Baseball is a sport of ups and downs, but one Mariners prospect has unlocked the key to being his best self day in and day out
Ed. Note: Travis is raising money for Movember to support men’s health and today is the last day to donate! Read on to find out why this cause is close to Travis’s heart and if you’re able, send him a donation at his fundraising page here.
With his bleached-blonde hair, brightly-patterned clothing, and propensity for wearing his baseball pants tight and short (the better to see his personalized cleats, emblazoned with a peace sign, smiley face, and heart), Mariners prospect Travis Ray Kuhn stands out. Maybe too much, his mom Kimberly worried, watching her son rumble off to his first full professional season in the travel trailer he’s spent hours remodeling. But ever since kindergarten—when a pint-sized but broad-chested Travis got tired of an older kid hurling racial slurs against his best friend and took matters into his own beefy hands—she’s been content to let her son walk his own path. “The school called and said, ‘you know we have to suspend him,’” she says with a wry smile. “I said ‘okay, but just so you know, I’m throwing him a party.’”
Walking his own path has been key for Kuhn, as he’s taken a non-traditional path to his own baseball career. Late to settle on baseball as his main sport in high school, he was told he’d likely be headed to a JUCO if he wanted to keep playing, and that there wasn’t a spot on varsity for him. “That was the start of me recognizing like, okay, not everyone’s going to believe in you all the time.” He flicks a small smile upwards, a mirror image of his mom’s. “And for me, I’m very, very grateful for every time that’s happened in my career.” Kuhn transferred schools and redoubled his commitment to baseball, and when it was suggested that his future might be on the mound, doubled down again on his commitment to nutrition and building up his body for a pitcher’s workload, at one point making a forty-five minute drive three days a week to train in a baseball-specific fitness and nutrition program.
The work paid off with an offer to San Diego, but the path wasn’t any easier there as a walk-on redshirt on a competitive team. “It was just another situation to remind me how big the baseball world is, and how small I am,” says Kuhn, pinching his fingers together to illustrate teeny-tiny-Travis. But following through on a commitment he’d made back in high school, “to get myself in front of the right people,” Kuhn went and saw the college nutritionist to ask how he could get stronger and gain good weight. He worked with San Diego’s pitching coach, Nathan Choate, to make adjustments to his delivery in order to get in the zone more frequently and develop a better breaking ball.
“He kind of pushed me to be open to making adjustments and be open to listening to my body,” says Kuhn. “I was throwing directly over the top with a ton of head tilt, and he got me to just let the torso work and be a little more rotational, and eventually I became an upper three quarter guy, and it kind of kept going down to where we’re at now, low three quarters.”
But even with all these positive improvements in his game, the mental side of baseball remained a challenge. Redshirting is like being a baseball understudy—you’re part of the team but not, putting in the behind-the-scenes work but not participating in the show. Kuhn tells stories of setting up nets on the field while the team was off on road trips, punishing himself with PFPs and bullpens in the rain, forcing himself to stay on the field for the length of a game. “It sounds pretty eyewash,” he says, rolling his eyes. “And looking back, it absolutely was. But it taught me that nobody really cares about how hard you’re working unless it shows. And that was when I learned to work. Alone. I learned to work in the quiet of a gym that’s empty. I learned to work at an empty stadium. Fast forward a couple years to the COVID season, that was huge. Because without that experience, I don’t know that I would have been able to hold myself as accountable as I did, make the improvements that I did.”
Filling in some of that fast forward: the Mariners drafted Kuhn in the 19th round in 2019 and sent him off to play at Everett for the last 20 games of the season, where he showed some strikeout potential, striking out a quarter of batters faced, but also struggled with his command, with a double-digit walk rate. But the biggest problem, to Kuhn, was his inconsistency. “Some days I’d be 87-89, there were some days early on in the season where I’d be 90 to 94. And we really had no idea who I was going to be until I got out there.” Kuhn points to his training regimen as a possible culprit in that, pushing himself so hard in the weight room that his body didn’t have ample time to recover between starts. “After getting that identity of like, grinding and being the strong guy and working hard and pushing myself, it was kind of to my detriment, because I was overworking myself, and I was never able to get recovered.”
“There were days where I would show why I was drafted, why I was looked at as a guy that can make an impact later on. And there were other days where it was like, who the hell did we just pick?”
Like many other minor leaguers, Kuhn was left to his own devices during the shutdown, given a suggested conditioning program from the team and wished good luck. He drove his trailer back to his parents’ home to live in and built himself a gym in an empty stall in a horse barn on the property. He strung up a net from an old batting cage his parents had rustled up from a family friend and built a plywood pitching mound out back. He built a catcher out of old gear, some PVC pipe, and a Christmas tree stand, and painted targets on it to work on his location. He also built a camera stand for his phone, to take slo-mo video. “I got good at woodworking, a little bit,” he says drily.
But for as hot, dirty, and dusty as his low-tech setup was, it was also comfortable. This was familiar ground, working alone and in silence, competing against himself and figuring out how to hold himself accountable, how to create a schedule and stick to it when no one is watching. “To be honest, when they told us we weren’t going to be playing, I almost got excited,” he says. “Because I knew what an advantage I had already, having gone through this. And I remember how hard it was to figure out the first time around. And I knew I had an opportunity to separate myself.”
When it became apparent there wouldn’t be a minor-league season, Kuhn decided to separate himself even more, partnering up with Tread Athletics mid-summer to take the program the Mariners had given him and personalize it even further to Kuhn’s body type and throwing style. While always being a strong guy—Kuhn holds about every weight room record at USD—Tread helped him optimize his strength on the mound, resulting in velo that ticked up to hold consistently at 95. The more streamlined movement of his body also helped his slider pick up some extra spin, turning it into an elite weapon.
Congratulations to Remote Athlete Travis Kuhn on his invitation to the @MLBazFallLeague
In ’19 Travis averaged 90.8 on his fastball. After training remotely with us for a year, his avg FB was 94.8 in ’21 topping out at 98 multiple times.
Spend your off-season getting better pic.twitter.com/IMweOosisv
— Tread Athletics (@TreadHQ) October 25, 2021
But the physical aspect of it was only one part. Kuhn wrote the number 12 in big letters on the wall in his weight room, representing the 12 spots allocated to pitching on a major-league roster. “So if I wasn’t being top 12 in the organization on any given day, I knew that I wasn’t going to make it.”
“It became a kind of mental warfare with myself. It wasn’t always fun. There was always that thought of, is this even going to be worth it, am I even going to make it to spring, am I going to get released, am I going to have to go try to sign with another team after my last stats were a 7 ERA. That was a scary thought. But you know, just committing to it, and having my family and everybody there to help with the mental side of it, pushing me along through the tough times and keeping me up during the good time, it made it a lot easier.”
The mental aspect of the game, and mental health in general, is something that’s close to Kuhn’s heart, and something he wants to continue to amplify and support in the game, breaking down the stigma of talking about depression and mental illness in general.
“At the end of the day mental illness, it’s just that. It’s an illness. It’s not weakness. And that’s where my work with the Movember Foundation is super important to me. They work a lot in men’s health and specifically mental health and suicide prevention, and those things for me hit really close to home. I struggled a lot during the COVID year. There were days where working out was the last thing I was thinking about. And you know, taking a moment to build a routine to check in with yourself and build a dialogue within yourself, and building a dialogue with others, talking to other people and the people you care about and using the support system you have, that’s so important. If you don’t…it’s like a waste of a support system, if you’re fortunate enough to have that. Because there’s so many people that don’t have that, and need that.”
“And I think that’s where people struggling with baseball-specific stuff, it’s easy go 0-for-4, joke about it, and then go home and feel it then. It’s harder to go and have a conversation with a friend or a teammate, but at the end of the day it’s going to help you think through things better.”
If open discussions about mental health have been slow to permeate society in general, the pace has been positively glacial in pro sports, and as Kuhn notes, part of that is the warring concepts of mental toughness—being “stoic and unflinching”—and mental health, being open and honest about one’s emotions. Kuhn notes that there’s a time and place for each, and the best path is acknowledging them as two sides of the same coin, being mentally tough on the field, and mindful of one’s mental health off of it. He cares for his mental health by investing in his relationships off the field and making time for his hobbies like surfing, snorkeling, working on fixing up his Outback Keystone travel trailer, and walking his Airedale terrier, Winston.
“A huge focus of mine is building a routine to stay happy, stay consistent, stay the same guy every day. Baseball is such an up and down sport…It’s really hard to be the same baseball player every day. But you can be the same person every day.”
Kuhn’s hard work over the COVID season—physically and mentally—paid off with a season where he struck out almost 30% of batters faced at Modesto despite pitching through a sports hernia towards the end of the season. Kuhn was able to return from the surgery earlier than expected, and pitched 9.1 innings in the Arizona Fall League, striking out eight batters during his time and earning an All-Star nod. His slider has continued to ramp up in spin, now averaging around 3000 rpm, well above MLB average, and the Mariners are encouraging him to go extremely slider-heavy, similar to former Mariners reliever Austin Adams, pairing that with his fastball, of which he throws both a tilty two-seam and a four-seam version with some nasty ride.
Command remains a work in progress, but the slider is, in a word, disgusting, an elite out-getting pitch.
Kuhn describes himself as having a “split personality” when he’s on the mound vs. his relaxed, laid-back Cali boy self. Mound Travis is a fearsome competitor who likes to swagger and strut after a particularly nasty pitch, who is mentally tough and has no fear.
The other Travis, the surfing puppy-daddy who never met a graphic print he doesn’t like, acknowledges that fear and doubt creep in at times, that he’s not a finished product, that mental health is a journey, not a checklist. That Travis loves baseball and competing, too, but he doesn’t let either of those things define him.
“Baseball is our commitment,” he says. “Baseball is our job, it’s what we want to do for the rest of our lives. We also have a physical body that’s going to break down at some point. And whether that’s tomorrow, whether that’s in 20 years…it’s not always up to you. And that’s where I think, understanding that there’s life outside of baseball, and there’s happiness outside of baseball, and it’s important not to be too reliant on baseball for happiness, that’s kind of where I’m taking my next steps.”
And he has a message for everyone, both in baseball and outside of it, that he hopes helps normalize conversations around mental health.
“If you’re struggling, it’s not who you are. It’s what you’re going through.”
Reminder: Travis is raising money for Movember to support men’s health and today is the last day to donate! If you’re able to support the work the foundation is doing with men’s health, specifically mental health, his fundraising page is here. Winston the Airedale says thank you in advance!