Q&A: Trevor Bauer on free agency, the Cy Young and his latest effort to make MLB players more marketable

Mike Oz

Trevor Bauer is mid-story when our phone calls connect. He’s talking about his college baseball cap and how, in even just a small way, it led him on a path to where he is today.

Bauer — one of this offseason’s top free agents, this year’s NL Cy Young winner and now the first MLB player to partner with leading sports retailer Lids on his own line — loves to talk about marketing baseball players. Not quite as much as loves to talk about pitching, but figuring out how to enhance the marketability of MLB’s best players is a common theme in both his interviews and his tweets.

It’s something, he says during this story he’s telling, that goes back to his college baseball cap when he was pitching at UCLA. You see, he wore this faded cap that looked like it had been through years of sweat. It looked like all his teammates were wearing new caps and he was wearing one from 1955.

Bauer actually went to great lengths to make sure his cap looked and fit a certain way. He washed it so it was clean, but maintained that faded, beaten-up aesthetic. He aged his caps, placing new ones on his car dashboard, so they’d get faded and have that sweaty, broken-in look whenever he needed a different one. He wanted to be known as that pitcher with the faded cap.

“That was really the start of my branding as a player,” Bauer says. “Because I had a little bit of a platform — as much, I guess, as a college baseball player would have. It was all centered around that hat. Even though it wasn’t super intentional at the time, looking back at it, it was highly effective. It’s amazing what something as simple as a hat can say about a person.”

Trevor Bauer is the first MLB ambassador and he's one of the most in-demand free agents on the market. (Nicole Smith/Lids)
Trevor Bauer is the first MLB ambassador and he's one of the most in-demand free agents on the market. (Nicole Smith/Lids)

Now, as announced Tuesday, he’s lined up a deal with Lids that will see him creating hats and shirts with the national retailer. The pair will also unveil several customizations that can be added to any hat or jersey, he says, so modern fans can put their own spin on baseball traditions. Baseball has dragged behind on these types of initiatives, as Bauer will happily tell you, so he wants to create new connections between players and fans. We see it in his YouTube videos on his own Momentum platform and we’re about to see it during his free agency.

Already, he and his agent Rachel Luba have made the courting of Bauer public — as Bauer has used to his Twitter account to tease fans in different cities with visits and ask questions about whether they want to see him in certain uniforms. They’re committed to breaking their own news during the process too, another way Bauer wants to strengthen the platforms of players instead of just rolling with the traditional ways things have always been done in baseball.

I chatted with Bauer recently about all this and more. This was before he was announced as the NL Cy Young winner, but he talked about what it would mean and how this cap initiative could be like the sneakers that NBA players wear.

Yahoo Sports: It doesn’t seem like you approach anything conventionally, so I have to imagine you’re not approaching free agency like the average player. As that all starts to get going, what’s your strategy?

Trevor Bauer: I honestly haven’t thought about free agency as much as people think. Since the Reds were eliminated, I took a few days off to explore the Northeast and then spent time with my family in L.A. I’m down in Phoenix now training again but my agent Rachel Luba is taking the brunt of that stress — and those calls — right now. She’ll be sharing updates directly on Twitter (@AgentRachelLuba) throughout the process. Ultimately, I love this game and I just want to be in a supportive team environment where I feel happy playing baseball. I’m looking forward to the next few months and this whole process.

I love your tweets whetting the appetite of various fan bases. What made you want to do that, what kind of responses have you been getting and do you wish more players did that type of thing?

I love finding ways to connect with fans and throughout the playoffs especially but even now, I really enjoy finding fun ways to do that. Seeing my mentions flooded with fans making the case for their team and their city is really fun to watch and I love their passion. I do think more players should engage with fans, especially on social media. It’s so important to grow our game that players share more of their lives than just on the field and that personalities can shine through. From what I’ve read, Gen Z largely favors players over teams and that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to showcase MLB player personalities. It’s one of the reasons I started Momentum and I loved seeing players like Tatis Jr., Mookie, and Bellinger this year really leaning into that.

We’ve already seen you and Rachel breaking your own news on Twitter with the qualifying offer. Will we see more of that? And in the bigger picture, is this something players should have been doing more of all along?

It’s definitely something you’ll see from me and Rachel more as this process continues. I think that it’s something players should be capitalizing on. There’s a ton of interest in the offseason around where players are going to go, but the vast majority of that traffic and attention goes to the beat reporters or the national writers or whoever is writing an article about speculation this and speculation that.

If a player makes it to free agency and has put in the time, years and all the hard work, I feel like a player should capitalize on his moment. It’s never really been done before. But it’s something that’s easy that moving forward a lot of players can capitalize on. Outside of pitching during the season, there’s no better time to generate interest and lasting brand recognizability and growth than when you’re going through this big moment in your career — when you’re choosing where to play for the next X amount of years. It’s one of those creative ideas that me and my team talked about and decided to try to push something new forward.

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Speaking of new ideas, what can we expect from the Lids partnership and what’s your approach that project?

It’s something I really like to be creative with. I think I had a lot of really creative moments with my own merch line this past year, but obviously a limited reach so I’m really excited to work with Lids and their 1,200 retail locations. Connecting with young fans is something that’s really big to me, so finding creative ways to allow fans to customize hats and to buy the same stuff that I’m wearing personally. As a kid, I wore the same Oakland A’s hat for like six or seven years. It was faded white and green. It was because I loved Barry Zito and he had signed that hat. There’s a personal connection that was made there and it lived in the hat that I wore every day. I’m excited to bring moments like that, to work with the creative team at Lids on the designs and different ways we can push that forward. For me, it’s about connecting with those fans, creating inspiration and creating some sort of connection between a young fan and a big leaguer.

We don’t have as many people in baseball that have their own merch lines. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are the only guys who have their own cleats, whereas a lot of people in the NBA do. Why do you think in general these types of opportunities aren’t out there as much for baseball players?

It’s do-able in baseball as well. MLB has been a little bit behind on that pushing that forward and encouraging it. You look at the custom nature of NBA shoes. They’re all custom. You know a Kobe when you see it, a LeBron when you see it, a Westbrook when you see it. In baseball, we haven’t been allowed to customize cleats up until recently. But I do envision a world in the future where players are wearing their own custom pairs of cleats and they have a shoe line just without the cleats on the bottom. Because we’ve slipped behind on the marketing side in the industry, there’s not a whole lot of interest. People don’t know it exists. So the large shoe companies don’t put a lot of money into it because there’s not a lot of return on it.

But hats are baseball’s bread and butter, right? So fans might have that same connection with a baseball hat that they would with a basketball shoe. Is there an opportunity there?

Hats is the way to go in baseball. That’s why I’m with Lids. There’s so much a hat can say about a person. It’s your interests, your personality. You wear every single day, you wear it to school, to the gym, with your buddies. You get bonded to a hat because it means something to you. There’s something you can see in the hat and what that means to what you aspire to be. That’s really what we’re trying to create — people that want to aspire to be a professional baseball player or just think that a player’s personality is cool and the player wears his hat, so he wants to support the personality. There’s just so many different options in a very simple piece of apparel.

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You’ve proven yourself a guy with a lot of interests beyond just playing baseball. This is the latest thing, what else do you want to do? What else gets your creative juices going?

There’s a lot. Mainly, in baseball in general, it’s seeing a better landscape for players when I leave the game than existed when I came in. That can be in a lot of different ways. That be in marketing, it can be in branding, it can be in player development, player representation, health, longevity, stuff like that. That’s really where my interests are. I’ve always wanted to be in business. I’ve always been somewhat creative. I’m filming for my YouTube channel all the time. I’m filming for Momentum all the time. That specific entity is aimed at connecting fans and players on a human level. I have a couple other entities I haven’t announced yet that are focused on, again, on trying to provide a better landscape for players. That’s why Luba Sports excited me so much because it was different. It made so much more sense than what’s out there in more of a traditional agency model. It allows a lot more flexibility and personalization with each client.

I know the Cy Young is something you’ve been working toward for a long time and it wasn’t a quick journey for you. What will it mean if you win?

It’s been the top personal goal that I have really since I won the Golden Spikes in college. As soon as I won that, I replaced that goal with winning a Cy Young at the big-league level. I’ve had a picture of a Cy Young as my phone’s background for 10 years now. Jim Palmer’s Cy Young. I’m excited to be in contention for it, obviously sharing that with Yu Darvish and Jacob deGrom, two people that I look up to and respect a lot that had fantastic years. I think all three of us are deserving of winning it. I hope I get the nod. If I do, I’ll be able to replace the picture on my phone screen with my own Cy Young.

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