Eric Lauer was a master at coming to his own rescue.
He was a fireman who sometimes was able to put out blazes he had accidentally set — but only after there had been too much smoke damage. He would get something stuck in his throat and was often able to give himself the Heimlich — but only after significant oxygen had been lost. He valiantly tried to be all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, but more often than not he couldn’t put his starts back together again.
Among major league starters who threw at least 31 innings last season, none allowed as many walks and hits per inning pitched (1.54) while having as low an ERA (4.34) as Lauer.
That is a dubious statistical distinction, which occurs only when a pitcher gets in trouble often enough and then often enough gets out of it.
Lauer was the guy flinging the clay pigeons in the air when no one was on base. He was an assassin when a runner got on.
He led the majors by picking off 10 runners at first base. It got to where guys barely left the bag.
He was simply a better pitcher when he had to be. He just too often had to be.
Batters leading off an inning hit .306 against Lauer, 60 points above the league average. His batting average against (BAA) with no one on base was .309, 69 points above the league average.
With runners on, his BAA was .255, three points below league average. It was .225 with runners in scoring position, 29 points below league average.
“That’s when you make your most important pitches,” Lauer said. “I’m incredibly comfortable out of the stretch, and that plays into it. I am able to make pitches. It doesn’t change my mechanics. And it’s just a little heightened level of focus. It’s good and bad. You don’t want to not have total focus when no one is on the basepaths. It’s your job not to let runs score.”
But he knows he has to go deeper in games, especially this season on this team.
A big part of the “next step” the team has talked about Lauer and Joey Lucchesi taking in their second major league season is durability. Consistently going six innings or more would be the most tangible measure of their improvement. While they have 49 starts between them, that’s 41 more than the rest of the probable season-opening rotation combined. Matt Strahm and rookie Chris Paddack are going to have limits on their workloads, as both build up strength in comebacks from injuries.
“We’re supposed to be the workhorses of the team,” Lauer said. “… More innings, more wins, it all goes together. The more you can help the team by saving other arms, that’s your job.”
Lauer went six innings or more six times in his 23 starts. He went longer than six just twice. His only foray beyond 6 1/3 innings was when he came within one out of a shutout July 10 against the Dodgers before Max Muncy’s solo homer.
Lauer went fewer than five innings seven times and didn’t make it out of the sixth inning in another six starts.
Too often, he was just out of bullets.
Of the 127 pitchers who threw 112 innings or more, only five averaged more pitches per inning than Lauer’s 18.1.
That’s too many. With not enough.
Lauer approaches each at-bat like a chess match. Out-strategizing a batter is paramount when your fastball tops out at 92 and your other pitches are more good than great. And the former National Honor Society member is really good at the thinking game.
But he was essentially playing minus a rook and bishop last season.
Lauer’s fastball is the epitome of sneaky good. His silky delivery hides a late burst. Batters see the ball leave his hand, and then it seems like the next thing they see is the ball going past them. But it runs 90-92 mph, and without the threat of other excellent pitches, major league batters can often at least get a piece of it.
The foul balls off Lauer were plentiful.
Among the 115 pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches last season, only 12 had a lower swing-and-miss rate than Lauer’s 20 percent. Of the 268 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 pitches, just 17 had a higher rate of foul balls than Lauer’s 21 percent.
So he went to work this offseason on refining his slider and change-up.
He had tried to do so in previous seasons, especially the change-up. He found it difficult to master. And truthfully, there hadn’t been motivation like what he received last season.
Lauer led the NCAA with a 0.69 ERA his junior season at Kent State. He cruised through the minors, making his big-league debut last April 24 — not even two years after he was drafted and 379 days after his first game in Single-A. In his first turn through the major leagues, he found out good isn’t good enough, as he was occasionally bombarded by hits and frustrated when what he thought were winning pitches didn’t produce winning results.
Lauer, who is scheduled to start Friday night against the Rockies, has pitched in just two Cactus League games this spring. In between those appearances (Feb. 28 and March 15) he pitched in a pair of minor league games on a back field at the Peoria Sports Complex, where he and coaches could interact during play and he could throw whatever he wanted just to see how it felt and how it moved.
“A lab-like setting,” manager Andy Green said.
When he emerged from the lab, his four hitless innings with six strikeouts against the Brewers on March 15 indicated he might have discovered a cure for all that contact.
His slider is breaking later, and the Brewers put some bad swings on it. But it is the improved change-up that might make the biggest difference. It fades and falls to the left. His other pitches, including the fastball (which a change-up is designed to mimic) break right.
Lauer got two of his 12 outs against the Brewers with the change-up — a pitch he threw just three or four times a game last season. (He threw the slider about twice that.)
It seems he might have the all the chess pieces on the board.
“Now I can go anywhere in any direction,” Lauer said.
The idea is that batters won’t know what he’s going to do.
“The more off-speed pitches he shows,” pitching coach Darren Balsley said, “the better the fastball is going to be.”
And, theoretically, the more effective he is dialing up those pitches, the less often he will have to be his own 9-1-1.