Friday, July 01, 2011

Scott Baker is this good. Believe it.

On Wednesday, in an apparent showing of solidarity for the state employees who will be laid off during the government shutdown, the Minnesota Twins’ bats also stopped working.
Fortunately for the team, Scott Baker was on the mound.
Baker, with the help of the bullpen, stifled the Dodger lineup, shutting them out and walking away from the game with a 1-0 victory. With those scoreless 7.1 innings of work, he is now the owner of a sterling 3.15 ERA, a very good 3.44 xFIP and 101 strikeouts on the season. And, with numbers like those, Baker has emerged as the most reliable member of the rotation.
There isn’t anything special behind Baker’s return to success. There is no new cutter, pumped up velocity or an increased reliance on an off-speed pitch. It boils down to his health which has led to better command. Baker has always exercised an impressively small walk rate but his struggles in 2010 were not because he wasn’t throwing strikes – it was that he was consistently missing his spots within the zone. In short, his potentially dominating stuff had found inopportune times to lapse.
Far too often it seemed we witnessed Baker attempting to drill the catcher’s target on the outer-half of the plate only to have his pitch wander back over the dish and become an empty rawhide shell with a screaming ball of yarn headed towards the right field bleachers. If it wasn’t that it was fastballs that were called for down in the zone which wound up rising like a hot air balloon (and, given the 23 home runs in170 innings in 2010, it may have been what opponents saw headed their direction). Rather than the crisp sliders, we saw too many cement mixers that just spun at belt level.
Nevertheless, buried beneath cloak of constant cookies was the fact that – as John Bonnes correctly pointed out – Baker had the makings of a top of the rotation starter. His high strikeout/low walk numbers were overshadowed by his opponents’ slugging percentage.
Of course, the source of his wayward command stemmed from the chips in his elbow that plague him throughout the season. As Baker told reporters following his start against the Dodgers:
“I had a couple of cortisone injections last year. Those make you feel pretty good for a little while, but those are obviously just temporary fixes, just treating the symptoms instead of the problem.”
With a full recovery from the offseason surgery to remove the bone chips, Baker has since demonstrated over and over again that he can locate his pitches with improved precision.
Now, instead of this…
…we see more of this:
The overall results have been fantastic.
One contributing factor to this outstanding performance is that Baker has experienced a significant revival of his fastball. According to’s Pitch Value warehouse, Baker’s 2010 fastball was “worth” -8.9 runs above average making it one of the least valuable pitches in the American League last year. Much of that was derived from offerings like the one in the first clip. This season it is the sixth-best contributor at 14.7 runs above average.
Scott Baker’s Fastball
Opponent Avg.
In Play%
League Averages:
Baker has shaved off nearly a hundred points off his opponent batting average, increased his ability to get a strike out and limited the amount of fastballs put into play. In fact, among those qualified, Baker’s 29% in play rate is the lowest in the majors. Those are all a product of being able to spot the pitch much better.
Restoration of his breaking pitches has also been key to his resurgence. Similar to the plight of Nick Blackburn who did not throw his slider at all in 2010 due to his elbow pain, Baker continued to spin downgraded versions of his slider and curve. He was able to dismantle the Dodgers by keeping them off-balanced with a plethora of breaking stuff. Deploying low-finishing breaking pitches enhance the high fastballs by changing the hitter’s eye-level.
Armed with a good repertoire of pitches, mechanics that help hide the ball from hitters and now a clean bill of health, Scott Baker has rebounded in a major way. Make no mistake - this is not an aberration - Baker is actually this good.