JUPITER, Fla. — Two at-bats, two broken bats.
That’s how Cardinals first base prospect Luken Baker’s day began in a B-game on Monday against the Miami Marlins. It wasn’t until he grabbed teammate Alec Burleson’s bat that his powerful swing damaged the ball more than the bat. With Burleson’s bat, Baker pulled a homer to left. It was one that Miami’s left fielder could only turn and watch sail over his head.
As he walked back into the dugout, Baker said “it’s mine now” in reference to Burleson’s bat.
As he comes off a season where he hit a team-high 26 homers and drove in 68 runs with Class AA Springfield, the power-hitting right-handed batter is looking to change more than just his bat in 2022.
Baker, who struck out 103 times in Springfield, hopes to change his approach at the plate.
"Swing at good pitches earlier,” Baker said late Thursdays night on what he is looking to do differently.
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Entering Thursday, Baker had gone 3-for-8 in the Grapefruit League. With the Burleson’s bat the he used on Monday, Baker finished Thursday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins with a 1-for-4. His night included two strikeouts and a groundball single that he pulled passed Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas.
His two strikeouts were both swinging and he saw six pitches in each at-bat. His single, on the other hand, came after he jumped on a first pitch sinker by Marlins hurler Richard Bleier.
“Whenever I get into that 'chasing pitches mode' I take too many good pitches in the zone and get deeper into accounts I never really should,” Baker said. “Whenever I get good pitches, the goal is to hit them instead of watch them.”
The 25-year-old made his professional baseball debut in 2018 after he was chosen by the Cardinals with the 75th overall pick in that year’s draft. He has played 208 career games in the minors at first base while playing 52 games as his team’s designated hitter.
Baker’s 2021 season was his most successful season at the place since turning pro. His 26 homers, 68 RBI and .530 slugging percentage were all good enough to rank top three among qualified Class AA Central hitters.
Class AAA Memphis manager Ben Johnson, who worked with Baker during spring training, said Baker’s tools will translate at a higher level.
“He’s a big, strong, powerful guy, but he handles the bat,” Johnson said. “Guys with his size aren’t always able to manipulate their swings mid-swing. He can. He can. So, I think he’s going to be a special young hitter. I really do.”
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said where Baker has shown adjustments at the plate is getting the ball in the air more rather than hitting ground balls.
During his second pro season in 2018, Baker had a 44.7% ground ball rate in Low-A. That figure dropped to 30.7% through 391 plate appearances with Springfield, according to FanGraphs.
“There's not a whole lot of money on the ground,” Marmol said after Thursday’s game. “I think (Baker’s) getting to the point where he understands that, and now it's a matter of applying it in the game. But we saw some swings today where the intent behind it, you can see was what we we're hoping for.”
But playing in an organization where All-star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is under contract through 2024, the latest rules changes in baseball could forge another path for Baker to find his way into the major-leagues. With the implementation of the universal designated hitter coming back to MLB in 2022, Marmol said players like the right-handed hitting Baker are examples of who the rule change could benefit.
“No doubt, right,” Marmol said. “I mean, there's a couple guys who understand that their day-to-day work is improving their defense in order for us to trust them out there.
“We play good defense and we're going to continue to, and if you're going to be an everyday guy outside of the DH we've got to be able to trust you. (Baker’s) working on it like crazy. Your (Alec) Burlesons of the world, they're working on it like crazy. But when you incorporate the DH, I'm sure they're loving.”
The Cardinals’ gambled and left Baker off the roster entering the winter and unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft. An enterprising or rebuilding NL club could would have had the chance to select him, bet on getting the DH for 2022, and audition the slugger for that role. And then there was a lockout. The work stoppage that led to the universal DH also forced the cancellation of the Rule 5 draft, blocking the best route for Baker to the majors and allowing the Cardinals to sneak him back to the Triple-A roster.
On the idea of a DH remaining in the National League, Baker, like many fans, said the change can create more excitement in baseball. As a player, he is still looking to become a better defender to avoid getting stuck in that role.
“The DH is awesome,” Baker said. “That's another bat in the lineup and I'm still focusing on getting a lot better at first base, so I don't get slotted in that roll necessarily. But that's great. It makes baseball more fun.”
As for the upcoming minor league season, with a changed approach at the plate, Baker hopes his success from a season ago carries into the 2022.
“That was awesome,” Baker said of his home run total in 2021. “That was far and away the most I've ever had in a year. That was really cool seeing work paying off. And this year, hopefully there's a lot more of the same.”