EL PASO, Texas – Eric Lauer, 22, is six-foot-three, left-handed, and consistently throws a baseball over 90 miles per hour.
But what makes Lauer special is his ability to command his fastball. When he’s on, he seemingly can put the baseball wherever he wants in all four quadrants of the plate. He also shows an unflappable demeanor on the mound.
“He has a low pulse beat”, Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas pitching coach Bronswell Patrick said after Lauer’s last start with the affiliate. “He is really calm and goes about his business the right way. I think he’s going to be pretty good.”
The Padres selected Lauer with the 25th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Kent State after San Diego picked right-hander Cal Quantrill with the eighth overall selection.
In his junior year for the Golden Flashes Lauer had a 0.69 ERA in 104 innings, the lowest in the NCAA since 1979.
The organization limited his innings in his first summer of professional ball with the short-season Tri-City Dust Devils, but Lauer still struck 28 batters in 25 innings for a 1.44 ERA and quickly impressed the organization with his polished approach. In 2017 the Padres started him off at High-A Lake Elsinore, where Lauer struck out 84 in 67.2 innings while only walking 19. At midseason, he was promoted to Double-A San Antonio, which was the first time he really struggled professionally.
“I think it was about a three-game stretch where I was awful,” said Lauer last week in El Paso. “I didn’t know what I was doing and then tried to do too much.”
“I went back to the basics and that is all I need to do.”
After yielding five, seven and seven runs in consecutive outings, Lauer turned the corner. Over his last five games of the year, he allowed only three earned runs in 27 innings.
“I thought I had to try and throw harder – and I always kind of end up doing that at the beginning of each year. What’s funny is that I don’t throw any harder. It doesn’t make any sense.
“When I go back to the basics and try to have smooth mechanics and be on time, I’ll throw the same speed and be better.”
Coming into 2018, many thought he would return to San Antonio. But in his first big league spring training, Lauer showed that he built on last year’s turn-around and added a few more things to his arsenal to earn a promotion to Triple-A.
Lauer identified his improved changeup and being able to use it more consistently as his biggest improvement to begin the year.
“I have been getting into better counts and having a consistent motion and action with it.
“Also, my slider has been better. I lost it a little last year but this spring [Padres pitching coach Darren] Balsley showed me a new slider grip that was more natural and it helped me with consistency.
“Before it would get kind of sweepy and I couldn’t figure what I was doing differently to manipulate the ball. The new grip just helped me feel much more comfortable and get better results.”
The improvement in his changeup, along with a much better curveball, give him two consistent offspeed offerings which haven’t been there in the past. Last Sunday in Las Vegas, he struck out ten batters in six innings against only two walks and three hits. His ability to change speeds and command his fastball command set him apart.
“He had a really good fastball that he was able to elevate and go in and out,” said El Paso manager Rod Barajas, a former big league catcher. “He had all of his pitches working today.”
“He had his slider, curve, and changeup. He was able to able to throw a 74-mph curve early in the count which accomplishes two things. One, it gets him ahead. Two, it slows the hitters down instead of just seeing hard fastballs and hard sliders.”
Lauer throws a four-seam fastball with good sink and runs in the 90 to 93 mph range to go along with a hard slider, that has also improved since last year. His fastball command, which many believe is the best in the organization, is a separator that allows all of his pitches to play up.
“It’s just a lot of focus,” Lauer said on the reasons behind his fastball command. “I work on my mechanics to make sure that they stay the same and are repeatable. I try to keep it as simple as possible so I can repeat it as much as possible. That way I just have to focus on where I want to throw the pitch.
“I find that when I try to throw it as hard as I can I have better results than when I am trying to aim it at a specific spot. It’s more after years of repetition and the same synchronizing of muscle memory that if you can just focus on a spot, you can get the pitch where you want.
“I think the ability to focus is a skill and in some cases, it can be the difference in having command. Obviously, it’s not the only component, but it is big.”
Before getting called up by the Padres for his major league debut Tuesday in Colorado, Lauer was 2-1 in three starts with 19 strikeouts and six walks in 18 innings coming off of his best pitching performance on Sunday.
“I’m more of a pitcher than a thrower,” Lauer said. “At Kent State, my pitching coach once told me that you can throw as hard as you want if you can get guys out.
“If you can throw 80 and get guys out, then throw 80. If you can throw a 100 and get guys out, then throw a 100. But in the end, you have to be able to make your pitch and execute it as opposed to just throwing.”