One-of-a-kind Indians pitcher marries charity and trolling with his 69 Days of Giving

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Major League Baseball’s arbitration process allows a player to request an exact salary, and when pitcher Trevor Bauer concluded that he and the Cleveland Indians were not going to reach an agreement on a deal for the 2018 season, he started to consider potential incomes. The first number he suggested was $6.9 million. Warned that was too high and that it risked him losing his case, he workshopped a few other options before settling on the money he wanted this year: $6,420,969.69.

“I just think it’s a good number,” Bauer told Yahoo Sports. “I think it accurately reflects my place in the salary structure relative to other athletes.”

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Despite his desire to make a mockery of the arbitration system, Bauer eventually agreed to file at a number with no weed or sex references: $6,525,000. Though Bauer won the case, his wish to be paid $6,420,969.69 did not abate, and it has spawned a most unique campaign of philanthropy. Bauer launched what he’s calling The 69 Days of Giving. Starting Thursday on opening day, he will donate $420.69 a day for the next 68 days to a different charity, the majority of which he plans on choosing after soliciting suggestions from fans on his website. On the final day, Bauer will give $69,420.69 to a charity he’s keeping secret.

In total, he will donate $98,027.61, starting with a contribution Thursday to the Lone Survivor Foundation, a favorite of Bauer’s that supports wounded veterans. The leftover $6,002.70 will go to Taiki Green, the campaign manager for the 69 Days who will administer the website and shot the hype video that went live on the site Wednesday. Subtract those two numbers from his salary, and voila: $6,420,969.69.

“That’s what I want to play for this year,” Bauer said. “I made up my mind. And since I got more than that in arbitration, I decided to give up the difference.”

Bauer’s embrace of a new subcategory of giving – benevolent trolling – is quite on-brand. At 27 years old, he is one of baseball’s sharpest characters – and one of its hardest to define. His unparalleled-in-baseball embrace of science runs into conflict with his full-throated endorsement of a president who devalues it. His hobby of building and flying drones – and the mangled finger one caused during the 2016 playoffs – belies the countless hours Bauer spends honing his pitches. He is the unathletic athlete, built more through hustle and inquisitiveness than genetics and traditional methods. And, yes, he is the guy who doesn’t smoke or drink but gleefully makes donations that start with 420.

“I’m just trying to give to charity, man,” Bauer said. “I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I have the ability to do that. I have the means to do that. I’m in a good spot. And I can use my platform to spread stuff that I’m passionate about.”

***

When Trevor Bauer devotes himself to something, he cannot settle for a typical explanation. He must unpack it, understand its essence, experience it. The Indians were willing to offer well above the $5.3 million number at which they filed in arbitration. Bauer wasn’t budging. He wanted to see what he said is a “flawed” system at work.

“When it was first brought about, it was good, because it gave players a way to increase their salaries while teams have years of control,” Bauer said. “I think it’s outdated in a lot of ways now. It suppresses players’ salaries mostly. It should be reworked. The way teams are treating free agency this year, and all the years of team control, it’s got to be looked at.”

It’s safe to say Trevor Bauer sees the game a little differently. (AP)

Bauer is under the Indians’ control for three more years, and he’ll hit free agency following the 2020 season, at which point he hopes to have finally evolved from a right-handed pitcher with strong advanced metrics and solid classic numbers to one of the game’s finest arms. Because his plan for free agency may change baseball.

“Personally, I will never sign a contract longer than one year,” he said. “That’s how I feel. I’m going to take one year. I’m going to take maximum annual average value contingent on the fact that I’m allowed to pitch every fourth day. And that’s my deal. It’ll be great for the team because there’s no risk. And assume it’s $42 million – $42.0 million – then if they’re not in the race, they’ll end up paying only two-thirds of it. And then they can trade me for prospects. Or if they’re in it, the contract’s worth it.”

The notion of seeking the highest AAV on a short-term deal is something agents for years have played out in their minds, only to advise their best clients to choose the security of a guaranteed long-term contract. Bauer’s priorities are different. His desire to win a World Series is a huge part of his one-year-deal calculus.

“I’m always on a contender, so I don’t get stuck in a contract with a non-contender,” Bauer said. “I’m either on a contender I sign with or get traded to one. This is contingent on me pitching well. But I spend so much time honoring my health and training, I have a lot of information that says I can handle the workload. All the risk in that situation is on the player’s side.”

Bauer’s willingness to bet on himself goes back a decade to high school, when his long-toss and weighted-ball training routines were fringe programs and not MLB standard as they are today. He learned movement patterns that allowed him to catapult a fastball in the high ’90s, earned a scholarship to UCLA, went third overall in the amateur draft, found himself traded to Cleveland a year later and blossomed into one of the more interesting pitchers today. And it’s not simply because of Bauer’s big strikeout rate last year. It’s that Bauer is learning like nobody else.

Every winter, Bauer sets a goal on which he wants to spend most of his bandwidth. This offseason, it was throwing a better slider. Rather than randomly tinker with different grips or pressure points, Bauer decided to build his in a lab. Driveline Baseball, the pitching think tank in Seattle, is equipped with high-speed cameras, radar-tracking devices and all sorts of other cool gear – some of which Bauer himself supplies. Using the tech, Bauer planned to replicate the sliders of reigning American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Toronto Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman.

Bauer believed the key to the pitch was its spin axis – the angle on which the ball rotates. His first lab creation was a two-seam fastball Stroman threw, too, with a spin axis that didn’t disrupt the flow of air over the ball, leading to its obscene movement. After watching video of Kluber and Stroman throwing the pitch, he used 2,000-frames-per-second cameras to capture him throwing balls marked up to show whether he was achieving the proper spin axis. For six hours, he threw balls, watched video, tweaked, iterated and recognized the best pitches not by how they felt but how similar their movement profiles were to Kluber’s and Stroman’s.

Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco cruise in a golf cart during spring training. (AP)

“If you don’t understand the theory, you can’t design the pitch,” Bauer said. “If you don’t have high-speed cameras, you can’t design the pitch. If you don’t have feedback loops, you can’t design the pitch. And you don’t know until you go throw it in a game and it gets hit 420 feet.”

This spring, he unleashed the pitch and while exhibition numbers are relatively immaterial, his 39 strikeouts led all pitchers. Scouts who saw Bauer came away with their typical reports: great stuff, questions about his ability to apply it for a full season. Bauer’s ERA never has been lower than 4.18, though that isn’t necessarily a great measure of success, either. Bauer’s second-half ERA of 3.01 last season was nearly 2¼ points higher than in the first half, even though his peripheral numbers in both were nearly identical.

This year? “Probably [expletive], like always,” Bauer said. “Probably have a low-to-mid-4 ERA, way underperform my advanced stats and take infinite [expletive] online for it.” He said it in jest, mocking those who belittle him. Bauer doesn’t shy from that. He has tweeted birther rhetoric and accused Twitter and Apple of liberal bias. He is adept at drawing attention, good and bad. People who donate $420.69 at a time don’t do it by accident.

***

When his website launched Wednesday morning, Bauer hoped the 69 Days would grow into a venture that spans sport. That not only would his teammates help match his donations but others whose senses of humor dovetail with Bauer’s might jump onboard, too.

“I’ve got to imagine Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] and [Joel] Embiid will be in on it,” he said.

He’s excited to see the public reaction, hopeful that every person on Twitter who responds “nice” will consider nominating a charity or that Cleveland can strengthen an embrace that already makes Bauer feel welcome and appreciated.

“We’re trying to get the community involved and get as much exposure for the charities as possible,” he said. “I want the majority of it to be fan involvement. If we start spreading the word, hopefully it can turn into a community effort.”

So long as the community is in on the joke, it may work. The campaign will cause confusion for those not in the know, indignation for those who see this as more derisive than noble, and a whole lot of Beavis and Butthead chuckles for those who respect Bauer’s ability to do good amid his lampooning.

It goes back to a goal that has manifested itself throughout Bauer’s career. He is as open as any baseball player in terms of showing his life, his off-the-field interests, his training. His cache of YouTube videos offers a doctorate-level education in pitching. He knows there are others like him who may not look the part but can learn it.

“I want to be the best for personal achievement, but I also want to move the game forward,” Bauer said. “When I’m done with my career, I want to look back and say over the last 20 years, this has advanced in a tremendous way.”

Twenty years, of course, is an awfully long time. For now, 69 days will suffice.

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