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August 18, 2011

Future Shock

The Next Freak?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Last week, I wrote about the head starts some of the early signees from the 2011 draft had gotten on their career. At this point, none of those early signers is under a bigger spotlight than Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bauer, the highest-draft pick inked heading into deadline day, put his name on the dotted line during the last week in July, so by the time Monday night rolled around, he had already struck out 17 of the 39 batters he faced during three California League outings and then whiffed eight more over five shutout innings in his Double-A debut on Sunday. The plan, as publicly stated when he signed, was for Bauer to pitch somewhere around 30 innings after signing; he's already at 14, but questions about whether Bauer will pitch for the first-place Diamondbacks down the stretch have already started. More importantly, should he?

Make no mistake about it: Bauer is good. With a low- to mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve, and diving changeup, he has three plus pitches, and he'll even throw a solid slider on occasion to provide a different look to hitters. He throws strikes, he maintains his stuff deep into games, was the best pitcher in college baseball this spring, and has yet to be challenged as a pro. “It's always worked for him, and I think it always will,” said one National League scout. “I think he'd be fine in the big leagues, and he won't be afraid.”

There's little doubt Bauer can handle big-league hitters, but the length of Bauer's season, as well as his heavy workload at UCLA, should indicate to the Diamondbacks that while flags fly forever, it might not be worth risking the career of a potential ace. UCLA's baseball season began in February, with practices starting in January. That means that other than a six-week break between his final outing for the Bruins and his pro debut, Bauer has been pitching for eight months already, and to extend him into the playoffs could stretch that into the 10-month range, a risky endeavor for a 20-year-old.

Then, there is the workload itself. Bauer threw 136 2/3 innings this spring, and did it in just 16 starts. He averaged 8.5 innings per outing and failed to go the distance only six times.He threw nine frames in each of his last nine starts. Including his brief professional career, he's already at 150 innings, which would be at or above the normal workload expectation from a more mortal prospect of the same age.

Bauer's pitch counts are even more troubling. As big-league teams rarely push prospects past 100 in minor-league games, Bauer's college pitching lines look like something from the 1970s. Only four times in 2011 has a pitcher hit the 130-pitch mark in the majors, with Tim Lincecum's 133-pitch effort on May 21 being the high. Bauer matched or exceed the 133-pitch mark in half of his 16 starts, including a stretch of six in a row. He hit a high of 140 in a 10-1 win over Cal State Bakersfield; the game was already a guaranteed Bruin victory after an eight-run third.

There has been much made of Bauer's uniqueness as a prospect. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, he's not exactly the kind of traditional power body associated with such workloads, which has led to nearly unavoidable—yet unfair—comparisons to Lincecum. Bauer is a disciple of the long-tossing regimen as well as many in-between start exercises designed to build and maintain arm strength, and while it's worked so far, the book is far from closed on the effectiveness of his routines.

Bauer is good enough to compete for a rotation job next spring and give the Diamondbacks at least six years of star-level performances. That's 200 starts and 1200-plus innings with the always-necessary caveat that he remains injury-free. Yes, he just might be the next pitcher for whom workload really isn't an issue like Halladay or Lincecum or Sabathia, but finding that out right now isn't worth the potential payoff down the road.

Top 10 Pitch Counts in 2011

Rank

Pitcher

Date

Pitch Count

1

Tim Lincecum

5/21

133

2

Chris Carpenter

6/29

132

2

Justin Verlander

5/29

132

4

Roy Halladay

4/24

130

5

Justin Verlander

7/5

129

5

C.J. Wilson

6/16

129

7

Jered Weaver

6/14

128

7

Carlos Zambrano

6/10

128

7

Felix Hernandez

5/28

128

7

Jered Weaver

5/28

128

Bauer's Top 10 Pitch Counts in 2011

Rank

Date

Opponent

Pitch Count

1

5/14

Cal State Bakersfield

140

2

5/7

Oregon

136

3

4/22

Stanford

135

4

4/9

Washington State

134

4

4/16

Arizona

134

4

4/30

Oregon State

134

7

5/28

Arizona State

133

7

6/4

Fresno State

133

9

3/5

Nebraska

129

10

4/2

Washington

128

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

18 comments have been left for this article.

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