When Trevor Bauer’s Not Pitching, He’s Building Drones
CLEVELAND—Earlier this summer, Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer faced an unusual problem for a baseball player. On a road trip to Kansas City, he flew his hand-built, homemade drone into a tree in a public park and had to call the Royals’ clubhouse attendants for help after hours of unsuccessful rescue attempts.
Bauer is almost certainly baseball’s best drone builder, a title for which there is little competition. But today he has been thrust into another equally unexpected role: playoff ace.
That’s because the Indians’ ballyhooed pitching rotation—assembled in hopes of winning the team’s first World Series title in nearly 70 years—has been torn up thanks to injuries that have sidelined Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.
Those injuries warped the rotation in such a way that Bauer, the starting pitcher in the Indians’ Game 1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night, may very well be the team’s most important player going forward. That’s an unusual role for a pitcher who finished the season with a modest 12-8 record and 4.26 earned-run average.
Bauer was once a prized prospect, the third-overall draft pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA, where he studied mechanical engineering. His pro career didn’t have the start that he wanted, and his phenom label soon disappeared. An analytical thinker, Bauer would beat himself up over his bad starts when he got home from the ballpark, constantly thinking of ways to tinker with what he had done wrong.
The overthinking didn’t help matters, and he knew that with the way his mind worked, he needed something to think about besides pitching.
Then in 2013, he saw a video of drones racing, and it reminded him of one of his favorite scenes in Star Wars on the planet Endor, where Luke and Leia Skywalker use speeders to escape stormtroopers in a forest.
“I was like, ‘That looks awesome, I’ve got to learn how to do that,’” Bauer said. “So I just started researching it and taught myself about it and how to do it and how to build them.”
It’s a complex task that, even in 2016, can’t be done with just a laptop. Drone builders learn over time to analyze wiring patterns while understanding transmission issues that cause highly intelligent and trained engineers to lose their minds and do something crazy—like turn on a baseball game.
“It would be very, very hard for the average person to just jump in and do it,” said Matt Waite, a professor at Nebraska who founded the school’s drone journalism lab.
Bauer started building his first drone after the 2014 season. It took him about nine months of scouring message boards and ordering and piecing together parts. When his drone was finally ready, he took it out to his backyard, figuring it would hover easily for a few seconds.
It immediately crashed and shattered into pieces. Bauer spent the ensuing week figuring out what went wrong before he rebuilt the drone.
Now, two years later, Bauer has crafted nine small aircrafts entirely on his own. He sometimes reaches out to other drone enthusiasts on message boards and solicits tips and suggestions on social media, which is common in the world of unmanned aircrafts. But the handiwork—and the repairs—are entirely his. Bauer feels such an intimate connection with his drones that he christens them with names like Buzz, Anakin and Rocky.
It is as strange a hobby as any in baseball—even for a pitcher. And it sometimes bleeds into his day job. Bauer recently bought a 3D printer and prints out drone pieces while he’s at the ballpark.
He had planned to take his drones for a spin inside of every stadium this year to shoot aerial videos, but then came another unexpected snag: MLB banned flying drones inside of stadiums. Instead, he flies in local parks like the one in Kansas City, and he brings two drones on every road trip.
“Inevitably both of them end up broken,” Bauer said.
Most of his colleagues on the Indians pass time the way players did the last time the team won the World Series: fishing, golfing, and the occasional bow-and-arrow shooting. Most players did not spend their downtime in spring training teaching themselves computer-aided design like Bauer did.
“If he’s smart, he wouldn’t let anyone touch (his drones) in this locker room,” said second baseman Jason Kipnis, who once tried to fly a drone his friend bought but failed to get it off the ground.
But it is catching on. Lonnie Chisenhall, one of the team’s outfielders, bought his own drone this summer, inspired by Bauer. The process wasn’t as meticulous as Bauer’s example made it seem.
“I just swiped my credit card,” he said.