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Injuries have stalled, but not stopped, Dylan Baker’s ascension

Dylan Baker talks coming back from injuries, Netflix binges, being a four-pitch pitcher, the transition from starter to bullpen, and having his hair accidentally lit on fire in this exclusive interview with Let’s Go Tribe.

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Spring Training Media Day Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve peaked at the Cleveland Indians 40-man roster the last two years, there’s a name which has popped up repeatedly, Dylan Baker, making you wonder, “Who is that guy?”

There aren’t many ballplayers who have had a worse string of injury luck than the former Indians 2012 fifth-round draft pick.

Baker’s 2014 debut was flawless, literally, throwing six perfect innings at High-A before discovering that he had a fractured leg from a comebacker he’d absorbed in spring training. That cost him most of the season, but he came back undeterred in 2015, throwing five no-hit innings with nine strikeouts in his first start of the season again.

Then he was shut down and scheduled for Tommy John surgery.

A native of Juneau, Alaska, Baker missed the rest of 2015 and all of 2016 after some complications arose in his elbow and he finally returned to the mound on April 29th, 2017, two years and 20 days since the last time he’d pitched professionally.

This time, Baker was coming out of the Akron bullpen in Double-A, where he’s expected to stay for the rest of the year as he continues to test the limits of his surgically repaired arm.

Baker spoke to Let’s Go Tribe about his injury frustrations, transitioning to the bullpen and his skiing ability in this exclusive interview.

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Brian Hemminger (Let’s Go Tribe): What’s the story behind your teammate Nick Pasquale lighting your hair on fire?

Dylan Baker: Ooooooooo (laughs) in 2014 when I broke my leg, we were just messing around in our apartment in Arizona. I had pretty long hair at the time and he had a lighter near my hair and I guess it got closer than expected and it accidentally lit my hair on fire (laughs). My hair’s shorter now so he can’t mess with me.

Brian Hemminger: Was it difficult trying to make a name for yourself without getting much attention, being from Alaska?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, my freshman and sophomore year of high school, I just kind of played baseball without caring anything else, just playing, but my junior and senior years of high school hooked me up with the Seattle Shockers in Washington both years, and that really helped playing summer ball there. It wasn’t huge, but it was a big boost compared to just playing high school ball in Alaska. My summer league coach did a great job trying to get scouts to come to our games and everything, stuff like that.

It was tough, but it worked out. I took the community college route before transferring to Western Nevada, and everything really took off from there.

Brian Hemminger: I heard through the grapevine that you’re quite the skier, is that true?

Dylan Baker: I used to be. I don’t anymore obviously because I don’t want to take a chance getting hurt, but when I was younger, me and my buddies would go skiing and snowboarding all the time. I was pretty good, able to do 360s and stuff, but my friends were better, doing backflips. Once baseball started to get more serious, I had to let that go. I haven’t really gone since I was a senior in high school.

Brian Hemminger: You’ve got to play things a bit safer now, and while your teammates blow off steam playing MLB The Show or Call of Duty, you’re more of a hockey guy with your video games, right?

Dylan Baker: Oh yeah, I like all video games but me and DJ Brown used to play NHL Live every spring training and we still get together with some guys on the team and play 2 on 2. I also watch a lot of shows on Netflix with my wife, that helped me get through the rehab the past few years.

Brian Hemminger: Are there any shows you had to binge?

Dylan Baker: Fargo was a big one on Hulu, and on Netflix, it was Peaky Blinders.

Brian Hemminger: Well one of the reasons you’ve had the time to watch those shows is because you’ve had what, four surgeries over the past three years?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, it started with my broken fibula in 2014 at the start of the season. I missed about 75 percent of the season that year. In ‘15, I only pitched the first game of the season and then I had Tommy John surgery in May. Then in January of 2016, I had a fasciotomy on my right forearm kind of where they took out my pulmeris tendon for my UCL replacement and then in August of 2016 I had another fasciotomy on my lower part of my forearm towards my elbow and I also I had some tissue in there. I had a bone spur shaved down. I had some tissue in there pressing on my median nerve that was compressed and I was having a lot of burning sensations, throbbing and my ulna was shaved down a bit to make some room in there. It’s working out a lot better now.

Brian Hemminger: I read a quote from you saying, “I didn’t know how mentally tough I was until I had to go through all that,” and I personally can’t think of a player who’s been through what you went through before they even made it to The Show. What helped you stay focused? There are probably a lot of players who would have thrown in the towel.

Dylan Baker: I definitely thought about that, but my wife was with me in Arizona throughout the rehab process and she helped a ton and supported me and went beyond what she should have to do. My family supported me, telling me to keep my head up, it’s gonna be better after this, stuff like that. The Indians also, everyone talking to me, getting phone calls, everyone asking how it’s going and all the people were around me telling me, ‘Hey, it’s gonna get better, it’s gonna get better, keep going.” The support was awesome.

Brian Hemminger: The Indians also showed a lot of faith in you throughout those trials because they put you on the 40-man roster. They didn’t want another team to poach you and they kept you on there for two years in a row. Did that help?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, yeah, that was huge. That meant a lot to me and it just shows how much I mean to them which is awesome. I’m still just trying to work and get back to where I was before and they stuck with it.

Brian Hemminger: Did you go through a bunch of changes physically while all this was going down, perhaps hoping you wouldn’t go through anything else like this again? I saw you won the “Beep drill” conditioning test this year before Spring Training.

Dylan Baker: (laughs) I’m definitely a bit slimmer than I have been in the past. I’m about 205 now, a bit lighter, and when you’re rehabbing, you get a lot of time to run. I’m not huge into running, but you learn to like it a bit more while rehabbing, doing it every single day. I didn’t want to lose that race. It was one of the more competitive things I’ve done in the last two years. It was a lot of fun going out there and running with all the guys.

Yan Gomes was going with me the whole time and he stopped at 68 laps and everyone was telling me to go one more. He asked me afterwards, “Could you have done another one?” and I told him, “I was basically going until I either threw up or you stopped,” and he said, “Okay, I made the right choice then.” (laughs)

Brian Hemminger: Let’s talk about your role in the bullpen now. You’ve always been a starter before the injuries. Does it feel a lot different?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, it’s a big difference. I didn’t think it would be too much of a change and I thought it would be a lot easier than starting but it’s actually a little bit harder. You have to get up and get going right away. When you’re starting, you have a lot of time to get ready for the game mindset-wise but with this, you might throw the ball 10 times and you’re suddenly in the game. I’m embracing it. I like hanging out in the bullpen and seeing it from a different perspective. I’ve never pitched out of the bullpen my whole life until this season so it’s a big difference. I’m enjoying it now and I’m still getting used to it. I’m talking to all the guys in the pen and picking their brains about getting in a different mindset. It’s coming along and I’m enjoying it.

Brian Hemminger: Is the bullpen a complete focus now, or do you still think you can stretch your arm out and start again someday?

Dylan Baker: I definitely would love to start. I’ve always done it so it’s much more natural to me than coming out of the ‘pen. We haven’t discussed it much yet coming out of the spring. It just kinda depends on how my arm feels and what they ultimately want to do with me. Either way, I don’t really care, I’m just happy to be pitching again, having fun and playing the game again after all that sitting out.

Brian Hemminger: Was it nerve wracking the first time you stepped on the mound in a real game after over two years?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, I was definitely a little nervous and kinda scared. A lot of stuff was going through my head like, “Oh, something bad’s gonna happen.” After that first game though, it kind of went away and everything is starting to feel normal again.

Brian Hemminger: Are you happy with the results so far? Five appearances, one run, a bunch of strikeouts. It’s been pretty dominant.

Dylan Baker: Yeah, definitely. I’m throwing strikes and I haven’t walked anybody, which has been a problem in the past. I’m getting ahead of counts, which is great. I’m giving up a few more hits than I’m used to, but I’m getting out of innings with low pitch counts. I’m definitely happy. It’s been a long road to get here so I’m ecstatic with the results.

Brian Hemminger: Command is actually the last thing to come back from most people that have Tommy John surgery, at least from everything I’ve heard and read. Are you surprised that your command has been so good thus far?

Dylan Baker: I actually am. Just talking to a lot of guys about their process and everything, they kept telling me, “Command, command, just don’t worry about it, it’ll just come.” And I never had a problem whether I was playing catch, throwing bullpen sessions or in the game. It’s all been smoother than it was in the past. I didn’t expect it to be like this or this quick, but I’m definitely happy with it. I did a lot of mechanical changes throughout the rehab process so I think that had a lot to do with it.

Brian Hemminger: You had four types of pitches that you were throwing as a starter. Are you still focusing on that, or are you honing in on your best two or three like a lot of relievers do?

Dylan Baker: I still have my four pitches. That’s still an issue with me actually. I don’t always know what to throw each day so I just listen to what the catcher is doing. I don’t want to lose any of those pitches so I’m always working them, especially if towards the end of the season they want to stretch me out more to get more innings and maybe be a starter again. I want to have those with me. I’ve been working a lot on my fastball and my split change. My curveball and my slider, I throw them in catch and if the catcher wants me to throw it, I’ll throw it. It’s still working out because it’s different than starting and knowing what pitches to throw to batters and when. I’m more dependent on my catchers than I used to be.

Brian Hemminger: I’ve read that in high school, you could touch 95 mph, in college you were around 97 and then in Lynchburg you hit 99. Have you ever hit 100 miles per hour off the mound?

Dylan Baker: I’ve been told I hit 100. I did it in junior college once and in my first start of 2014 before I broke my leg, I was told I was sitting 96-100 and then Spring Training before I had Tommy John, I was told I was mostly 96-100 all spring. That’s what the gun reads so I’m gonna take it. I’ll claim it.

Brian Hemminger: Do you feel like the velocity is back too?

Dylan Baker: Yeah. Sometimes I feel like I’m throwing harder than other days. I’m pretty sure I’m sitting around 96-97 and I’m happy with that. I don’t know if it will fully come back, but if it doesn’t, that’s fine. I’ve been through a lot and I still feel like 97 is good enough.

Brian Hemminger: The Indians are always looking for arms out of the bullpen and with you be on the 40-man roster and pitching again, do you feel like that could be your quickest path to the majors?

Dylan Baker: Yeah, definitely. We had talks about that in the spring. Any way I can get up there and help the team, I’m all for it. Wherever they need me, whatever spot they have for me, I’ll be ready and happy to help out.

Brian Hemminger: Do you have any specific goals or anything you’d like to accomplish this year?

Dylan Baker: The biggest thing is to stay healthy and get as many innings as I can because that’s really gonna help me for next year to throw more. This year, if I relieve and then next year if they want me to start, it’ll just help me even more next year to be throwing more innings. That’s the biggest thing, to stay healthy and be on the field pitching and not have any issues helping whatever team I’m at.

Dylan would like to thank his wife, McKayla and all his family and friends back in Juneau who have supported him. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanbaker30