There are a lot of good players on the 2016 Washington Huskies baseball team. They’re in first place in the Pac-12 after a 3-1 series win over a very strong St. Mary’s team, and with more than a half-season sample available, the roster has to have a lot of talent or the losses would have caught up to them by now. Not all college teams, even good ones, have future first-round draft picks, including eventual National Champions. But the one thing good college programs have is fundamentally sound players that offer defensive versatility and the ability to outperform their apparent tools. The heroes of many regionals, super regionals and even College World Series’ are exactly these types of players. Their cadence may lull the world to sleep but like Gloria Estefan said the year Robin Ventura led Oklahoma State to a national title, eventually the rhythm IS going to get you.
The Huskies have a handful of those players — Jack Meggs, Levi Jordan and K.J. Brady certainly qualify — but perhaps the best example is infielder Chris Baker.
Baker, a junior that has started games at second base, shortstop (all 54 games in 2015) and third base in his career and lends solid-average glove work at all three, may be the team’s Most Valuable Player. He’s not a burner on the bases, but runs wisely and while he does provide defensive versatility he’s not Ozzie Smith or Adrian Beltre. So why is he such the epitome of a good, solid college baseball player and possibly a postseason team’s most important individual piece? He’s listed at 6-feet and 190 pounds — although 190 might be a little high — so he’s not David Eckstein or Craig Grebeck, but he shares a lineup with the likes of Gage Matuszak, Joey Morgan and Josh Cushing, and still leads the team in home runs (6) and total extra-base hits (14), and is in the mix during more rallies than a Donald Trump intern. Baker authored a key grand slam last weekend versus UCLA and has batted all over the lineup, including No. 3.
Watching Baker here and there didn’t do much for me. I’d walk away without much to say. I even wrote in my notebook after the Oregon series: “perhaps limited in every aspect of the game, which likely limits his opportunities in pro ball.” Watching Baker six times in three and a half weeks will change your mind. He’s changed mine.
While Baker isn’t going to be a high draft pick he’s a much better player in all facets than limited looks will show. Not that Baker comps to the Seattle Mariners all-star, but it’s a similar scenario as Kyle Seager at North Carolina, just to give you an idea. In college, Seager never sent scouts away believing he was a future all-star and owner of multiple strong seasons with the bat. Yet here he is with a $100 million contract. Since the Oregon series Baker has shown surprising power and what appears to be an ability to slow the game down enough to maximize his abilities, even in high-stress situations, all the while moving all over the infield, many times during games. But I wanted to know where that power comes from, because the bat speed is average to slightly above-average — not plus — and the swing isn’t exactly flawless, albeit simple and one without any significant hurdles.
“He’s got good leverage,” said Huskies hitting coach Donegal Fergus. “When he’s right he creates good leverage.” Leverage being the description used to explain an optimal level of weight transfer and especially the combination of torque, bat angle at point of contact and backspin created, which is where long fly balls and searing line drives are born.
“(Baker) creates really good club head speed because of that leverage,” Fergus continued. “He’s got strong legs and good feet … and he gets good elevation to his pull side, that’s what he’s really good at now.”
Baker enters play this week batting .303/.361/.500 with those 14 extra-base hits including a team-leading six long balls. He’s second on the team in RBI and extra-base hits with runners on (7). He’s started each of the team’s 36 games and done so at three different positions, and has batted No. 7, No. 6, No. 5 and No. 3. Perhaps most impressively, Baker is batting .361/.415/.466 versus “Friday” starters and has either scored or driven in the winning run in the final inning of play five times.
The Huskies won’t have a high-round pick in the 2016 Draft and scouts don’t flock to Husky Ballpark to catch Baker as much as they will Morgan and Noah Bremer next spring and A.J. Graffanino the following season. But the San Mateo, California product and former high school teammate of Huskies standout and current Mariners prospect Braden Bishop, is exactly what championship caliber teams possess, and he’s exactly the kind of player baseball fans should flock to see at the ballpark.
Other Huskies Notes
The Huskies have won eight series this season, lost just one (2-1 at Oregon State) and has split two more… Closer Troy Rallings has a conference-best 11 saves this season, but these aren’t your typical big-league style saves. The right-hander has earned 10 of those 11 by getting four or more outs to clinch the victory, four of those requiring seven or more outs. Rallings has logged 46 innings pitched in 21 appearances, yielding 22 hits and seven walks while striking out 39. He’s allowed just two extra-base hits — both doubles — in 167 batters faced… The Huskies’ RPI has climbed six spots in the last week to 49, one spot behind Oregon State and one rung higher than St. Mary’s, who dropped three of four to the Dawgs in Seattle over the weekend. In Baseball America’s Field of 64 Projection Wednesday, Washington was the No. 3 seed in the Louisville Region. Winning three of four over the Gaels is only going to help their case come selection day.
Jason A. Churchill
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