Wednesday, July 01, 2009

For Baker, release matters

Facing the Royals, a team who struggled to score runs (4.05 per game) and strikes out in hearty portion of their plate appearances (15%) it would be assumed that Scott Baker would slice through them like a butter-knife in melted Velveeta.  After all, Baker's most recent start bucked a trend in which he had gone at least six innings with a minimum of five strikeouts in his past five starts dating back to June 4th.  The Twins starter would need 111 pitches to labor his way through five innings and only accumulated a solitary strikeout of Tony Pena Jr.  Just one?  One g'damn strikeout?  Heck, Miguel Olivo and Mike Jacobs have combined to strikeout in nearly 30 percent of their plate appearances alone - and neither succumbed to Baker who had struck out 34 in his previous 34 innings.  The Royals were able to constantly fouled off pitches as Baker failed to flip anything resembling an out-pitch towards the plate.
Ron Gardenhire told the media following the game that "I don't know how to explain what [Baker] said in the dugout. He said, 'I was making just a bad enough pitch for them to foul it off or a good enough pitch for them to not make an out.' Figure that one out. He got through it.''  This outing was reminiscent of the April/May Scott Baker.  The one who struck out 29 in 38 innings while opponents slugged .522 off of him in seven starts between April 15th and May 19th. Let's examine his release point in this start to see if this tells us anything about his performance.  The cluster shows that Baker's release point on Tuesday night ranged from slightly below six feet high to slightly above six feet.  If you look closer here, you'll notice that his fastball is thrown more frequently with a lower release point as he attempts to stay on top of the ball for his off-speed deliveries.  

Here is another graph of his more recent outing in Milwaukee last Thursday where Baker went six innings with five strikeouts but only got two strikes total swinging (closer look here). During this outing, Baker is releasing his pitches at virtually the same horizontal angle, yet his vertical release point range is below six feet in height:       

In his last two starts, Baker has been a somewhat different pitcher then he was at the beginning of June.  Baker totaled 11 innings with six strikeouts but walked five batters and got only 4 percent of his strikes on swings.  Comparatively, his first four starts of the month, he pitched 28 innings while striking out 29 and walking just three as 11 percent of his strikes came on swings. 
Reflecting back on his April 22nd start against Boston in which he struck out just three in four innings of work, we find that his release point was very similar to that of his most recent against the Royals and Brewers where the majority of his release points were below six feet high (a closer view here). 
Compare this past outing with his June 4th, 2009 start against the Cleveland Indians (a game where he struck out a season-high 10 batters) and you'll notice that all pitches have been released above six feet in height.  Each one of his fastballs have been thrown above the six foot mark as well, creating a better downward plain (seen closer here):
Here is his May 24th outing versus Milwaukee in which Baker went 8 1/3 innings while striking out six and walking no one (closer look here):

His May 24th and his June 4th arm angles are nearly identical.  Baker maintained a constant release point above six feet in height and managed to strike out sixteen and walked just one in 15 innings while getting swinging strikes on 20 percent of his total strikes thrown.
What can we deduce and conclude from the graphs above? 
The obvious is that the lower the release point, the less likely Baker is at getting an empty swing.  This may be a byproduct of a pitch flattening out when released at the lower angle and getting less movement on his pitches.  Opponents, much like last night, are able to keep the at-bat alive by fouling off numerous pitches causing his pitch count to rise.  The second problem the lower point of release creates is of control.  As mentioned, when he keeps his arm higher, Baker walked just one of 59 batters faced on May 24th/June 4th starts. 
What are the factors that are causing this drop?  Is it associated with the length of his stride, caused by different mound environments?  Is this change in arm angles a symptom of a tired shoulder or perhaps general apathy?  Is the release point difference caused by different mound environments?  This is something that pitching coach Rick Anderson needs to dignose and address quickly to keep his release from drifting southward in order to gain better results.