A record number of saves at Mobile, a successful promotion to Portland, and a changeup so devastating and unusual that nobody else in the organization throw anything like it.
Well, nobody but Trevor Hoffman.
"This is just a great honor, but the first people that I would point to, and the first people I thanked, were my teammates and my organization, because those are the people that put me in the situation to succeed."
Brad Baker is more than a great closer, he's a great politician too. True, if the team wasn't leading at the end of games, Baker wouldn't have had the opportunity to get those record 30 saves. But if he wasn't this good, he wouldn't have been handed the ball as often (55 times at Mobile and another eight at Portland) as he was.
Baker knows that a Padres' closer who's out pitch is a nearly unhittable changeup will forever be compared to Hoffman, and he's fine with that.
"If you're going to be compared to somebody, it might as well be a future Hall of Famer. I actually got to talk to Hoffman a lot when he was rehabbing at Lake Elsinore, and he was great to be next to. He actually throws his changeup a lot like I do, but he's got a little more of his fingers on the ball."
It would be hard not to. That changeup's grip boggles the mind. It's almost impossible to describe, but try this.
Pick up a baseball.
Now have it touch the very bottom of your palm, and the very tip of your three middle fingers.
Last but not least, make sure it doesn't touch any other part of your hand.
How far off your hand? Well, Baker, and his almost unearthly long fingers, can almost fit another baseball between the one he's throwing and his palm.
Don't be embarrassed when it falls out of your hand. And please, for the sake of windows anywhere in the vicinity, don't even try to throw it. No pitching coach in the world would actually teach this, so where did Baker learn it.
"When I was in high school my dad and I decided to develop a changeup, because you can't just get by with a fastball and a curve. I just sort of gripped it and threw it, and my dad said it moved a lot, so I kept throwing it."
While most can't even get the pitch near the plate, one of the keys to Baker's success is that he can almost always throw it for strikes. Confidence in your pitches is a key, especially in the closers role, and Baker has that.
"I can throw any one of my pitches for a strike in any count, and that gives me a real advantage, because hitters can't just sit on my fastball or change. When the hitters can't guess what's coming, it makes getting them out that much easier."
If his 1.57 ERA at Mobile wasn't impressive enough, he posted a 0.93 at Portland, and most think earned himself a spot in the Padres' bullpen next season. Mobile BayBears (and Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League) Pitching Coach Gary Lance agrees, and thinks Baker's success is a foregone conclusion.
"Brad isn't in this for the money or the glory or the autographs. He's a blue collar kid. His philosophy is just to go out and do his job. It might be a cliché, but this kid is really down to earth and grounded."
As impressed as Lance is with Baker's attitude, he's just as impressed by his stuff. "He'll hit 92-93 with his fastball, he throws strikes with his breaking ball, and that changeup is just devastating.
"Has he shown you how he throws it?"
Lance laughs when the reporter asks if he ever considered changing the way he throws that pitch, "Why? He throws it for strikes, and nobody can hit it. What's there to change?"
Baker is well aware of the fact that if he did indeed make the Padres' roster he would be in a different role than he's been accustomed to, and it doesn't bother him.
"I think the difference between middle relief, setting up, and closing is really mental. You still just have to throw strikes and get guys out. I'm not going to take Trevor Hoffman's job from him. I don't want to. He helped me a lot when he was down at Lake Elsinore, and I know he would help me even more if we were on the Padres together. I just want to learn from him and help the team."
So what exactly is Baker working on in the Arizona Fall League. Lance and Baker are eerily similar in their answers.
Lance: "He had a couple mechanical things that we've worked on, and he's picked up on what was wrong really quickly, and corrected it."
Baker: "I was doing a couple things wrong mechanically. Coach Lance and I started working, and it came pretty quickly, I think we've figured it out now."
Those mechanical quirks worked out, it seems the only thing standing between Baker and Petco Park is a few months.
James Renwick is the Managing Editor of FutureBacks.com and covers the Arizona Fall League for MadFriars.com and Scout.com
The top three in voting from MadFriars.com:
1) Brad Baker: he rarely was off his game. He went 16 straight appearances to open the year without giving up a run. Not once did his ERA go above 2.00 on the year. He struck out the side nine times on the year, including a stretch of 12 of 13 batters he recorded outs on in early May.
2) Leo Rosales: he saved 26 games for Fort Wayne and didn't record his first until June 2. He ended the year with 13 straight appearances without giving up a run. Rosales didn't even get onto a roster during the first month of the year as the Padres kept him in extended spring training.
3) Sean Thompson allowed two earned runs or less in 20 of his 26 starts on the year. Thompson, 9-6 on the year, had eight starts where he allowed one run or less and did not earn a decision. If he could drop his walk totals, he could have been number one on the list.
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