CLEVELAND – At some point during this three-game series against Cleveland at Progressive Field, Mariners rookie Yusei Kikuchi hopes to have another conversation with Indians star pitcher Trevor Bauer.
It would most likely happen Saturday afternoon because Kikuchi pitched in Friday’s opener and Bauer is slated to throw Sunday in the series finale. Maybe it’s lunch somewhere, or another pregame encounter before they go about their daily routines when they aren’t starting.
The two pitchers from vastly different backgrounds met at Kikuchi’s request the morning of April 16 near the backstop at T-Mobile Park. Less than 24 hours earlier, they started against each other in the opener of that three-game series. Bauer was credited with the win in Cleveland’s 6-4 victory, looking dominant over 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run on five hits with three walks and eight strikeouts. Kikuchi was solid, pitching six innings while allowing three runs on five hits with three walks and five strikeouts.
Kikuchi sent word to the Cleveland clubhouse that he hoped he could meet Bauer and ask him some questions.
“Ever since I was in Japan, I wanted to meet him,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I’ve wanted to pick his brain. I’ve been told he’s really technical about baseball.”
Kikuchi is fascinated by the evolution of pitching, with technology such as TrackMan and Rapsodo, as well as the concept of pitch tunneling. Perhaps no pitcher in the major leagues represents the advanced thinking about improvement more than Bauer, who has become one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers.
When Kikuchi watched Bauer work in person, the desire to talk to him about baseball only grew. It was more than just the technical aspect. Now, it was everything.
“In that game, I was watching how he really attacks guys and is really aggressive,” Kikuchi said. “And that’s what I wanted to take from him. Once I met him, he has such a baseball mind. He just studies and researches about baseball so much. I gained even more respect for him.”
Bauer was eager to meet Kikuchi for his own reasons. With a naturally curious mind, he has been fascinated by the transition of Japanese pitchers to the majors.
“I’m a big fan of Japanese players that come over,” Bauer said. “It’s got to be really tough, culturally and just life-wise as a human being. Seeing him adjust to that and adjust to playing in the big leagues, with all the expectations heaped on him from the get-go, it’s something that interests me. I take an interest in the guys that come over and do that. I was really excited to be able to connect with him. Even if nothing I said makes a difference, it was just nice to make the connection and express to him that I’m rooting for him.”
Oh, it made a difference.
The conversation wasn’t brief. The two men, aided by Novak, had a wide-ranging discussion. They held baseballs so they could show, study and imitate the grips each used on pitches. There were simulations of arm slots and release points. Bauer got particularly detailed in showing the finger pressure he used on his changeup – a pitch that Kikuchi wants to improve.
“It was the day after a start, so I really appreciate that he took the time out to talk to me,” Kikuchi said. “Even though we are the same age, he’s someone I really respect, so I was really happy for the encounter.”
Bauer easily recognized Kikuchi’s intellectual curiosity and passion about improving.
“I enjoy talking to people who are interested in trying to get better,” Bauer said. “I’m really passionate about player development, and finding ways to use technology and data to maximize what I can do physically. So when I get a chance to talk to someone of the same mindset just about development in general, whether it’s athletic or intellectual or personal, I like listening, understanding and connecting with those kinds of people. I definitely get the sense he is that way.”
Any concerns about Bauer not wanting to take part in the conversation were assuaged immediately.
“He was very polite and very nice to me when he was talking to me about baseball,” Kikuchi said. “He’s a superstar, so I was kind of nervous about going into the conversation. But he made me feel really welcome. And he was really easy to talk to.”
To be fair, Bauer loves to talk about that subject. Admittedly, those conversations are usually with teammates and not requests from opponents.
“I think it’s just a baseball thing,” Bauer said. “Teammates get a chance to do it because we stand in the outfield and shag BP or we’re in the clubhouse – ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ But for guys on the other team to come up to you, you don’t get that opportunity as much.”
Bauer doesn’t buy into the concept of not sharing his secrets to success with people outside of his team. It isn’t proprietary information or thinking. There’s a fraternity among baseball players, specifically pitchers, that is bigger than rivalry.
“I just think that everybody gets to this level wants to play against the best guys and compete against the best,” he said. “There’s a healthy respect for what everybody at this level is able to do. So if I can make the game better and the players around me better, regardless if they are on my team or on the other team, that’s good for the game, fans enjoy it more, and I get to compete against better players, so I enjoy it more and that person’s career is better, which gives them a chance to live a better life. It’s just good for everyone involved, you know?
“That’s just the way I view it. I know some guys try to have competitive advantage. But I’m just really passionate about trying to make the people around me better in whatever aspect they want to get better at. I’m just sharing information with whoever asks.”