Scott Baker's first start of 2009 concluded after four woeful innings in which the ordained number one starter for the Twins gave up five hits (four of which were home runs), two walks and six earned runs. Anyone who followed Baker through the spring should not be surprised of these results: In six spring games, Baker saw nine balls clear the fence in 23 2/3 innings of work as opponents slugged a Bondsian .713 in 109 plate appearances. Placed on the 15-day DL to recoup what was assumed to be shoulder tightness, Baker continued on Wednesday exactly where he left off in Florida.
The early prognosis of Baker's troubles suggested that he was up in the zone. The Star Tribune's La Velle E Neal echoed the postgame sentiment by writing that "[Baker] elevated too many pitches". True, the majority of the home runs hit were above the waist (Scott Rolen's may have been closer to thigh high) but Baker is a fly-ball pitcher by trade and lives in the northern hemisphere of the strikezone. The fact that his pitches were elevated alone is not necessarily cause for concern.
Let's take a closer look at Baker's pitches in two distinctly different games. The top graph, provided by brooksbaseball.net, is his start last night. The bottom is from a start on July 20th last year against the Texas Rangers in which Baker went eight innings and allowed just two hits (one of which was a home run) and struck out eight.
This first series of graphs shows the view of what it would look like if you were standing between the mound and home plate watching Baker pitch from the side - only to see the ball leave trippy, multi-colored trails.
Last night, Baker threw all of his pitches between two feet and three-and-a-half feet in height. Last year, you see that his pitch height ranged from one-and-a-half to three feet, so there is a slight elevation on the whole. The blue line, or his slider, has a definite plane change from the two outings. In his successful one, his slider ended up at the one-and-a-half foot level. Last night it was landing in the zone around three feet high.
This graph shows the view of what Baker's pitches look like from a bird's eye view. The bottom axis is the horizontal movement and 0.0 cuts the plate in half where as the numbers bleed into the negatives, the pitch is running in on a right-handed batter. Conversely if the pitch moves towards the higher numerics, this represents movement at a left-handed batter. As you can see, the four pitches showed little deviation. The changeup - the red line - essentially follows a straight path that bisects the plate. The slider - the blue line - is the only one of the group that follows a different path.
Back on July 20th, 2008, you see large separation between the flight path of his pitches. The fastball - the green line - was thrown for a strike consistently - but now the changeup has movement into a right-handed batters and the slider has a much more pronounced break towards left-handed batters. This variation of location, much like that of speed, keeps opposing batters from focusing in on one area for all four pitches. Comparatively, Baker's pitches had little-to-no differentiation on Wednesday night.
The key for Scott Baker is his slider. In 2008, Baker had a WHIFF of .278 because of the movement and location and as such Baker had his best season of his career. Without those two variables, Baker's slider turns into an easily accessible pitch to hit. Look for the Twins to work with Baker in regaining that sharp break towards left-handed batters and keeping that pitch at the knees.