The most expensive player in baseball history is a con artist.
Trevor Bauer, who will reportedly earn $40m playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers this year, is not one of the fastest pitchers in the sport. Instead, he is one of the smartest: a master of disguise.
As he walks up to the plate he has one aim in mind – how to deceive the batter standing 60 feet and six inches away.
“I never really threw hard growing up, so I learned from a young age that I had to mix speeds and shapes,” says Bauer, who won the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in the National League last year.
Now aged 30, and with almost 10 years in the professional game, there are six main pitches he draws on: his fastball and then variations that spin in different ways. The aim is to make every one look the same – until it’s too late for the hitter to react.
This is how he thinks about it.
“Imagine a tree with a bunch of branches,” Bauer says. “You turn it on its side where the trunk is at the pitcher’s end and the branches are at the hitter’s end. All the pitches would travel down the trunk so they’d all look the same, and then they’d split off on the different branches of the tree as they got closer to the plate.”
In baseball this is called tunnelling: essentially, making several variations appear indecipherable from one another for as long as possible. Rob Gray, associate professor in human systems engineering at Arizona State University, explains further.
“If two pitches – say a 90mph fastball and a 76mph curveball – can travel down the same initial trajectory long enough, batters won’t be able to tell them apart before they need to start their swing. But the two will end up in very different locations.”
It is a window into the art of deception in sport.
From batters in cricket and baseball to tennis players returning serve, those hitting a ball moving at extreme speeds can’t just react. Instead, they must use cues to work out where the ball will go.
It is this very need to read what might happen next that leaves them susceptible to trickery – and there are few athletes more adept at such chicanery than Bauer, the mad genius of baseball.
Insatiable and unorthodox in his quest to improve, he follows the science in searching for new forms of deceit. He has pitched blindfolded. He pitched with one eye shut in a pre-season match in March. And he has worn virtual reality goggles to face his own deliveries – all to analyse his own game.
“I’ve always had this idea that it would be really cool to hit off myself and see how my tunnels look, how my pitches look, how my delivery looks, to try and get some information of how I can further deceive a hitter,” he says.
“I think the true power of, I guess just call it new age thought, is that it gives us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and why, so you can learn more about a subject.”
Bauer can also draw on the findings of a 2016 Japanese study that shows just how little time hitters have to deal with him.
In the study, hitters wore glasses that impeded their vision for various stages of the ball’s flight. When they were stopped from seeing in the last 150 milliseconds before a pitch reached them, they performed just as well as when their sight wasn’t blocked at all.
Those 150 milliseconds are about a third of the time it takes for a fastball to reach the plate. During this time, as Bauer says, hitters are effectively “blind”. What matters is what hitters do before.
In baseball, the best batters – those who fixate on fewer locations and maintain a steady gaze for longer than less proficient players – focus particularly on the pitcher’s arm and elbow. It is up to the pitcher to mask the vital information on display: the arm motion, the moment of ball release and the ball trajectory.
“That’s the guiding principle,” says Bauer. “The more deceptive the pitch, the harder it will be for the hitter to square it up, and be on time.
“You can’t really track the ball over the last third of its flight because your head is moving too quickly and the ball is moving too quickly and your eyes can’t keep up.
“A lot of the information that hitters actually use happens before release. They can tell if the pitcher slows down, if his arm slot changes drastically, or the angle of his torso or something like that.
“So if you can project all your pitches on the same initial trajectory and have them break different ways at different velocities, that’s probably the best way to go about it.”
As well as disguise, Bauer also uses another tool – what sports scientists call contextual deception. This entails using the context of the game, and a player’s specific traits, to fool an opponent.
“There are certain hitters that will just sit on a specific pitch,” Bauer says.
“It doesn’t really matter what you throw them – they’ll swing at it like it’s whatever pitch they’re looking for. A good example would be someone who just sits on fastballs. So if you throw them breaking balls [a pitch with sideways or downward motion on it] that look like a fastball to start off, they’ll swing and they’ll miss the ball by two feet, and they’ll look stupid.”
Sequencing pitches in a certain way can also make hitters more likely to be deceived.
Gray’s academic work has shown that batters begin to shift their coordination pattern for any given swing based on recent pitches, and that a batter’s average timing error for fast pitches is considerably higher when the fast pitch follows a sequence of slower ones.
“I know the science behind the process,” Bauer says. “You don’t want to throw the same pitch type too often because the hitter gets better at seeing it and hitting it the more you throw it.”
Bauer’s central craft – to disguise what he is doing – is embraced by many other leading athletes.
As a boy, Pete Sampras’s junior coach used to yell ‘wide’, ‘middle’ or ‘body’ just as the young American would release the ball to serve. The upshot was that he was “able to hit all my spots with the same ball toss”, he says – disguising his serves much like Bauer does his pitches.
And just like Bauer setting up his opponents to deceive them, athletes in other sports do the same. Earlier in a match, and in games when he was 40-0 up, Sampras would consciously serve more often than normal out wide – his less preferred serve – on the advantage side of the court.
“To open up the spots I would go out wide early in the match,” Sampras explains. “Up 40-0, I might go out wide a few times just because I’m trying to get it out there so he doesn’t cheat the other way. But come a tiebreak or break point, you might go back to your old faithful.
“It’s just like a pitcher or maybe a bowler in cricket – you just try to set up certain serves so when the big moment comes you’re a little more free.”
Given how fast-paced their matches are, and how little time they have to react, elite players must constantly try to predict what will happen next. The context of the situation, their experience playing against the same opponent and relevant cues all influence how they anticipate where the ball will be.
The smartest athletes can manipulate these cues, turning opponents’ powers of anticipation into a weapon that can be used against them. In basketball, players watch the eye movements of whoever has the ball to anticipate where they will pass. But this allows con artists to try and fool them.
“I’m constantly trying to deceive the defence and throw them off track,” says Elena Delle Donne, who has twice won the Most Valuable Player award in the WNBA. One way she does this is “deceiving them where you look one way and pass it the other”.
She adds: “I’ve drilled it so many times that I know if I get that head fake my next step has got to get me right by you and I know which way you’re going to go and which way I need to go.”
Ivan Lendl learned the potency of deception when Michael Chang famously delivered an underarm serve at a crucial point in the French Open in 1989, en route to winning the title.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Chang says. “You can tell just by his reaction that he was not expecting that to happen.
“Ivan is the consummate professional. He prepares for just about every circumstance. But you would never train to play against someone who was cramping, just as you would never train to play against someone who was hitting an underarm serve.
“He was taken by surprise and obviously after that it became not just a physical battle but a mental one too.”
It attests to an eternal truth. What sets leading athletes apart isn’t just their skills; it is also their minds.
Tim Wigmore is the co-author of The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made.