Pitching didn’t overwhelm Wichita State’s Tyler Baker. The trying did. Trying to impress the coaches. Trying to earn a starting job. Trying to go 3 for 4.
Freshmen try to do a lot of things. Often, they discover it is better not to try so hard.
“(You think) ‘I gotta get a hit, gotta get a hit, gotta get a hit, or I won’t play,’ ” he said. “I don’t do that anymore. You’ve just got to relax and have fun.”
Baker, a sophomore catcher from Topeka, started 38 games last season and hit .205 with 10 doubles and one home run. Shocker coaches loved his strong arm and smarts behind the plate. They kept insisting he would hit. He didn’t, although going 6 for 15 with a home run in WSU’s final six games hinted at his potential.
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“Failure, I know how to cope with it now,” he said. “I failed quite a bit last year.”
Baker coped more effectively over the summer, hitting . 263 with 14 doubles and three homers in 35 games with the Liberal Bee Jays. Perfect Game ranked him the No. 3 prospect in the Jayhawk League. Baseball America ranked him No. 7. That trend is continuing this fall at WSU, which begins its annual best-of-7 fall scrimmage series at 2 p.m. Saturday at Eck Stadium.
“College hitting is all about going out there and being smooth and barreling the ball up, instead of trying one out to that flagpole,” he said. “I’ve hit a couple home runs and I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t even feel anything.’ ”
Coaches now say Baker is hitting the ball like he should have last season. He leveled out his swing, eliminating an uppercut. He choked up at the suggestion of coach Gene Stephenson. He homered three times in 11 scrimmages leading up to Saturday, most of any Shocker.
“He’s going to be a much more confident player because of the success he had this summer,” Stephenson said.
Nothing makes an athlete more confident than newly developed strength and agility. Baker, 5-foot-9, is one of several Shockers who grew up over the summer. He did his weight lifting at Seward County Community College with one of the Bee Jays coaches. It helped him survive catching in the summer heat and it makes his bat feel light, like it did in high school.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger,” pitcher T.J. McGreevy said. “The ball is coming off the bat with a lot more pop. If he can hit like how he’s hitting right now in fall ball, and add that to his catching, he’s going to have a great season.”
Baker came to WSU with a strong defensive game and got better as a freshman. That improvement should continue. His arm is stronger and he notices his throws get to the infielders in a more direct line and closer to second base, making for a faster tag. He worked to get more flexible and modified his stance behind the plate to save his legs. He strengthened his forearms, grinding away in rice buckets, to catch and hold fastballs to give umpires every opportunity to call it a strike.
“Now I’m out there just sticking it,” he said. “If you catch it (closer to the body), they’re going to think it’s a ball. If you catch it out front and hold it and let them see it, it will be a strike. My glove, it doesn’t go back anymore.”
Baker isn’t the only positive development behind the plate, a position where WSU should be stronger and deeper than last season. Junior Bob Arens and freshman Parker Zimmerman are also playing well this fall. Both are good defenders and if one hits, Baker could play some at third base. Calling pitches and handling pitchers can be a brain-buster. Stephenson thinks his catchers are heady enough to make the right decisions.
“Zimmerman comes in with a very good defensive makeup,” Stephenson said. “All three of those guys are outstanding, I emphasize outstanding, students. They understand the game and they will be able to call the game and anticipate what’s going to happen.”