Jake Bauers: Clear the Mechanism

Life is full of noise. The outside voices and distractions can serve as a constant bombardment to a person’s focus. For some, the noise is relatively quiet. They have a normal life with a normal job, normal pressures, and normal expectations. For others, like Durham Bulls slugger Jake Bauers, the noise is much louder. The scrutiny of playing professional baseball, being a top prospect, and trying to live up to outsized expectations can be overwhelming.

The noise can be deafening.

“A couple times this year I’ve deleted all the social media apps from my phone just to kind of be here, be in the moment, be present,” admitted Bauers. “There’s almost nothing else you can do really except take a step back, look at yourself in the mirror and just say, ‘alright man, it’s time to go.’ You’re not doing yourself any favors when you’re thinking about other things. You’re gonna be the best player you are when you’re focused on the game you’re playing right now. Once you realize that, it’s just like a switch you have to flip, and just make a decision to say, ‘I’m gonna be here tonight. I’m not anywhere else. I’m focusing on this at-bat, this pitch right now.’ Anything else just kind of goes out the window.”

From the outside looking in, a fan would never notice the internal struggle for focus that Bauers is fighting. The 21-year-old has been a powerful middle-of-the-order presence for Durham this year. While he might not lead the league in any one particular category, Bauers does appear among the leaders in several major offensive stats.

“Overall I pride myself on being a well-rounded offensive player,” said Bauers. “I’m not a guy who’s gonna hit .350 every year. I’m not a guy who’s gonna hit 40 home runs every year. But what I will do is be around the top in every single category. That’s something that I pride myself on, is being able to score a run, being able to drive in a run, being able to steal a base if I need to, getting on base when I need to, hitting a home run when I need to. Just being able to do anything that might come up.”

That well-rounded game has always been Bauers’ calling card, from his time as a standout teenager in California, to the start of his pro career in the San Diego Padres system, and through the blockbuster trade that brought him to Tampa Bay as a part of the Wil Myers trade in 2014. That all changed, however, when he burst onto the scene at Major League Spring Training earlier this year. Due to the World Baseball Classic pulling many regular players away Bauers was given the opportunity to play with the big leaguers, an opportunity the burgeoning star didn’t let pass him by.

In 17 games totaling 43 plate appearance, Bauers raked to the tune of a .371/.465/.857 slash line with four home runs, three doubles, a triple, 13 RBI, and 10 runs scored. The 6’1 prospect paced the Rays in nearly every offensive category, but the headline grabbers were his prodigious homers that soared past the outfield walls with ease. The spring explosion caught the attention of not just Tampa Bay, but the larger baseball world as well.

Rays’ All-Star center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was one of the first to dote on the young star, tweeting “To all the baseball fans out there…remember the name Jake Bauers…dude is an absolute stud. Show hair. Show swing. Very impressive.”

Bauers’ smooth left-handed stroke even drew praise from Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash.

“I bet he’s probably had that similar swing his entire life, that nobody has ever changed it or tinkered with because it’s just so natural. It looks like his hands and bat get into that slot and he looks — I’m not comparing him to Ken Griffey Jr. — but a real smooth swing that looks effortless.”

All the praise thrust Bauers into the spotlight, an unexpected outcome that served as both a blessing and a curse.

“(The Spring Training attention) was crazy for me man,” said Bauers. “To be completely honest with you I think it kind of led to my early season slump; trying to be someone I wasn’t. That’s just not who I am. Maybe it will be one day, but right now I’m not a guy who’s gonna hit a home run every game. I’m not a guy who’s gonna hit a home run ever other game. It’s just not who I am and I know that. […] I don’t know what it was. It just gave me this sense of, ‘oh, you’ve got to keep hitting home runs.’ So I got here and kept trying to hit home runs, and everyone saw what happened. It wasn’t pretty. Once I got back to who I was and focused on who I was out there is when everything started to come around. That’s not to say I might not have another stretch like that, but for now I’m just going to focus on what I can do tonight to help us win.”

That focus on winning is Bauers’ center, his true north of sorts. When all the noise seems to be creeping in, the Rays’ №5 prospect just tries to block everything out and lock in on the mentality that his ex-Marine baseball coach taught him years ago.

“It was always about winning,” said Bauers. “[…] They taught us first and foremost how to be good people and respect your coaches and respect the game also. Second, it was winning. It was not participation trophies, it was not losing is good or losing is ok. That’s a mentality that I’ve kept with me to this day. That’s something that I pride myself on is even in the Minor Leagues when sometimes you can get pretty selfish just worrying about your own numbers, worrying about your own situation, I’ve always felt like I’ve focused on winning just as much. That’s something that I hope I never lose. I hope the business side of baseball never gets to me and the way I focus on winning.”

Bauers’ win-first mentality has helped him block out the noise and put his early-season struggles behind him. His OPS since the start of May stands at .835, placing him among the top bats in the league over that time. While the statistics have improved, Bauers knows the fight for focus is ongoing.

“I’m still learning. I’m still not through it,” said Bauers. “I still wake up some days and think about things that I shouldn’t be thinking about, and I don’t know if that will ever stop to be honest with you. It’s something that you learn to manage and you learn to deal with, and you’ve got to find a way to center yourself come seven o’clock. Durham has a great fan base, and all these people that come to the games don’t pay money to get a ticket to come watch you think about playing somewhere else. They come and they pay their money to watch you play for the Durham Bulls.”

Those fans have certainly been getting their money’s worth this season. Bauers and the rest of the Bulls’ young nucleus have propelled the team to a comfortable lead in the South Division, and the playoffs appear to be on the horizon. This winning atmosphere is what Bauers lives for.

“I get fired up that I’m able to come here and live out a dream, because that’s what it is,” said Bauers. “The moment you forget about that is the moment when you’re probably not having fun anymore. Why do something if you’re not having fun? For me, coming here and being able to basically hang out, and work out, and exercise, and play a game, and get payed to do it, and also do it around a bunch of guys that you consider friends and brothers; there’s really not a better situation to be in. It’s always exciting when I get to wake up and there’s a game that night and I know I’m gonna be in the lineup and I know that I’m gonna have an opportunity to compete because I think that’s where I thrive is in competition. Without it I don’t know who I’d be.”

The noise will always be there for Bauers, but it’s the competition that keeps him focused. A focus that can cut through the loudest of uproars from the outside world, and power Bauers to stardom.