Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Read His Lips: No New Pitches

After leading the league in foul ball strikes in 2009, Twins opening day starter Scott Baker shrugged off the need to develop another pitch to add to his repertoire. In Charley Walters’s recent column, the Pioneer Press’s sports columnist quoted the righty as saying “No new pitches. Try to sink the ball and cut the ball and throw some breaking balls for strikes.”

This past year 35% of his strikes came in the form of “dyslexic home runs” (those not fouled off with two-strikes). When he ran the count to two-strikes – a feat he did almost better than anybody, by the way - hitters were able to make just enough contact on 48.5% of their swings to stay alive in the plate appearance and increase his pitch count totals by one. This small inefficiency may be costing the righty small potatoes in terms of his pitch totals but the extra life was enough to give hitters another opportunity to inflict damage: Ten of his 28 home runs were allowed with two-strikes on a batter.

What was the cause for all of this partial contact? Fastball usage and location.

If you review the list of the top foul-strike leaders, you’ll notice that the list shares a lot of names in common with the top fastball users.  Baker not only favored his fastball heavily overall, he turned to it 66% of the time when he was in a kill count. Additionally, he went upstairs in the zone to subdue hitters. While this was lucrative for him, striking out 36.4% of hitters when throwing high gas, it also allowed for numerous nicks and ticks to stay alive.

Given this, should Baker consider adding another pitch? After all, Joe Nathan adds pitches like a celebrity hording “Friends” on Facebook and he only assumes 5% of a season’s total batter matchups.

In short: No.

Baker comes equipped with two very formidable weapons in his arsenal. Believe it or not, he has one of the most effective fastballs in the American League. According to fangraphs.com’s weighted runs scale, his 19.8 wFB on his heater ranked just behind Justin Verlander (24.3 wFB) and Zack Greinke (25.8 wFB) among league leaders. His fastball also induces higher-than-average swing-and-misses.  On top of that, his slider is no slouch either – missing more lumber than a clear-cut forest.

In all, it’s not necessary to add a pitch that has been suggested and should continue to refine his approach using what he’s got – which is solid. Tweaking his pitches slightly can have just as effective results as adding a completely new pitch. For example, Cliff Lee’s ’08 emergence coincided with the addition of a two-seam fastball. As Baker mentioned, it getting his current set of offerings to do slightly different things, particularly with two-strikes.