One of Dylan Baker's tasks early this season was to better establish his inside fastball. It's a relatively new practice for him because he only recently picked up the velocity to pull it off.
The Indians prospect pounded the inner half of the plate with his low- to mid-90s fastball Saturday, and the result was his second straight scoreless outing. Baker allowed just one hit and struck out four over six innings as Class A Lake County shut down Bowling Green, 6-1.
"I can throw into the low- to mid-90s, so throwing inside can back hitters off the plate and make them uncomfortable," he said. "Then I can come back with the curveball or slider or even a fastball away."
It's a simple enough strategy, but its utility is relatively new to Baker. The native of Juneau, Alaska, wasn't pursued when he graduated high school in 2010.
"In Alaska, there weren't a lot of scouts," he said. "I never talked to one or saw one my whole high school career."
So he headed south, playing summer ball in Seattle in 2009 and 2010 in an effort to be seen. With a fastball settled in the 83-86 mph range, he didn't have much luck and settled in at Tacoma Community College because it was his preference of the two schools willing to give him a roster spot.
Baker (1-2) felt his development stalling at Tacoma and decided to explore other options for the 2011-12 school year. His Seattle summer coach, Don Moe, found him a walk-on spot at Western Nevada College, and that proved to be a much better fit.
The hurler hit the weight room hard that offseason, packing 15-20 pounds onto his 6-foot-2 frame. When he started throwing last spring, his high-80s fastball was all of a sudden jumping into the mid-90s. At last, pro scouts began poking around, and when Baker was drafted by Cleveland in the fifth round last summer, it was actually lower than some had projected.
"I had wanted to get drafted after my freshman year of college," he said, "but, I mean, I was tall, skinny and lanky and nothing really clicked for me, I guess. Then I went to Western Nevada and I gained some pounds and started long tossing.
"That was the thing that really helped, I think, was the long tossing. My arm started to get stronger, get more whip on it, and I was throwing harder. Then the scouts started coming."
Baker found mixed results in the Rookie-level Arizona League after signing last summer, compiling a 4.13 ERA with 30 strikeouts and 15 walks over 24 innings.
The Indians challenged him to smooth his mechanics and improve his control, and so far, he's made strides in both areas this season.
Mechanically, Cleveland wanted Baker to work on staying back and generating more of a downhill plane. Baker's focused specifically on not drifting with his upper body but instead using it to create downhill momentum.
"My shoulders are kind of back when I push off," he said, "so my lead shoulder is almost above my head when I push off. Then I'm able to get on top of the ball more, be more accurate."
The adjustment should help Baker maintain better control. He's walked only six batters in 32 innings this season, striking out 30 in building a 3.09 ERA. He's posted consecutive scoreless, six-inning outings with a 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"Getting more tilt and staying back more has helped me," he said. "Then I'm just staying within myself and not trying too hard."
In the first inning, Baker allowed a two-out single to Andrew Toles, who stole second and third with Luke Maile at the plate. He escaped the threat by getting Maile to line out to right fielder Anthony Santander.
The 21-year-old right-hander issued a one-out walk in the second to Matt Gantt, who moved up on a wild pitch. But Patrick Leonard grounded out and Ryan Dunn struck out to end the inning.
Bowling Green never threatened again. Baker retired the final 12 hitters he faced and the HotRods didn't get another baserunner until Gantt led off the eighth with a walk.
"It's awesome because I never expected to be out here," Baker said. "To play against all these players who are the top players in their organizations, and they're really good, it makes me feel good to be able to compete with them."