How a job in retail ignited Orioles reliever Bryan Baker’s fire – The Mercury News

How a job in retail ignited Orioles reliever Bryan Baker’s fire – The Mercury News

In two seasons with the Orioles, right-handed reliever Bryan Baker hasn’t hesitated to show his emotions when pitching. He has let out yells, pounded his chest, and, of late, backpedaled off the mound after the occasional inning-ending strikeout.

He got his passion from Target.

During 2020′s canceled minor league season, the Toronto Blue Jays invited Baker to their alternate training site, a hub for players who were not on the major league roster but could be called upon during the shortened campaign. But with more than a month left on the schedule, the Blue Jays sent Baker home, ending his season as it continued for others. He went home to Florida and worked in retail with his sister, Chelsea, pushing carts around Target to fill out mobile orders in hopes of saving money for offseason training.

“It told me everything I needed to know: I needed to be better,” Baker said. “It was something I knew I needed at that time to support myself, but I knew it was something I did not want to continue doing at all. It almost made coming back and playing even better.

“It kind of puts it in perspective, like, ‘OK, I’m going to attack this with everything that I have because of how lucky I am to be in this spot.’ I’m just super excited to be here, so sometimes, it just kind of comes out.”

Baker’s part-time work at Target, in combination with living with his parents, allowed him to save enough money to train that winter at Cressey Sports Performance, where he had worked out each offseason since his first full professional season in 2017. He recognized that winter as a critical one.

“You’re 25 years old and you’re struggling to make money, to put food on your own table,” Baker said. “I think that kind of brought out the best in me.

“That was really make-or-break time for me. … I really just tried to optimize everything in terms of my nutrition, my recovery, my workouts, my throwing programs, tweaking certain pitches, tweaking locations. Really just kind of went back to the drawing board and tried to fill in any holes in my game that I had.”

His efforts paid off in 2021; he posted a 1.31 ERA as the closer for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A team and made his major league debut, a scoreless inning in his only outing with Toronto. Despite that performance, the Blue Jays removed him from their 40-man roster shortly after the season, allowing the Orioles to claim him on waivers in one of their earliest offseason moves.

Baker spent all of 2022 in the majors with Baltimore, pitching well down the stretch. He was particularly feisty against his former organization over the season’s final month, sparking a benches-clearing incident with a talking-hand gesture toward Toronto’s dugout in an early September game and earning his first career save with a scoreless ninth inning against the Blue Jays on the final day of the season.

With the Orioles in Toronto this weekend, the 28-year-old figures to again face his former team, having served an important role in Baltimore’s 2023 bullpen. He entered Friday tied for the third most appearances in the American League, posting a 2.57 ERA. Five of the six earned runs he’s allowed came in two outings, his first and his most recent. Between, fellow Orioles reliever Yennier Cano was the only pitcher who pitched at least 18 innings with a lower ERA than Baker’s 0.46.

That stretch included a fist-pumping outburst after leaving the tying run at third base with an eighth-inning strikeout in the Orioles’ home opener against the New York Yankees. Facing the Kansas City Royals earlier this month, he struck out the side and hustled backward toward the visiting third-base dugout, soon after tapping the middle, ring and pinky fingers of his right hand to his head as if he just hit a 3-pointer; Royals lefty Amir Garrett mimicked Baker with a moonwalk off the mound the next day.

In all, after putting up a 6.00 ERA in his first 24 outings with Baltimore, Baker since has a 2.30 mark over 64 appearances.

“He spent a lot of time in the minor leagues and got an opportunity, and I think whenever you get to the big leagues, you’re trying to figure some things out,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think he was just trying to figure things out a little bit first half last year, then he realized his stuff plays here and he can be good here. That’s what I just saw the second half, just a guy that was pitching with an edge and with a chip on his shoulder and unbelievably aggressive. That’s what he’s doing this year right now.”

To Hyde’s point, Baker’s stuff has played a key role in his success. He and closer Félix Bautista were the only Orioles to throw a pitch 100 mph multiple times last year. By turning his wrist inward, he can alter the velocity and break of what he calls his cutter to make it more of a slider. Increased usage in his changeup coincided with last year’s midseason improvement; over the past two seasons, 38.7% of the swings taken against it have missed, and Bautista’s splitter is the only pitch thrown by an Oriole more than 100 times that has produced a lower expected batting average based on quality of contact.

But that chip, Baker said, is vital.

“I found that I pitch much better whenever I’m almost — not necessarily pissed off, but I have a little bit of an edge,” he said. “You think about all the hard work and sacrifices you put into the game, and sometimes when you go out there and have success at the highest level, it’s just when it comes out.”

But as big as that edge is to Baker on the mound, he keeps it there, said Declan Morrissey, who has trained with Baker the past two offseasons as a strength and conditioning coach and manual therapist at Cressey. Morrissey always laughs thinking about how the fiery right-hander is the same person who compared a deadlift variation to the “bend and snap” motion from the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie “Legally Blonde.”

“He’s a completely different dude in here,” Morrissey said.

Still, Baker brings an intensity to his offseason training. Morrissey said this winter featured an “extra of 1% of everything” compared to the previous one, when Baker had yet to establish himself as a major leaguer. They concentrated on making him “more explosive, more powerful and springier as an athlete” through jumping and resistance work, Morrissey said, and Baker altered his diet and his recovery techniques. After Baker threw his morning bullpens, he stayed out to watch those of other Cressey clientele, including New York Mets ace Max Scherzer, hoping to learn from them.

“He’s always trying to improve the craft,” Morrissey said. “Everything was probably about as optimal as you could be from the offseason standpoint. He just really, really focused up on everything he needed to do.”

It was a welcome improvement from focusing on packing online orders.


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