Giants

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

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Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

BERKELEY -- Not too many people find themselves in the spotlight at just three years old. On baseball's brightest stage, that's exactly what happened to Darren Baker in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series. 

The image forever will be ingrained into Giants fans' minds. J.T. Snow, with David Bell running behind him, swooped up Darren at home plate after scoring on a Kenny Lofton triple to give San Francisco a 10-4 lead over the Anaheim Angels.

Darren, of course, was the team's bat boy and the toddler son of then-Giants manager Dusty Baker.

Soon after the '02 World Series, MLB changed its rules to make a 14-year-old age requirement for bat boys. While the world knew Darren after that famous moment, it was then that he started becoming "Dusty Baker's son." It's a title that he's proud of, while also trying to make a name for himself altogether. 

Darren is incredibly close with his father. When news broke that Dusty would take over as the Houston Astros' manager this season to restore respect to the franchise, Darren tweeted the perfect GIF to show his admiration. 

As he enters his junior year as Cal Berkeley's starting second baseman, Darren is juggling the act of being more than the son of a famous baseball player and manager while also never letting the outside noise put a crack in his unbreakable bond with his dad. Darren credits both his father and mother, Melissa, for making him the man he is today at 21 years old. 

"They never speak about me having to be my dad," Darren recently said to NBC Sports Bay Area before a practice at Evans Diamond. "If I didn’t want to play baseball, I wouldn’t have to. They let me become my own person. My dad focuses on saying my name when questions are asked.

"I just got the best parents in the world." 

From bat boy to MLB draft prospect 


(Darren Baker hit .306 and stole 21 bases as a sophomore for Cal. Photo via Tyler Tate/AP)

While Dusty is back in baseball, a huge summer for Darren has his name climbing up boards for this June's MLB Draft. Baker hit .347 with 12 stolen bases for the Wareham Gateman in the Cape Cod Baseball League -- the most prestigious summer league for college baseball players -- and was named an All-Star.

When asked about his improvements over the summer, Baker didn't hesitate at all.

"I give the credit to Coach (Jerry) Weinstein," Baker said, praising his summer league coach. "He kind of beat it in my head until I didn’t want to hear it anymore about never taking at-bats off, never taking plays off. If you kind of give away one at-bat a game, it really adds up at the end of the year. That’s something that I’ll really keep with me forever."

Mike Neu, Baker's coach at Cal, has noticed plenty of improvements as well. Darren was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore, and Neu calls Baker one of the best defenders in the country. But it's on offense that Neu really has seen his second baseman continue to make strides. 

Baker started 42 games as a freshman and hit .273 with five stolen bases. Last season, he took a major leap by batting .306 and was a perfect 21-for-21 on stolen base attempts. With Baker figuring to bat at the top of Cal's lineup, Neu says the junior is focused on laying off balls outside of the strike zone and seeing more pitches this year.

Growing with the Golden Bears


(Darren Baker was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)

With each challenge so far, Baker has responded with glowing reviews.

"I think he’s just continued to gain confidence each year and then just learn -- just learn how to compete at this level," Neu said. "He’s really competitive, so when he figures out what he needs to do to be successful, he works on it and he’s done that every year."

With growth and two college seasons under his belt, Baker has matured on and off the field. That includes in the weight room, too. Now listed at 175 pounds, Baker says he has gained 30 to 35 pounds since he stepped foot on Cal's campus. 

It took plenty of hard work for the skinny second baseman to add weight, and it's clear he has gone from scrawny to strong while working on his body all year round. 

"I feel like finally all the years of staying extra time and eating meals until I’m not even hungry anymore is starting to pay off," Baker said. 

"I think he’s just gotten stronger," Neu added. "He’s matured. He’s always had a good swing, but now he’s a little bit more physical. I think he’s just a more well-rounded offensive guy where he drives the ball to the gaps a little more."

Despite his added strength, Baker doesn't feel he needs to change his game when Cal's season starts Friday at Long Beach State. He'll continue to be a contact-first hitter, spray the gaps and even use his speed on drag bunts. The power eventually will come, just like it did for his father. Dusty was built very similar to Darren growing up and wound up hitting 242 homers over his 19-year MLB career. 

Unlimited baseball knowledge


(Darren Baker uses lessons on and off the field from his father and baseball mentors. Photo via Jeff Chiu/AP)

One aspect of Baker's game that continues to evolve at Cal is his leadership. He doesn't need to be the loudest voice in the room, but Neu knows exactly what he's getting from Darren every single day. The Golden Bears follow his lead. 

"He’s a big-time leader," Neu said. "Obviously his playing experience here, his background with who he’s learned from -- not just his dad but the big leaguers he’s been around, I mean it just automatically gives him so much of a foundation for him and for our whole team. He’s a leader and he’s been great in that role. He comes to work every day, he knows what he needs to work on.

"His understanding of the game is way ahead of most guys at this level, just because of what he’s seen and what he’s been around. When he gets on the bases or when he plays defense, he’s just thinking steps ahead that most guys wouldn’t at this level."

That natural baseball knowledge comes from years of being a fly on the wall, or better put, a fly on dugout walls. Baker still frequently talks with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, who Dusty coached on the Cincinnati Reds, and even flew out to Atlanta to work out with former Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips for two weeks. Darren calls these relationships "bigger than baseball," as he talks about way more than the game with his mentors. 

The man who has played the biggest role in his baseball career, however, will be watching from afar. This isn't anything new for Darren and Dusty, though. These past two seasons at Cal were the first in 16 years where Dusty was able to consistently watch Darren’s games. While they nearly are 50 years apart, father and son often find themselves on the same page after games. 

“A lot of the times, honestly, we find that we call each other at the same time,” Darren said. “The phone will be ringing as I call and I’ll see a notification pop up. … It won’t be anything new, but I’m definitely going to miss him for sure.” 

Before he dials Dusty’s number, though Darren feels he’s going into his junior season on the “most prepared team” he has played on. Led by Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, Cal made its first Regional since 2015 last year. But Baker has even bigger goals on what likely will be his last ride with the Golden Bears before he hears his own name is called early in this year’s draft. 

At Dusty’s introductory press conference for the Astros, he referenced a Too Short lyric and said, “This is my last album.” For Darren, his album is just beginning.

New Giants catchers are doing well on defense in this advanced stat

New Giants catchers are doing well on defense in this advanced stat

How do you make up the gap when you still have a large talent deficit most times you take the field? The Giants are trying to do it by exploiting every edge, from platoons to increased shifts to aggressive use of relievers. 

There have been mixed results, but when it comes to the catchers, there's a clear area where they're excelling in finding an edge. 

Tyler Heineman and Chadwick Tromp have had their growing pains as rookies, but both have done a pretty good job at pitch framing, an area of emphasis for new bullpen coach/catching coach Craig Albernaz. 

Per Baseball Savant's framing metrics, Heineman ranks 15th and Tromp is 17th (out of 55 qualified catchers) in strike rate, which looks at how often a catcher converts non-swing pitches into strikes when they're in the "shadow zone," which Savant counts as one ball width inside the zone and one ball width outside. In layman's terms, it's how often catchers are stealing strikes on the edges of the zone with their framing. 

The league average is 49.1 percent. Heineman is at 52.4 percent and Tromp is at 52.1.

"One of (Albernaz's) main points of emphasis is how we can swing counts in our favor for our pitchers, and some of the most important work that they can do is keeping balls that are strikes in the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think they've done a nice job of that so far and they've responded to Albie's emphasis, and as a staff I think we all believe that the number one job of a catcher is to kind of make a pitcher look great. From that standpoint, the catchers have done a nice job."

[RELATED: Giants activate Cahill, Rodriguez]

The two newcomers have gone about it in similar ways but with different styles. Heineman has been particularly adept at framing pitches on the left edge of the zone, ranking first overall in that area so far, while Tromp is 10th. Tromp ranks eighth on framing low strikes (Heineman has been good there, too, ranking 12th) while using a unique method. Like several other catchers around the game -- including Houston's Gold Glover Martin Maldonado -- Tromp often gets down on his right knee to receive low pitches. It's a setup that might cost him a wild pitch here or there, but should help him steal strikes. 

"The one-knee setup is something that we feel actually makes him slightly more athletic and enables him to push in both directions and be stable and balanced," Kapler said. "It's definitely a work in progress and a focused area of development for Tromp, but it also enables him to get up underneath the low strike, and I think part of the reason that his receiving numbers have been good so far is that the unconventional setup works well for him."

Giants add pitchers Trevor Cahill, Derek Rodriguez in roster shuffle

Giants add pitchers Trevor Cahill, Derek Rodriguez in roster shuffle

On the final day of a long road trip, the Giants added two bulk innings arms and sent two rookies to the alternate site in Sacramento. 

Trevor Cahill and Dereck Rodriguez were called up, with Cahill set to start Wednesday afternoon against the Astros. To clear roster spots, right-hander Rico Garcia and left-hander Conner Menez were optioned. The Giants still have to clear a 40-man roster spot before the game since Cahill was not on it.

Cahill missed the start of camp after injuring a finger with a screwdriver while working on his bicycle. He had been throwing well at the alternate site and is expected to be available for 40-50 pitches tonight. Rodriguez has been on the taxi squad and impressed in two recent bullpen sessions. Kapler said he was sitting 92-94 mph. 

"It's a little bit more difficult to earn a promotion in today's environment, but he had a really good bullpen in Los Angeles and had another good bullpen two days ago," Kapler said. "It's nice to have some length on the roster tonight with the fact that Cahill is not especially stretched out."

While Garcia has been roughed up on this trip, Menez has a 2.38 ERA in seven relief appearances. His demotion was a bit of a surprise. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

"The message to Conner was there's really not much you can be doing differently," Kapler said. "You're doing a great job. This is more about us getting someone who can give us some length today, and it's not going to hurt him to get a little bit of a blow and come back even stronger."

--- Kapler announced that Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb will start against the A's this weekend. They're likely to face Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo and Sean Manaea. 

If you're keeping track at home, the current rotation is Cueto, Gausman, Webb, Tyler Anderson and Cahill. Drew Smyly (finger) is throwing but doesn't sound close to returning. An MRI revealed posterior rotator cuff inflammation and a shoulder impingement for Jeff Samardzija. Seems like he won't be available for a while. 

[RELATED: Where Giants rank in farm system in Baseball America mid-year update]

--- Donovan Solano, the hottest hitter not named Charlie Blackmon, was out of the lineup again with abdominal soreness. 

The Giants are off Thursday and Kapler thought Solano could be ready to start Friday.