Why you should care
Because the question is not whether he will be picked, but how high he will go in the draft.
Luken Baker is staring at the ball heading for left field and over the fence in disbelief, as if it didn’t just come off his own bat at the College World Series, jolting his team ahead from a lag in the ninth inning.
The freshman’s extraordinary turn on a low 90 mph fastball is a prime example of the deserved hype that swirls around him: “Luken Baker is a MAN among boys,” ESPNU tweeted, blasting a video of the home run. The 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year, a three-time USA Baseball alum and the winner of the MLB Junior Select Home Run Derby at the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, Baker is a possible top 10 pick in the 2018 MLB draft. His offense is just the half of it: On the mound the 6-foot-4, 265-pound 19-year-old sophomore righty throws 90 mph himself as part of a threatening three-pitch arsenal. Baker “would fit in physically in a big league clubhouse,” says Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill. Physically, he is in a class with Seattle Mariners ace pitcher Felix Hernandez and Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who have one thing in common: their mid-$20 million annual salaries.
There’ll be a time I’m not good enough to do one or the other.
Baker’s abilities stem from his power. He throws hard and hits far. “He raises your blood pressure every time he goes to bat,” Texas A&M baseball coach Rob Childress said last season. Which means he’s in luck: The majors, with faster fastballs in recent years and a sight on breaking the MLB’s record for home runs in a season, are trending toward Baker’s style of play.
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) June 19, 2016
So why isn’t Baker signed to a farm team yet? Baseball has a minor minor-league problem on its hands — most minor leaguers never make the big leagues, despite toiling in unglamorous locales like Pawtucket and Staten Island and living under the poverty line. (Multimillion-dollar signing bonuses that some prize prospects get are rare.) Players might enter the draft right out of high school, but the average player debuts in the majors around age 24, according to the Lahman database. Baker has shaved off some of the minor league tour of duty by choosing Texas Christian University. In the 2015 draft, he had a choice: college, or the minors. Though he was a clear first- or second-rounder, he emailed every MLB scouting director a week before the draft to announce he’d picked college.
— Luken Baker (@lukenb9) July 14, 2015
Baker remains unsure about which position he’ll play: pitcher or first baseman. “There’ll be a time I’m not good enough to do one or the other,” he says. “That’ll be the time I decide to do one.” College lets him test both. Baker picked TCU because of the coach, Jim Schlossnagle, who has sent players like Cubs ace Jake Arrieta and All-Star Matt Carpenter to the draft. He figures that in minor league ball, mentorship and relationships take a backseat. And he’s stuck to the decision: The Houston Astros took a flyer on him in the 37th round, praying Baker would break his college commitment. He didn’t.
Growing up in north Houston, Baker was a multisport athlete. He’s the son of a chemical salesman and a floor saleswoman. T-ball began at age 5; he also went out for football, basketball, swimming and tennis. Ryan Dunsmore, SB Nation’s Astros beat reporter, says he has seen the state of Friday Night Lights become multisport territory after years of worshipping at the altar of football. He attributes the shift partially to concussion concerns, partially to baseball’s immediate post–high school possibilities; football requires years of college play. Baker’s first break came way before graduation, at age 13, with a USA National Team invite. But he missed the cut, suffering a blow to his confidence. Instead of bowing out, he re-upped his commitment to the game to ensure he “never had that feeling again.”
Baker’s a man of few words, and a man of God. Raised on church in a Christian family, he’s of the same religious stock as many other athletes, from Clayton Kershaw to newly converted baseballer, field-praying Tim Tebow. Baker is vocal about faith, in a sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God fashion. “First off, no one deserves to be on this Earth right now. We’ve all sinned and the penalty of sin is death,” he says. “The opportunities I have, I’m blessed to have them, because I don’t deserve ’em. The ability to play baseball isn’t given to me by man, it’s given to me by God.”
Last year, a forearm injury suspended Baker’s pitching halfway through the season. He expects to be back on the mound this year, but the injury might worry scouts over whether he’s clocked enough meaningful innings. He will need to be “more efficient” this season, Cahill says. And given Baker’s affinity for first base, teams might be skittish about his lack of defensive flexibility — in the past few years, first basemen have fallen out of the draft’s top 10 in lieu of pitchers, outfielders and shortstops.
For now, Baker is focused on his current team and the next College World Series, not the draft. With one more year under his belt, he may hit more than a few bombs, with more than a few chances to stare transfixed at his own soaring ball.