Drivers on Texas Loop 336 head east to the town of Cut and Shoot, west to the land of Rock and Fire. The gunslingers of America have a choice to make. Those who bear west steer onto a winding two-lane road lined with sprawling ranches, soaring oak trees and signs that remind them to DRIVE FRIENDLY. Many of the ranches off 336 are raising longhorns. One is breeding pitchers.
Down a hill, past a barn, next to a tractor, 60 young men gather in the 103° morning air. Some are freshly minted first-round draft picks. Others are Little Leaguers just trying to make local All-Star teams. They have come to the Texas Baseball Ranch in the town of Montgomery (population 600) to watch video of Whitey Ford and Bob Feller, run wind sprints with tires strapped around their waists and launch baseballs as hard and as far as they can.
Among them is a precocious 20-year-old from the Los Angeles suburbs named Trevor Bauer, the third pick in this year's major league draft, the most decorated amateur thrower since Stephen Strasburg, the most intriguing pitching prospect since Tim Lincecum and the fault line along which big league teams will debate the handling of the game's most valued commodity: the young hurler. While Strasburg stood out for his velocity and Lincecum for his mechanics, Bauer's defining characteristic is harder to measure. He has an insatiable mind.
Bauer will tell you that virtually every play in a baseball game takes 12 seconds or less, so his workout regimen consists of vigorous exercises that last no more than a fifth of a minute. He will tell you that every hitter must decide to swing no later than the first 20 feet a pitch is in the air, so he practices throwing into a metal grid 20 feet in front of the mound to ensure that all his pitches start on the same plane. Bauer has at one time or another deployed 19 different pitches, some of which he may have invented: They include the "reverse slider" (a harder variation of the screwball) and "the bird" (a splitter thrown with the middle finger raised).
Here is the modern pitcher, New Age but down-home, a product of both Southern California think tanks and East Texas back roads. Bauer throws at least six days a week with baseballs, weighted balls or medicine balls. He long-tosses 380 feet, even before starts. He warms up for his outings with about 45 pitches in the bullpen, and during especially long innings when his team is at bat, he heads back to the pen for more work. On his first warmup toss between innings, he crow hops across the mound and unleashes a fastball more than 100 miles per hour. This past season at UCLA, where Bauer was National Pitcher of the Year, he led the country in strikeouts (203 in 136 2/3 innings), led the Pac-10 with a 1.25 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .154 batting average. More remarkably, his last nine outings were all complete games, and in only one did he throw fewer than 130 pitches. After each of them he was out long-tossing the next day.
Major league executives have been conditioned to wince at such a regimen, assuming all that throwing will weaken the arm and eventually lead to injury. Over the past 20 years most organizations have tried to protect young starters by barring them from long-tossing more than 120 feet, or from throwing more than 30 pitches in the bullpen or more than 100 in a game. The intentions were admirable. The results, as evidenced by thousands of elbow and shoulder surgeries, have been catastrophic.
Bauer saw what those organizations did and then weighed it against information he collected from coaches, classes, books, videos and personal experience. "I just felt like there was a more efficient way for me," he says. He concluded that his throwing regimen actually strengthened his arm, as long as it was in concert with extensive stretching and sound mechanics. Before this year's draft, he arranged face-to-face meetings with representatives from the clubs interested in him. He wanted to explain the specifics of his routine and the rationale behind it. He was willing to sacrifice a better slot in the draft—and therefore potentially accept a lower signing bonus—to be with an organization that trusted him.
"I told them all: 'This is what I do, it's what I believe in, and if you let me stick with it, I'll pitch in the major leagues for 20 years,'" Bauer says. "Some were open. Some weren't. But they needed to know what they were getting into."
Kevin Towers grew up in Medford, Ore., throwing with friends every day in pickup games, hot box contests and home run derbies. He spent eight seasons pitching in the Padres' minor league system, but when he became their general manager in 1995, he strayed from his rubber-armed roots. "We all did," Towers says. "With the big signing bonuses, people were afraid to push the envelope, because if something happened, it was, How dare you? But maybe that thinking hurt us in the long run. Maybe it's why we have so many problems now. Guys don't go deep into games, and then when they do, they're not used to it. Thirty years ago, you threw and threw and threw. To me, that's healthy."
Towers took over as the Diamondbacks' G.M. last September, and in June, with his first draft choice with the franchise, he picked Bauer third overall and signed him to a major league contract that could be worth as much as $7 million. In his professional debut, for Class A Visalia on July 30, Bauer threw two scoreless innings; last Friday night, he gave up two runs in three innings but struck out six batters.