If you were to build your perfect baseball prospect, odds are, he would look an awful lot like Luken Baker.
But if you were to build your perfect ‘college’ baseball prospect, you wouldn’t want him to look like Luken. You see, power hitters like Baker don’t go to college very often. Those kind of ready-made players with 6’4” frames, impossible bat speed, and the kind of raw power that makes grown men blush don’t need to go to college. And when you also factor in a 95mph fastball with a couple of breaking pitches bottoming out near 80, it’s hard to envision that kid suiting up for three years for free.
But Baker did just that, laying the foundation for his legend before he even came to campus by sending a letter to all 30 teams in the Major Leagues kindly requesting that they not waste a draft pick on him because he was absolutely, positively playing in purple in 2016. True to his word, and despite being picked up in the late rounds by his hometown Astros, he matriculated to Fort Worth, sliding in as a starting pitcher and DH from the opening series of the season. Baker burst onto the scene in that first start, blasting a home run and throwing six innings of shutout ball against Loyola Marymount in a 5-0 win.
His time on the mound would be cut short due to a muscle strain in his arm, as he started just ten games; tantalizing fans with a 3-1 record and a 1.70 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 47 innings before shutting down his pitching season to focus on his work at the plate. But even after the luster of being a two-way player wore off, the shine on Baker never dimmed, as he became one of the most fearsome hitters in the country, and led the Frogs in nearly every significant offensive category. Baker batted .379 (40 points higher than the second best average on the team), slugged .577, knocked in 62 runs and scored 59, blasted 11 home runs and drew 45 walks. His 39 strikeouts were the third lowest on the team and his 16 doubles tied for fourth. Heck, he was even a perfect 1-1 in steals, though being fleet of foot isn’t exactly on his scouting report.
Luken’s swing is a thing of beauty; his massive frame belies his lightning quick hands that can get over on a ball in a hurry, using that big upper cut swing to propel the ball all over the diamond. Baker was good from day one, but it was in the post-season - where legends are truly made - that he came into his own. Baker entered the College World Series with a ridiculous .545 post-season batting average, and absolutely dominated the Big 12 Tournament with a .682 average, four dingers, and 11 RBIs on his way to MVP honors and a Big 12 record 15 hits. He won the Frogs the trophy with a tenth inning solo shot, and wasn’t even the most impressive bomb of the weekend - his long ball into the parking garage next door will love on in Chickasaw Bricktown lore for all eternity. He was instrumental in the Regional and Super Regional rounds, blasting another long ball in College Station and following that up with a come from behind three run shot against Texas Tech that wrapped up a game one victory in Omaha. Those post-season heroics only served to grow his mystique, but ever time it seemed that the bar had been raised too high, he found a way to jump over it.
We have all heard of the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’, that second year pitfall that effects even the best players across all sports. Teams and coaches get enough film on a player who was a bit of an unknown as a freshman, and they figure out how to game plan or pitch around him. It stands to reason that Luken can’t possibly match his freshmen feats - he was so good for so long it’s tough to imagine him being better. But Baker is different - his gift is so natural, his swing so pure - and the players around him so dang dangerous - it’s not that crazy to think he might actually be better in year two. Baker carries his weight well - he’s not pudgy or out of shape by any means. But a full off-season in a collegiate conditioning program ought to pay big dividends, especially with a strength coach like Zach Dechant. And you can see it - he just looks different, a little more cut, a little more lithe. With a full year to study film under one of the best hitting coaches in the country, he will be even harder to fool and square the ball up even better. Already unnaturally patient at the plate, throw Bake in the four hole between a masher sandwich of Evan Skoug and Josh Watson and dare opposing pitchers to try and work around him. Oh... and Elliot Barzilli will probably bat sixth.
It’s unfair to put so much on a young man’s shoulders, even when they are as broad as Baker’s. But that’s the thing in 2017, he doesn’t have to do it alone. Baker is one of only two sophomores starting every day - seniors Cam Warner, Ryan Merrill, and Barz are slotted at second, short, and third respectively. Seniors Nolan Brown and Austen Wade will man two of the three outfield spots, and junior Skoug will catch. Two of the three expected weekend starters are seniors, and the two guys that will rotate with him at first, Michael Landestoy and Connor Wanhanen, are juniors as well. Every starter has played in the College World Series, so there’s no dearth of experience around him. Luken isn’t going to have to be great every day for the Frogs to win a lot of games, but his legend is going to have to continue to grow if they want to win it all. But I, for one, think that this is just the beginning of something special that will end with his name forever attached to TCU lore.