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The Essence of Velocity
The pitching theory that could revolutionize baseball, if only the sport would embrace it
It had been a good meeting as far as Perry Husband was concerned. The 15 minutes he had been promised to convince the Houston Astros' team brass to fundamentally revamp their organizational approach to pitching had turned into close to an hour. Husband was worried that his message, radical as it was, would be met with skepticism, but to judge by the parade of questions he was asked, people in the room — particularly manager Phil Garner and pitching coach Jim Hickey — were suitably intrigued. It was spring training, 2005, in Kissimmee, Fla.
His interest lies not in how fast a given pitch travels, but how fast it appears to a hitter.
The name Husband chose for his theory, Effective Velocity, hints at its details. His interest lies not in how fast a given pitch travels, but how fast it appears to a hitter — a factor that hinges upon not just its speed, but its placement in the strike zone and the spot in the sequence in which it is thrown — and how many milliseconds it can shave off the time a hitter has to react to it. That spring in Florida, Husband told the Astros' assemblage that pitchers who followed even the most basic tenets of his recommendations would see immediate improvement. Pitchers who bought in fully would become as close to unhittable as their skill levels would allow.
Not every pitcher can be Sandy Koufax, of course, but Effective Velocity, known in shorthand as EV, would push them in that direction. Husband told the Astros about the abundance of studies he had done to back his ideas up.
It turned out that Garner was an ideal target for this kind of presentation, a man who, compared to most other major league managers at the time, delighted in pushing the vanguard of baseball thought. The team's first-year GM, Tim Purpura, remained skeptical, but Garner was riding high, having taken over the team in the middle of the previous season with spectacular results — a 48-26 record and second-place finish. The manager, who six months later would lead Houston to the World Series, was sufficiently intrigued to invite Husband back later that day for another talk. And again for another prior to the following day's game, this time with the team's catcher, Brad Ausmus. Garner was so thoroughly engaged in that discussion that he was startled into leaving abruptly in order to run the lineup card out to the umpire. They had bumped right up against first pitch.
Husband had been introduced to the team by a representative at Inside Edge — a next-level stat company that, impressed by Husband's work, gave him access to its ridiculously complex database. And Garner's low expectations, set by a lifetime tolerating monologues from self-proclaimed pitching gurus, were trumped by Husband's combination of understanding and innovation.
"This is intuitive," Garner told him before they parted. "You've presented pitching the way pitching ought to be."
Hickey, now the pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, concurred. "It was more than just opinion," he said, recalling the presentation. "EV was firmly founded in research, and made an awful lot of sense."
Husband's methodology included extensive tests on the tendencies of amateur hitters, with the findings backed up by data from millions of pitches thrown at the major league level. What he told Garner, Hickey and the rest of the Astros brass was only on the tip of the EV iceberg; because Purpura had balked at a confidentiality agreement, Husband — who as a minor league infielder a decade earlier had washed out of the Twins' system, and subsequently leveraged his expertise as a private coach in Southern California — offered up only enough of his model to prove that he knew what he was talking about, but not so much that it could be easily co-opted. "I'll tell you some things you didn't know about pitching," he said, "but if you want the secret sauce, there's got to be a check involved."
Ultimately, that reticence dissuaded the young GM from paying for a system he did not fully understand. Husband saw this as only a small setback. He was certain in the strength of his model. If somebody in baseball was willing to take a chance, Husband was convinced that the ensuing payday would be huge for everybody concerned.
That was nine years ago. He is still waiting.
* * *
Effective Velocity is made up of six tenets, some of which are commonsense and already utilized by successful pitchers at the game's highest levels, others so complex that even major league coaches have difficulty grasping them. It starts with the idea that all pitches are not equal — even those that appear to be identical on the radar gun.
It starts with the idea that all pitches are not equal — even those that appear to be identical on the radar gun.
It hinges on response time. Husband's model is based on the arc of hitters' swings, and the understanding that bats must move farther to reach pitches on the inner part of the plate than on the outside edge. Put another way, a batter can hit an outside fastball as it crosses the plate, but to make solid contact with an inside fastball, he must reach it much sooner — up to 2 feet in front of the plate — which requires the hitter to move the bat a greater distance in less time. With this detail in mind, it makes sense to build an approach based not on a pitch's radar speed, but how quickly the man standing in the batter's box can react to it.
This is the basis for the "effective" portion of Effective Velocity.
EV breaks the strike zone into nine regions, each having a different effect on how hitters perceive a given pitch. Based on a hitter's need to reach pitches close to his body more quickly, Husband calculated that reaction time to a 90-mile-per-hour pitch is closer to that of a 93-mph pitch if it runs inside (96 if it's high and tight), and drops to 87 mph if it's placed on the outside edge of the plate (85 if it's low and away).
There is an imaginary stripe that runs diagonally across the strike zone, from the batter's feet to shoulder level in the opposite batter's box, where a pitch's EV equals its actual speed. Husband calls this the Zero Line. He calculated that for every 6 inches the ball moves closer to the hitter from that line, it picks up 2.75 EV mph; for every 6 inches it moves away, it loses an equivalent amount. This gives strikes thrown at identical speeds on a given horizontal plane about a 6-mph fluctuation in reactionary speed from one end of the strike zone to the other. Add vertical differences into the equation and that spread can easily double, all for pitches that are thrown at the same actual speed.
This idea is far less important on a single-pitch basis than it is when integrated into a sequence. The hitter's perception of the speed of a given pitch is affected by the speed and location of the pitch or pitches that immediately precede it. Roughly speaking, a pitch that follows slower pitches can appear faster, and something slow, when following a faster pitch, appears to be even slower.
"Hitters are like sharks to blood," Husband explained. "When they see two pitches in the same place and at same speed, they begin very quickly to be able to time them, and when they can time them, they attack. But that timing maxes out at about a 6-mph difference in pitch speeds."
He likens it to an NFL cornerback assigned to defend two wide receivers. If those receivers stay within 5 yards of each other, the defender can do a creditable job on both — he has time to react, no matter which one is targeted. But if one of them is split out 20 yards down the line of scrimmage, the defender has to make a choice about what he thinks is about to happen.
"The reality is not that hitters are so good they can recognize the difference between a 97-mph fastball and a 65-mph curveball and time both pitches," Husband said. "Much of the time, pitchers are simply hitting bats."
What he means by this is that if a hitter swings at what he thinks will be a 90-mph fastball down the middle, he can still accidentally run into either a 96-mph fastball down and away or an 85-mph pitch on the inside — all intersecting the arc of his swing — and make solid contact. Husband believes this happens far more frequently than one might think.
Standard baseball strategy says that all a pitcher must do to avoid this dilemma is mix up his pitches — fastballs, sliders, changeups, curveballs. Because they come in at different speeds, the hitter will be confused. Simple, right?
"The problem," said Husband, "is when pitchers pitch backwards."
This means that if a pitcher throws an 86-mph slider high on the inside corner, and follows it with a low-and-away 92-mph fastball, the pitches' EV readings would be exactly the same: 89 mph. And hittable by accident.
Tom House knows all about this. Few men in the world understand pitching better: House, who spent eight years on a major league mound and eight more as the pitching coach of the Texas Rangers, has authored or co-authored nearly a dozen books on the subject, is the founder of the National Pitching Association and went so far as to earn a Ph.D. in sports psychology. All of this is why Husband, who had been introduced to House some years earlier, asked him in 2004 to review his nascent EV framework, and to poke as many holes in it as he could.
He couldn't. Instead, he became a believer.
When asked what Husband's philosophy does for pitchers, House is concise: "There's a dance that goes on in pro baseball in which a pitcher tries to affect the hitter's timing, and the hitter tries to time the pitcher's pitch. What Perry has done is give pitchers a better chance to be before the bat or after the bat, not during the bat."
It's an odd phrase, but precise. House was talking about the point in a swing during which a hitter is able to square up the baseball, alluding to the fact that Husband doesn't claim his model will help pitchers strike everybody out so much as measurably reduce hitters' ability to make solid contact. As an example, House turns to the greatest power pitcher in the history of the game.
"When Nolan Ryan came to the Rangers [at age 42 in 1989, when House was the team's pitching coach], he added a changeup to his repertoire and started throwing to contact, not to strike people out," he said. "I didn't know it at the time, but it was all EV. Nolan needed to throw more strikes early, and when he realized the changeup was a weapon by itself, it made his fastball look better."
Even while trying to induce contact, Ryan presented an example of what the theory can do when utilized by a world-class arm. He went from 228 strikeouts as a 41-year-old in Houston to 301 one year later in his first season with the Rangers, despite the presence of designated hitters in the lineup, raising his strikeout rate per nine innings from 9.3 to 11.3. "Not only did the changeup make it easier on his arm, but it diminished his walk totals and he could go deeper into games," said House. "He was probably more successful after age 40 than he was getting to 40."
Husband's father, James — a 1/16 Choctaw Indian — once told him that if he dug a hole during one phase of the moon but tried to fill it during a different phase of the moon, the dirt wouldn't fit. It was one of many trappings of Native American wisdom Husband carries from his dad. He also carries a laminated card detailing his own 1/32 Choctaw ancestry, which has lived inside his wallet since he was a kid. Although he and his father were never close, he said, keeping the card "somehow reminds me of him."
James hung drywall to support Perry and his nine siblings. Husband has an indelible memory of going to work with his father as a 19-year-old one summer day in 1980, and lying exhausted in the shade during their lunch break. The air outside was above 100 degrees in the Antelope Valley, and although Husband was in his athletic prime, he could barely move after a grueling morning. His father, meanwhile, ate quickly, then began to pace, eager for the break to end and work to resume.
Compared to that, Husband's career as a collegiate second baseman was easy. In 1984, he co-captained Division II champion Cal State Northridge to a College World Series championship, and was named the tournament's MVP. The Twins selected him in the 16th round of the draft and sent him to rookie ball — a station below his abilities as a college senior, he believes, at least in part to help tutor the team's first-round choice, a highly-rated high school shortstop named Jay Bell. The two became one of the league's best double-play combinations, and Husband harbored hopes that they would ascend to the big leagues together. Instead, one year later, Bell was traded to Cleveland in a deal that netted Bert Blyleven. Bell would go on to an 18-year major league career, but shortly after he was dealt, Husband — owner of a career .214 career batting average and feeling like Crash Davis before Crash Davis was even invented — was released.
Washed up at age 24, he began coaching — first an American Legion team, then a junior college squad and eventually at his own academy in Quartz Hill, about an hour north of Los Angles. To prepare for life as a private tutor, he enlisted longtime major league pitcher Jim Slaton to show him the finer points of pitching instruction. Slaton was a natural target for this sort of thing — after all, he was the one who first opened Husband's eyes to how complex pitching could be.
It was in 1981, when Husband was playing for Antelope Valley Junior College, prior to transferring to Northridge. Slaton, an Antelope Valley alum in his 11th big league season, came in for an offseason workout, and recruited Husband to catch him.
"It was eye-opening," said Husband. "He told me to move my glove around, and wherever I put it he'd throw a fastball that moved toward it. Move the glove to the outside part of the plate, and he'd make it sink over there. Move it to the inside, and he cut the ball to move that way. When I raised my glove, he threw a four-seamer right to the spot. He said there were games where he'd throw nothing but fastballs, and seeing him move it around like that, I believed it.
"As a hitter, you just look at a pitch and hit it. This was something completely different."
"The key was that most pitchers don't understand that they're making mistakes in the first place."
It started to make even more sense once Husband began instructing, and tried to put pitches where his school-age pupils could hit them — to anticipate their swings in order to build confidence and improve timing. Even with his best efforts to augment the process, however, kids were still having trouble. Before long, he realized that this kind of struggle might not be limited to kids.
He tested the theory with the help of his old friend, Jay Bell. In one of Husband's early studies, Bell hit 30 balls off a tee in an attempt to connect with a target in straightaway center that could be reached only with a perfect swing. He was successful three times.
This showed Husband that the act of hitting even a stationary baseball is so difficult that the luck factor must be more prevalent than he had imagined. Hitters' success, he theorized, depended more than people recognized upon pitchers' mistakes. The key was that most pitchers don't understand that they're making mistakes in the first place.
Another "Ah-ha!" moment came not long thereafter, when Husband was watching a Yankees game on TV. Alex Rodriguez hit a long home run, but the reaction Husband expected was not the reaction he saw.
"A-Rod looked toward the left field bleachers for the ball to come down ... but then his head jerked around toward right, because he realized that was where the ball actually went," Husband said. "He put the ball into right field almost by accident. He still had to have a good swing to get it there, but he connected with the pitch much later than he thought he would. It was just a happy accident."
Piecing it together later, Husband figured the pitch to be about 96 mph down and away, which registered 91 EV. Had it been either an 86-mph slider up and in, or a 91-mph fastball down the middle (both with a similar EV reading), Rodriguez would likely have hit it just as far with the same swing. "Those three pitches all have different locations and looks," said Husband, "but the mind's eye reads them the same because they travel into the arc of the bat's swing at just the right time to benefit the hitter."
If this was happening with one of the best hitters in the game, Husband realized that it must also be happening to guys with far less talent than Rodriguez.
Husband had experienced that phenomenon himself as a left-handed hitting collegian, once hitting a ball late down the left field line that he initially thought he had pulled toward right. He didn't know what that meant at the time, but watching A-Rod on television brought some clarity. As a coach, Husband was trying to hit his students' bats to boost their confidence, but until that moment he didn't comprehend that that same approach translated to big league hitting: Batters weren't identifying pitches so much as the paths on which those pitches travel, with swings consistently timed for 90 mph. "It's the pitchers who bend over backwards to put their pitches at 87 to 91 EV," said Husband, "that really keep hitters in business."
Years later, he proved his point by studying the closest thing to Superman that the sport has ever seen: Barry Bonds at his peak. When Husband dug into Inside Edge's numbers, he was astounded by what he saw.
"In 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2 counts, Bonds hit .125 against pitches on the inner half of the plate," he said, "just like every other human."
Working from his Zero Line — the invisible stripe from the batter's shoe tops to shoulder level in the opposite batter's box — Husband was able to identify precisely how Bonds struggled when pitches were located in areas in which they picked up effective (and unexpected) speed, and instead of timing them he was forced to react.
This does not mean that Bonds' reactionary skills were anything less than sublime. In fact, his ability to handle an 8-mph spread — to make good contact on balls that came in either 8-mph faster or slower than anticipated — may have been the best in baseball.
But he was still no match for the 20-mph swings of even adequate pitchers who had some idea about what it was they were doing out there on the mound. Somehow, the best minds in baseball had never figured this out.
In the early stages of his research, Husband tested batters' reaction times against various pitch speeds and locations. His subjects were two Division I baseball teams, a junior college team and a group of local high schoolers who came to the Antelope Valley facility in Southern California at which he offered private coaching. What he found, over and over again, was that whenever a pitcher's spread (the difference in reactionary speed from one pitch to the next) reached or exceeded 6 mph — and especially when those pitches followed a similar path from the pitcher's hand to the plate, a skill Husband refers to as "tunneling" — hitters stood little chance of making solid contact.
After charting about 12,000 amateur at-bats, Husband took his work to the big league level. Working with Inside Edge, he examined data for about 5 million big league pitches (approximately 10 seasons' worth), of which about 300,000 noted pitch speed, and found precisely the same things: When sequences contained the right spreads, hard-hit balls were reduced by 23 percent.
He also found that every key stat he studied — batting average, well-hit average (measuring hard-hit balls), home-run percentage and swing-and-miss percentage — peaked at exactly 90 EV mph. As soon as the EV from one pitch to the next deviated by the magic 6 mph or more, hitters' success across the entire stat line tumbled.
"Even if the hitter guesses right, his brain can't adjust to the input of what he's actually seeing."
"Every statistic showed what I already knew was true," said Husband. "Big league hitters are like machines when it comes to hitting those 90-mph pitches, but they have limited ability to adjust — a reality that becomes even more stark when tunnels hide the identity of a pitch. The best, top-notch guys might be able to handle an 8-mph spread, but pitchers can work a 40-mph difference between their speeds. If they do things right, hitters simply can't catch up. It's why EV works. Unless a hitter is sitting on an inside or elevated fastball that's picking up effective velocity, he simply cannot react quickly enough to hit that ball with maximum efficiency."
With a big enough spread, said House, "even if the hitter guesses right, his brain can't adjust to the input of what he's actually seeing."
One of the pitchers Husband studied was Kelvim Escobar, a righthander who in the late 1990s and early 2000s pitched mostly in relief for seven seasons in Toronto. In 2004, based largely on what many felt was a world-class fastball combination — a 97-mph four-seamer, a 91-mph cutter and a sinker that came in at 92 — Escobar signed a big-money contract with the Angels. That year, however (which happened to be the season Husband used for his developmental research), Escobar managed to finish fourth in the league in strikeouts, but still posted a losing record for a club that won 92 games. Husband thinks he knows much of the reason why.
"Escobar's stuff was about as good as it gets," he said. "But at the time I did the study, the league was hitting his fastball combo at a .369 clip. If movement is everything for a pitcher, this guy should have been a world-beater. But if movement is so important, why was he getting killed?
"It turned out that he was throwing 97 down and away, which is about 92 EV. Then he throws the cutter to lefties at 92, and the sinker down and in, at about 91. He's throwing all his pitches within 2 or 3 mph of each other [in EV terms], and he's neutralizing all the effects. Even though the movement is there, it's killing him. Guys are getting ready for one pitch at one speed, and receiving two bonus pitches at the same speed. He was throwing pitches that moved right into hitters' bats, even if they were guessing wrong."
Had Escobar reversed himself, he could have created a spread of up to 16 mph utilizing exactly the same pitches. Husband paused for a moment, and sighed.
"The reality of EV's effectiveness has been documented over and over again, even if pitchers don't even recognize what they're doing," he said. "There is no game, week, season or decade in history that EV was not at work."
"Put it another way," he continued. "It doesn't matter if the participants of an avalanche know the intricacies of gravity — it's working on them either way."
Husband had the secret sauce. Now he just needed an organization to believe him. Or even just a player who could circumvent all the explanation by showing the world what EV could do. Somebody to put his theory into practice ... and succeed.
In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks used the third overall pick of the amateur draft to select pitcher Trevor Bauer. In three seasons at UCLA, the 20-year-old had gone 34-8 with a 2.36 ERA, striking out an eye-popping 460 hitters over 373 ⅓ innings.
He was also as solid an adherent to EV as could be found in organized baseball.
Bauer spent his prep summers training at the Texas Baseball Ranch, an academy in Montgomery, Texas, which tutors some 200 students from around the country each year for extended sessions, and another 800 for 10 three-day pitchers' boot camps. Hundreds of coaches also gather there each December for their own three-day session of pitching-based seminars and presentations. The camp was founded by Ron Wolforth, who views his job description in terms of thought leadership nearly as much as much as he does actual coaching.
Wolforth met Husband in 2004, when they were both presenting at an American Baseball Coaches Association convention in San Antonio. Each offered theories contrary to conventional thinking, and were immediately drawn to each other. Along with House, Wolforth became one of the first people Husband asked to vet his nascent EV program. At that point, said Wolforth, "bells went off."
Wolforth, and instructors like him, have been the lifeblood for Husband's theories. Even as major league programs shrink from the idea of extreme change, increasing numbers of amateur EV devotees are working their way into, and up, the professional ranks.
"You hear people in the industry talk about hard in, slow away," Wolforth said. "Perry took a concept that we already accepted to be true, and quantified it. He showed not only why it works, but how it works. That was the first time that this stuff really started to make sense. I always knew it to be true, but when you start putting numbers to it, it becomes very powerful."
Husband gave the notion a slight twist: "Chefs have known forever that fire is hot, but how hot is where the art of cooking begins."
Wolforth quickly adopted Husband's model for his academy. Bauer, a naturally curious competitor who studied mechanical engineering in college, was among the first pitchers to embrace it.
"Pitching had always been guesswork for me," he said. "You throw a really good pitch and end up saying, ‘I don't know how he hit that.' Getting hitters out was always kind of black magic."
What EV gave him, he said, was "a repeatable way to beat hitters every single time."
The model runs even deeper than perceived velocity and a pitcher's spreads, and offers more than just strategy. There's also a practical, training-based aspect to it. Take another of EV's tenets, Husband's notion of "tunneling." Research showed him that a hitter must recognize a pitch's type — fastball, slider, etc. — within 20 feet of its release point if he is to have sufficient time to react. With this in mind, Husband preaches that pitchers keep their various offerings on the same path (or in the same "tunnel") for at least their first 20 feet of flight. Whenever a pitch moves after that point — be it a darting fastball or a diving breaking ball — the hitter's best hopes are guesswork and luck. Such pitches are generally ascribed to possessing late movement, but to Husband it is merely effective tunneling. "It just looks like a fastball for a longer period of time before people realize it's moving," he explained.
House put it another way: "The majority of pitching coaches at every level talk about getting on top of the ball, but it's just the opposite. What you really want to ask is, how long can it stay in the tunnel?"
Bauer was so enamored of the concept that he and his father, Warren, a chemical engineer, built a metal frame out of rebar with a 13-by-10-inch opening (relative at 20 feet to the larger strike zone 60 feet, 6 inches away) at their home in Santa Clarita, Calif. If Bauer's practice pitches passed through the hole, he knew they were in the tunnel.
After being drafted, Bauer rocketed up the minor league ladder, culminating with a call-up to Arizona in just his second professional season. When he first got to the major leagues, however, things quickly grew complicated, an example of the difficulty EV faces with adoption at the game's highest level.
Arizona's catcher, Miguel Montero — at the time a seven-year vet — complained about the rookie's habit of shaking off his signals, starting with his first-ever big league pitch and barely relenting from there. (Montero said the rest of the staff disagreed with his pitch selections three or four times per game, reported The Arizona Republic, while on at least one occasion Bauer shook him off on "almost every pitch.") Montero, of course, called pitches according to a combination of scouting reports and personal experience. Bauer, however, wanted to execute an EV-based game plan built entirely on sequence and location, regardless of who was at the plate.
When manager Kirk Gibson pulled Bauer from his second start after 3 ⅓ innings and seven runs across the plate, it is safe to say that the pitcher's point had not been suitably reinforced.
"It's tough for me to understand how a hitter-dependent approach works," said Bauer, later that season. "It's also hard for someone who's been taught that way to understand how a hitter-independent approach works. It was frustrating for everybody."
"This is not high school anymore," Montero said of the experience. "This is not college anymore. There are different ways to attack big league hitters. They make adjustments, so you have to make adjustments. If you attack them one way the first at-bat, they will adjust, and you have to attack in a different way the next time."
This set the table for protracted acrimony between Bauer, Gibson, Montero and then-pitching coach Charles Nagy. Bauer's belief in his system was so intractable as to paint him in the eyes of management as beyond coaching. "You just can't say, ‘I'm going to do something regardless,'" said Gibson at the time. "What he's doing might work for some, but if it's not working, you have to change." The press talked at length about Bauer's insistence on pitching up in the zone, with nary a mention about why he thought it important.
The situation was further muddled because Bauer was so far off his game — hampered in part by a series of nagging injuries — that it became impossible to tell which of his failings were due to mechanics, and which to philosophy.
Unhindered by doubt even as he struggled, Bauer continued, to his own detriment, to bludgeon his employer with a system in which he believed completely, and which they had increasingly little interest in understanding. A trade was almost inevitable.
That December, it happened. After accumulating a 6.06 ERA in four major league starts in 2012 — including six innings of two-hit, shutout ball against the Dodgers — Bauer was traded to Cleveland for pennies on the dollar — light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius (recalled from the minors earlier this month) and reliever Tony Sipp (currently with Houston, his third team in three seasons).
Cleveland did not enter into this relationship with eyes closed. Not only did they scout Bauer before making the deal with Arizona, they went so far as to send representatives to Wolforth's coaching clinic in Montgomery — reconnaissance agents whose targets were only too happy to spill the beans — just weeks before pulling the trigger. There, they watched Bauer, together with a Ranch regular named Eric Binder — a 26-year-old whose two-season professional pitching career crested in the Single-A New York-Penn League in 2011 — give a presentation on lower-half pitching mechanics. The team was so taken that they didn't just trade for Bauer, they also hired Binder, who currently serves as an assistant in player development.
Today, Bauer remains at the vanguard of the EV movement, but he has added nuance to his repertoire. The Indians have given him space with which to ply his trade, and he goes to lengths to make sure his pitching philosophy meshes with his team's game plan, rather than buries it. Healthy again both physically and emotionally, Bauer is thriving.
After spending all but four starts in the minor leagues in 2013, Bauer was recalled by Cleveland on May 20 and proceeded to shut down the Tigers at home, picking up his first win of the season with six innings of two-run ball. He won his second game on Monday, going 6.2 innings against the Angels and striking out out six, despite not having his best stuff. Bauer has yet to give up four runs in a start this season, but neither has he pitched a full seven innings; his ERA sits at 4.20, but his 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings is second among Cleveland starters to strikeout machine Corey Kluber.
"The Indians have really been trying to learn me as a pitcher, and figure out not just what I need to be successful, but what I'm trying to do," said Bauer.
Look no further than Bauer's relationship with his catcher for evidence of maturity. Where once Montero bristled at being shaken off repeatedly, during Bauer's first major league start this season, Carlos Santana barely realized that his pitcher was doing anything other than what was requested. If the catcher called for an inside fastball to a left-handed hitter, for example, Bauer saw it as an opportunity to go in multiple directions, depending on where in the process he was at setting the hitter up.
"I have the option of throwing a four-seam fastball at the top of the zone, or a sinking fastball to the bottom of the zone, and those share a similar tunnel," he said. "If the catcher calls two fastballs in and a cutter away, I can throw three different pitches in three different locations that all end up under the categorization of fastball and cutter. ... Having fastballs at three different velocities that share a tunnel but end up in different quadrants of the strike zone makes it easy to work around things like that."
This, perhaps, may be the most essential lesson for an EV practitioner: Finding ways to fit philosophy into a team's existing construct and executing in a manner that achieves EV objectives while adhering to what's expected from a more traditional standpoint. This is how inroads are made.
Bauer spends his spare time — like, a lot of his spare time, mornings before games and late at night, afterward — studying heat maps of areas various pitchers tend to throw the ball, and creating video overlays of those pitchers' repertoires, which allows him to study the effect tunneling has on hitters. In the process, he is serving as a one-man example for the difficulty Husband faces in selling his formula.
"Someone will do it. It's going to take a progressive GM."
The against-grain ideas are one thing, but these days, as Bauer is just now rounding into the kind of shape that can bring EV some national prominence, it becomes clear that his was a learning curve years in the making — and he's not even all the way there yet. If a guy who calls the theory "gospel," as Bauer did, who spends significant time studying it and who has tied his earning power directly to his own ability to implement it effectively — if this guy is still figuring out the nuances, what kind of hope does Husband have for an entire organization to buy in?
"We'll see it at some point," said Bauer. "Someone will do it. It's going to take a progressive GM, probably a younger guy brought in to a system that's really down, to try and revive it."
House thinks it might even be easier than that.
"When pitchers like Trevor have had success with it, people will start to pay attention," he said. "At that point, it'll permeate through the professional ranks."
It's already happening. But in an industry slow to change and even slower to admit it, it's just not fully visible — yet.
Between 2004 and 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals won two World Series and lost another, thanks in no small part to the sinker-heavy philosophy of pitching coach Dave Duncan, whose talent at turning journeyman pitchers into stars seemed to know no bounds. Cardinals pitchers were lauded for eschewing the strikeout in favor of pitching to contact down in the zone and allowing the stout defense behind them to do its job.
From 2007 to 2013, however, there was another force at work in the system. Brent Strom, currently the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, served as the Cardinals' minor league pitching coordinator during that time, and despite Duncan's success with the sinker at the big league level, harbored some different ideas. Strom met Husband at one of Wolforth's coaching clinics in 2004, and was quickly sold on EV's merits. Contrary to the sinker-heavy regimen employed by the Cardinals, of course, EV theory espouses keeping the ball up in the zone, which led Strom to a dilemma about how to square the two philosophies. The answer he came up with was easy: You don't.
"There was some disconnect between the major league side and the minor league side," Strom admitted. "Jeff Luhnow [then the team's VP of player development, currently the Astros GM responsible for bringing Strom to Houston] and [owner] Bill DeWtitt Jr. realized some good things were being done at the minor league level. But the last thing anybody wants to do is to tell Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan to change the basic Cardinals pitching philosophy. Hell, if a pitching coach is ever going to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, it's going to be Duncan."
So the sides agreed to disagree. Strom taught the sinker as instructed, but also worked diligently to develop the wealth of power arms coming up through the system. Instead of forcing them all into the same low-ball mold of previous years, he taught the importance of adding velocity by emphasizing four-seam fastballs and keeping pitches up. As a result, the Cardinals, whose staff once was laden with sinkerballers, are barely recognizable. Shelby Miller: fastball guy. Lance Lynn: fastball guy. Michael Wacha: fastball guy. Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez: fastball guys, every one.
"The main thing for me is how much can be gained from pitching up in the zone, above the belt, and how the middle of the plate can be your friend," said Strom. "When Perry first said that to me, I looked at him funny, but it makes perfect sense. If you keep pitching to the edges of the plate and you end up walking people, you do more damage to yourself than if you'd just put the ball down the middle. Everybody thinks that middle-middle is such a bad place, but if you can buy a strike there, look at all the pitches you can throw off it — cutters, sinkers, tailing fastballs, curveballs, changeups. It opens up everything. You just have to have the balls to do it."
(Now that sinkerballers are commonplace across the league, the pendulum is swinging the other way. No less an authority than Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is leading the charge, stocking his team with low-ball hitters — frequently of the no-name variety — acquired to destroy that particular pitch. A lot of things have gone right for the A's this season, but the fact that their custom-built lineup is near the top of the league in OBP, OPS, runs and homers, had Oakland in first place.)
If Strom, working his magic within a system in guerilla fashion, can have such a dramatic impact, it invites the question about what it might look like if an organization buys into the system in full.
"It would be great if somebody was bold enough to implement Effective Velocity, even if it was just for six weeks in the instructional league, where there's no pressure to win, just to see how it works," said Mike Milchin, who, following a one-season big league pitching career became a player agent, and now represents the likes of All-Star pitchers Justin Verlander and Madison Bumgarner. Milchin was introduced to Husband's system through his son's youth league team, and sees endless possibilities for what it can do. Part of his enthusiasm hinges on the fact that bits and pieces of what Husband has worked out already exist around the big leagues. Milchin has seen it in practice, and knows what it can do.
He tells his own story of attending instructional league as a minor leaguer with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The team's farm director at the time was former All-Star catcher Ted Simmons, who gathered the organization's young pitchers around him for an exposition on the art of pitching the likes of which Milchin had never heard.
"It was an exceptionally hot day, and Simmons was out there in jeans, a leather jacket and cowboy boots, explaining to us Perry's idea of the Zero Line while a cigarette dangled from his lips," he said. "He didn't call it the Zero Line, of course, but he took off his jacket and went out to the mound and showed us how it works. Ted understood it inherently from all his years as a catcher."
Milchin is convinced that a team embracing Husband's model would encounter immediate success. "It would have to be someone who is either courageous enough to do things differently, " he said, "or someone who has seen it with their own eyes, like myself."
Milchin, however, is not the guy, he says, even when it comes to influencing his own clients. (He has formally introduced neither Verlander nor Bumgarner to EV.) Teams have their own brain trusts, he said, and it would be counterproductive to start counseling his pitchers in any way that might run contrary to whatever they're being told by the people who pay their salaries — regardless of the lesson's veracity.
Which leads to a pertinent question: If an EV devotee, a prominent figure within the game, is unwilling to square up these theories with baseball's establishment, what hope is there that the system will ever be embraced?
"The greatest right we have is the right to change," said House. "Let's not lose sight of that."
An old baseball adage tells ballplayers to keep doing whatever it is that got them to the big leagues in the first place, that their success at lower levels of the game was predicated on some essential self-trust that, as athletes, they must never lose. Every good player makes ad-hoc adjustments, but an outsider telling them to revamp all they know — especially if they're already experiencing some success — faces long odds.
This, more than anything, is likely keeping Husband out of big league clubhouses.
There's also EV's grounding in familiarity — the type of thing that fostered such excitement in Milchin — which serves more frequently to inform baseball insiders that they already know much of what Husband is saying, and so don't need to know more. Many of those he talks to identify aspects of his program that they like, then simply adopt them as their own on a piecemeal basis.
"There's a reason it has been hidden for over 100 years. People have danced around it, but no one has fully understood it."
This, insists Husband, is selling the program short.
"There are many layers to the EV onion," he said. "It's simple at the core — understanding what causes hard-hit balls — but understanding it can be very complex, like trying to explain the concept of ‘math' in just a few sentences. There's a reason it has been hidden for over 100 years. People have danced around it, but no one has fully understood it."
Still, as EV filters up the ranks, and as young players schooled at places like the Texas Baseball Ranch turn pro (and as more and more teaching facilities embrace EV), Husband holds out hope. He has a proponent in Derek Johnson, who as a collegiate coach at Vanderbilt utilized EV tenets to tutor pitchers who have gone on to big league success, including David Price and Mike Minor. Last season Johnson himself moved to the major leagues, becoming the minor league pitching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.
Husband already has a series of books available that explain his concepts in detail. He also has acquired a patent (Number 7,575,526 B2: Method and apparatus for analyzing a pitched ball), with hopes that radar guns might one day add EV functionality to account for location, and a still-conceptual suite of apps could instruct pitchers how to use EV more effectively. He is convinced that an EV graphics package on telecasts could go a long way toward explaining to viewers what is actually happening on the baseball diamond.
None of this is close to reality. Yet.
"The day I introduced the concept to Tom House, he told me I was looking at a minimum of seven years to get through to people," said Husband of their 2004 meeting. "I didn't believe him. I was certain that the truth would be so powerful that people would change overnight. For a lot of coaches, the truth of EV is hard to accept because it means that they were wrong to a degree — not about everything, but enough to make them slow to adapt. Not until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing will people change. There will be a point very soon, however, when they will have no choice. When enough eyes are opened to the truth, the pain of not changing will be great."
This is Husband at his most grandiose and his most frustrated, all at once. Perhaps he realizes that he has spent the better part of a decade trying to fill a hole in baseball's landscape during the wrong phase of the moon.
He paused to consider his words, before settling on the one concept that has kept him going all these years.
"EV," he said, "is the truth."
Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images