According to baseball-almanac.com, only 11 native Alaskans have reached the major leagues, and nine of those – including six-time MLB All-Star right-hander Curt Schilling – were born in Anchorage.
Right-hander Dylan Baker, a native of Juneau, is a long way from the big leagues but the value of his stock in the upcoming June amateur draft continues to skyrocket with each new start he makes for junior college power Western Nevada College in Carson City, Nev.
You’d need a crystal ball and deck of tarot cards to even hazard a guess as to when Baker might become the next Alaskan big-leaguer. But after working two hitless, scoreless innings in WNC’s latest Scenic West Athletic Conference (SWAC) victory on Saturday (April 7), it’s looking increasingly more like he could become a first round pick when the 2012 draft commences on June 4.
Baker is a sophomore, but this is his first year at Western Nevada after spending last season at Tacoma (Wash.) Community College. In his seven months in Carson City, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Baker has made a believer out of WNC head coach D.J. Whittemore.
“I think he was draftable and signable when he first got here.” Whittemore said in a telephone interview late last week. “He was 87 to 90 (mph) on a big frame with as good of a breaking ball as you’ll see on a junior college pitcher. He’s certainly upgraded from being an afterthought in the draft to being at the top of the draft board.”
After 10 starts at WNC this spring, Baker’s numbers were like something out of a video game. He stood 9-0 with a 0.20 ERA, and struck out 63 in 44 1/3 innings of work (with 24 walks). He had pitched three complete games and two shutouts.
Those numbers come on the heels of a fairly nondescript season at Tacoma CC where he went 3-3 with a 3.47 ERA. Baker gives all the credit for his improvement to Whittemore and WNC pitching coach Jeremy Beard.
“I obviously owe a lot to my coaches,” he said. “Coach Whittemore and Coach Beard and all the other coaches (have been great), because I came to the team and they immediately let me into the family. That right there was awesome and the atmosphere here was just great.”
The flame that is the relationship between Baker and WNC may have first got sparked last summer in Glens Falls, N.Y., where Baker was playing for head coach John Mayotte and pitching coach Sean Cashman of the Glens Falls Golden Eagles in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL).
Baker’s stat line wasn’t particularly impressive in the PGCBL – 0-2 with a 5.46 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 28 innings (10 appearances, five starts) – but the experience helped to open his eyes to other opportunities.
“It was beneficial because the pitching coach on the team I played for definitely helped me out a lot,” Baker said, adding that the level of competition in the PGCBL got him thinking about seeking out greater challenges at the junior college level.
“When I got back from summer ball in New York to my hometown in Juneau, I thought about it for a couple of days and I decided I needed to go someplace else because I wanted to learn more, get more experience and get better faster,” he said.
Whittemore is glad to have him. He calls Baker’s repertoire of pitches “amazing” and that includes a fastball that has now reached 96 mph.
“He’s a guy that has always been hard to hit and that’s a product of his high-to-low on his fastball and just amazing breaking stuff – his slider and curveball are both … as good as I’ve ever seen on our team,” said Whittemore, the only coach WNC has had in the seven years the program has existed.
“The question with Dylan was always, ‘Can he throw enough strikes to be dominant or just good?’ He’s done more than I could have imagined because on top of throwing enough strikes to be dominant, his stuff has improved dramatically.”
The Wildcats (29-10) are well-positioned to make a run for their second straight SWAC championship and fourth since 2006. Whittemore guided WNC teams to Western District and Region XVIII championships in 2007 and ’09, the same seasons they also advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.
“What we’ve found is that the Western District has fared very well in the national tournament,” Whittemore said. “If you can win the Western District you’ve got to show up at the (NJCAA) World Series feeling like you’ve got a chance to win it all. If you can compete in our conference you can probably compete with anyone in the country.
“I knew that this team was going to be good and have a chance to win at the end for sure, but I thought it might take a little bit longer than it has to stabilize the ship.”
Professional scouts have been flocking to WNC games to watch Baker and several of his teammates perform. The scouts aren’t strangers to Carson City; 16 former WNC players are already playing professionally. This year’s Wildcats pitching staff boasts a team ERA of 1.91.
“We’ve honestly had a lot of high-profile pitchers here,” Whittemore said. “Dylan is the most high-profile pitcher we’ve had but there have been a lot of scouts at our games for a long time. Our first pitching staff in 2006 had five draft-and-signs.”
Baker hasn’t let a childhood spent in Alaska be a hindrance to his dream of playing professional baseball. In fact, he doesn’t feel like he was working at that much of a disadvantage.
“There are definitely coaches up there who care about the kids and they’ve been coaching for a long time so they know what they’re doing,” Baker said. “I’ve just always loved baseball and I have two older brothers and they played baseball, so I’ve just always played baseball myself.”
Whether or not he joins that fairly short list of native Alaskans that have reached the majors won’t be known for at least several more years. For now, Baker will continue to try to impress the scouts without spending too much time thinking about the draft. That can be difficult when as many as 60 scouts have come out to watch the Wildcats on days he pitches.
“I think about it and I talk to my coaches about it, and the kids on my team joke around about it, but it’s definitely on my mind,” Baker said. “When I go into a game or I’m at practice I try not to think about it because I want to be real focused on the team and focused on our goals instead of the draft. But it’s definitely on my mind; I can’t say it’s not.”
The success Baker has enjoyed this season doesn’t necessarily surprise him. It was just a matter of this one Alaska kid getting comfortable with a junior college program in Nevada’s state capital, a city that borders the California state line and Lake Tahoe.
“I always knew that I could be better than I was last year and the year before, but I really didn’t expect it to happen all so fast. It’s been a little crazy,” Baker said. “I’m a lot more happy here, I guess, and the baseball and the coaches, everything is just better. Working hard has really helped me get to the top.”