I get some sink on it, and it helps with the confidence I have with it. So I kind of mix the cutter and the changeup, but once I get to two strikes, I add my curveball -- which is primarily a strikeout pitch for me -- and my split, which I haven't used as much, but I'm still using it."
"I think when you execute good pitches, you get guys off the barrel [of the bat]," Francona observed. "The less the contact is squared up, the better it was, whether it was a ground ball or a popup."
What's funny about the visceral image you might associate with a guy using that many different pitches is that it doesn't easily conform to your expectations for a guy who's effectively wild with as broad an assortment as you'll find, using two- and four-seam fastballs, cutters, changeups, splitters, curves and sliders while posting a walk rate that's bouncing around 10 percent and who can uncork mid-90s heat. That bit of info makes you think "mad scientist" and wild man; instead, you get a thoughtful 24-year-old.
"I'm still throwing six pitches, but just being able to command the ball early, to be ahead in the count early, to get to those 1-and-2 counts, and then adding a little bit more lateral movement: I have the two-seam which moves about 8 inches laterally, and the changeup that moves about 7. So I can hit corners, where my cutter's going 3 or 4 inches away from a righty, and the changeup comes 7 or 8 in. I've always been a vertical pitcher -- the rise on my four-seam, I think I get 10 or 11 inches of spin-induced lift where it's not rising, but it's fighting gravity, which I think leads to a lot of the popups because guys see the ball and see that it stays up a little bit. I've always been a fly-ball pitcher and I've always worked really well with my curveball, so I've been an up-and-down pitcher. But I think adding the lateral dimension to my game has really helped keep people off-balance."
Alright, so maybe Bauer talks a little bit like a mad scientist about his craft, but that simply reflects his in-game focus. On the mound, Bauer is unlike anyone else you'll see. He pitches with a noticeable focus, following a between-inning routine of firing his warm-ups quickly, circling the mound to his right, taking the ball behind the bump, pausing stock-still facing the plate, shoulders square, for several seconds in thought. Then he strides toward the rubber, climbs the hill and goes to work, firing pitches with an economy of motion. He doesn't fidget or pull on his jersey; with metronome-like economy he simply throws and then retreats to the rubber.
It's a thing of beauty to watch, almost mesmerizing, and maybe that's part of its magic. Regardless, Indians fans just have to hope it becomes something they can count on every fifth day.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.