By: Brian Frank
The Bisons bullpen was outstanding during the 2021 season and was one of the big reasons the team won its first division championship since 2005. It seemed no matter the situation, when manager Casey Candaele made the call to the pen, the new pitcher held the opposition at bay. Scoreless innings became the norm.
“It’s pretty amazing to think of what they’ve done,” Candaele said recently. “Over and over and over again they’ve come out and done the same thing. It’s pretty easy when you can get to the sixth or seventh inning and you figure – ‘OK we’re not going to give up any runs.’ Then you become very spoiled because if you do give up a run you’re like, ‘Oh man what happened?’ They’ve been so great and so consistent all year that anything other than shutout innings you’re like ‘Oh man how’d that happen?’ But these guys, they stepped up and they did it all year and hats off to them.”
Bryan Baker was one of the major reasons the bullpen had such great success. The 6’6” right-hander from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, made his Bisons debut in 2019 after being the closer at Double-A New Hampshire. Baker performed admirably for the Herd in 2019 – he had a 3.68 ERA in 18 relief appearances. This season, Baker became the anchor of perhaps the best bullpen in the league – finishing off 32 games for the Herd this season. His numbers this season are evidence of his dominance – he had a 1.31 ERA in 41 1/3 innings, striking out 48 while walking 17. He also had a miniscule 0.847 WHIP and recorded 6 wins and 11 saves.
Baker has been lights out this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Baker was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of North Florida, where he was used mostly as a starting pitcher. He began his professional career in the Rockies minor-league system as a starter, before converting to being a reliever in 2017 while pitching for Ashville in the South Atlantic League.
“The biggest thing for me was the routine,” Baker said of the adjustment to becoming a reliever in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “In terms of getting ready fast and not knowing when you are going to go in the game. I had a pretty strict routine as a starter and that transition from being able to hear your name on the phone and get ready within a couple minutes – I think that was the biggest thing I had to learn and it took a while because I went from being a starter to a long reliever to a back-end guy. So it’s been a progression throughout the years. But the biggest thing was nailing down a routine where I could get ready fast.”
“Knowing that I only had to throw one or two innings just kind of gave me a boost with everything,” Baker continued. “I kind of got into that reliever mindset and everything just kind of ticked up a little bit. The fastball was a little bit harder, the slider was a little bit harder just from the switch alone, but then add on top of it putting on some weight, some strength. That added to the arsenal as well.“
One season after converting to being a reliever, another major transition happened in Baker’s life – when he was part of the trade that sent reliever Seunghwan Oh from the Blue Jays to the Rockies. Baker reported to the Blue Jays High-A affiliate in Dunedin in August 2018.
“I was in complete shock,” he remembered. “I was the player to be named later, so I completely forgot we even had that trade going on. I just got a random phone call two or three weeks after the deadline actually. I was completely caught off guard, but it’s been awesome. Coming over to the Blue Jays just kind of freed me up from a lot of different stuff that I was kind of focusing on with the Rockies. I kind of opened up my horizons here. It’s really helped me hone in on some things that I didn’t even know I was good at. They’ve allowed me to capitalize on those things that I’m pretty good at and I think the switch has been a really good thing overall.”
Baker worked his way up to the Bisons late in the 2019 season. He seemed to be headed back to Buffalo to start 2020, or possibly even Toronto. However, the pandemic shut down the minor-league season. He reported to the Blue Jays Alternate Training Site in Rochester when the major-league season finally resumed.
“The Alt Sight was a grind for sure,” Baker said. “For someone as competitive as me who likes to get after the other team, it was kind of hard – just having to pitch to my own teammates over and over and over again in the same place with no fans or anything. That was kind of a challenge. But a typical day was not too terribly different other than you just threw a live BP against your own teammates instead of getting ready for a nine-inning game against another team. I’d say it was definitely tougher getting ready for those live BPs as opposed to getting juiced up for these games against other teams.”
Baker throwing at Sahlen Field earlier this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Baker has clearly improved on the mound since his last full minor-league season. He’s worked as the Bisons closer all season and has become one of the most dominant pitchers in all of Triple-A.
“I think being able to throw strikes even when my stuff didn’t feel as good,” he said of what’s different now from 2019. “Just being able to compete and get it in the zone and make the hitter beat me. I think there were times throughout the rest of my career where I just tried to be too perfect and try to strike out everybody and my walk numbers would be inflated because of that and I’d get myself into deep innings where my pitch count goes up, I get tired, I get into some trouble. I think this year it’s just been more trusting all three pitches and being able to throw any of them at any time and just throw strikes and make the hitter beat me – those are the biggest two things.”
“Fastball, slider, changeup,” he said of his pitching repertoire. “It’s a pretty good mix. The slider has come a long way this year. It was more of a cutter and throughout this year I’ve just been getting a little bit more depth on it and just sticking with one grip which has helped me a lot. The changeup I always had a good feel for and the slider is more of a newer pitch that’s been good to me this year.”
Candaele isn’t at all surprised by Baker’s improvement. The Bisons manager says Baker is a pitcher who’s driven to get better.
“We have exit meetings where we talk to players and we had his today and just kind of talked to him about the progress that he made from the Alt Site and Spring Training and how he’s developed his stuff and progressed into a pitcher that can go out and dominate an inning, or maybe two innings and give you some length,” Candaele said. “He’s dedicated himself to doing those things and getting the information that he needed and to making himself better by his work and by his competitiveness and by wanting to go out there and get better every day. He’s done that. He asks questions. He wants to get better. He wants to know what he can do to get better. He puts in the work and Jeff Ware (Bisons pitching coach) and David Howell (complex pitching coach) put in the work with him. Anything he needs, he goes out and asks for it and gets it. He’s done a great job of progressing through the year and just kind of becoming a dominant pitcher – definitely in this league, and it remains to be seen but I would say in the big leagues too.”
Baker had a 0.847 WHIP for the Herd this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Known as a fiery competitor, Baker taps into his intensity on the mound. It’s something that he finds easier to channel as a reliever than as a starting pitcher, when he was out on the mound for longer periods.
“I think that kind of eliminates any other thoughts in your mind where it’s more just you versus the hitter,” Baker said of his intensity. “I think that’s benefited me in the long run. I think being intense, it’s something where it gets down to a chess match really, just between you and the hitter. I think the more intense I am, the more success I have, so it’s something that I carry with me for sure.”
The one-time starter relishes the roll of coming into games in high-leverage situations, particularly when he’s entering to close out a tight game.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s a little more fun to come into those close games in a closing situation,” he said. “I think it’s probably one of the coolest things in sports to close the game out and seal the victory for your team. I relish that. I love it.”
His performance this season was rewarded when, on August 31 after a doubleheader against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the 26-year-old was called into Candaele’s office to receive the biggest news of his career.
“My buddy Nate Pearson had just gotten called up,” Baker recalled. “We knew there were going to be some September call-ups. He just got called up about five minutes prior. I thought that was maybe the only one, so I was just getting my Chipotle at the post-game spread and Casey Candaele tapped me on the shoulder and called me into his office. He threw me for a little loop in the office. Played a little joke on me and then kind of got down to it and said ‘Hey, you’re going to the big leagues tonight.’ I was kind of speechless for a while. That’s how they broke it to me and it was pretty cool.”
Not a pleasant sight for a hitter. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Baker made his major-league debut on September 5 in Toronto’s 8-0 win over the Oakland Athletics at the Rogers Centre. He pitched a scoreless eighth inning, allowing a hit while striking out one and throwing a pair of wild pitches.
“I didn’t know what to expect going into it. It all happened pretty fast, but as soon as I got that third out it kind of sunk in a little bit. But when it happened, it was about what you’d expect. Your mind is going a million miles an hour. It was loud. It was a lot of adrenaline to deal with and then just kind of getting back to what I was just talking about – making sure I throw some strikes and just try to get out of that inning. It turned out good.”
He paused for a second and then added with a smile, “Yeah, it was amazing.”
Baker takes pride in his great season and also in the success the bullpen had as a group. He believes Bisons relievers were feeding off each other’s success all season – when one reliever went out and had a shutdown inning, the next reliever in the game tried to match him.
“It’s super contagious, where we have a bunch of studs down there,” he said. “It’s really awesome seeing them go to work and get quick innings and try to follow that up with their own. I think we feed off that and it’s obviously worked out really well.”
His great season culminated in being named the winner of the 2021 Warren Spahn Most Valuable Pitcher award, given each season to the Bisons best pitcher.
“It’s an honor,” Baker said. “Even being considered for that on a staff like the one we have is awesome. I think you could pick just about anybody on the team the way we’ve thrown the ball this year. So just being considered for that is awesome, and I think it’s a credit to them too – it’s been a great year for all of us.”