If not for a single well-timed phone call, a sequence of events would not have unfolded that ended with Luken Baker winning Major League Baseball's second annual Junior Select High School Home Run Derby.
Fortunately for Baker, Texas Christian assistant coach Bill Mosiello placed a call that started the chain reaction of getting Baker to Target Field. And Baker brought a sold-out crowd to its feet after emerging as a top power hitter in the 2014 prep class. But Baker is a pitcher, which is why he narrowly made the nine-man field in Minneapolis.
To pick the derby field, MLB collaborated with the Major League Scouting Bureau, Baseball Canada and USA Baseball, which uses its Tournament of Stars as a feeder event, selecting six of the nine participants from the event.
A big, strong righthander on the mound whose physicality and arm strength indicates his Texas roots, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Baker threw twice at TOS, running his heavy, sinking fastball up to 94 while sitting in the low 90s in short stints.
Entering the final day of the event, the TCU commit had yet to take batting practice or swing in game action when Mosiello called a member of USA Baseball's staff.
“Bill asked, 'How has he been doing when he wasn't pitching and how is he hitting?'" Baker said. “The USA staff said, 'I didn't know he hits.'"
In their last game of the event, Baker's team scored seven runs on the first four outs to create a blowout scenario. After that offensive onslaught, Baker was told to take batting practice with another team that would play in a later time slot.
“The best BP of my life," Baker said. “All week I was taking hacks and waiting for that one opportunity, and when I got it I took advantage of it."
With a pinch-hit opportunity in the sixth inning, the righthanded hitter smoked a missile off the left-field fence for a double that was one of the hardest hit balls of the day. After flying out in his next plate appearance, Baker produced more hard contact, this time to the opposite-field gap for a single before flying out in his last trip up.
“It's crazy because if he (Bill) doesn't make the call that morning, than I'm not in the Home Run Derby," Baker said. “All the thanks in the world go out to Bill."
Slow Start, Big Finish
That strong showing spurred an invitation to the Junior Home Run Derby. All nine participants competed starting at 8 a.m. on July 13, before the Futures Game, to winnow the field down to two for Monday's prime time event, getting two rounds (10 outs for the first and five for the second) to emerge from the field.
“In the first round of 10 outs I only hit one homer, so in the next round of five I was just thinking I wanted to hit two or three and just a get few more in before I have to watch it the next day," Baker said. “Then I found a groove and I did well enough to make it to the next round. I was probably thinking too much in the first round, just being in a big league ballpark and trying to focus on other guys.
“Once I got that first one out of the way I was able to relax and not think about the people so much."
With a tie at six after two rounds, Baker hit three home runs in a decisive extra round to place in Monday's field with lefthanded-hitting Canadian Josh Naylor, one of the most heralded prospects to come from Canada in years.
The two prep players competed during the television breaks of the MLB Home Run Derby. Each player used metal bats and got 10 outs in the first round or four minutes, whichever came first, and a maximum of 15 pitches in the second round. Naylor hit first.
“I got up to the plate and kind of looked around, and saw everyone looking at me, and I was on the big screen," Naylor said. “It was a blur, but the first few swings I couldn't really feel my legs. I had to wait for that one pitch to make sure I could hit out.
“I hit one out on my first swing in the first round. I just kept waiting for that pitch, waiting for that pitch."
Naylor, who attends St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, hit one out in his first round and then Baker jumped out to a sizeable lead with six in his first round, at one point hitting three straight home runs to the pull field.
Right On Target
Target Field is advantageous for righthanded hitters compared to lefthanded. Since the park opened in 2010, the righthanded home run park factor for Target Field has been 97 (with 100 as average) compared to 89 for lefthanded hitters. Only two parks (Miami and San Francisco) have been tougher on lefthanded hitters trying to hit home runs.
Although the dimensions are a few feet shorter in right field than left, right field has a 23-foot wall compared to an 8-foot wall in left.
Naylor found a rhythm in his second round and hit three, including one to the upper deck that drew a thunderous applause.
“My dad and I had worked on tweaking my swing to be able to lift the ball a little better," Naylor said. “I was just trying to lift the ball with a little bit of launch. It was tough in Minnesota because you have to climb that wall. I had to make sure the pitch is something up in the zone, even the low-inside one I can get up a little bit. That was my main goal—elevate and celebrate."'
Baker, who attends Oak Ridge High in Conroe, Texas (just outside Houston), hit one in the final round to claim the victory by a 7-4 margin.
Naylor and Baker both relished their opportunities to interact with and learn from the best players and sluggers in the big leagues.
“When I got down there I kind of talked to everybody a little bit," Naylor said. “I was really talking more to Justin Morneau, because he's Canadian and he's gone through what I've been going through with Team Canada. We talked about how hard he had to work and how it was a grind when he was in the minor leagues. Of course we talked about his Home Run Derby in 2008. I just tried to get everything out of him."
Baker added, “Right when we got in there, I got the chance to talk to Brandon Moss and to Mike Trout for a little bit. They were saying how they were preparing for the All-Star Game and they were just as nervous as I was. I don't know how nervous they could possibly be being as cool as they were. Then sitting on the side and talking to Trout and Robinson Cano for as long as I did was a highlight of the event."
Despite showing plus raw power that is among the best in the class, Baker's future likely still lies on the mound.
“I would think pitching, but since I'm going to get the opportunity to do both in college I guess we'll probably see," Baker said.