Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Scott Baker headed to the DL?

It appears that the Twins may be poised to lose Scott Baker for the second time in the season due to his elbow.

With two-fifths of the starting rotation already on the verge of needing replacement, following a Monday’s loss to the Red Sox, Baker told reporters that the team was going to evaluate his elbow and determine whether or not he needed another stint on the disabled list. According to the Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen, Baker said he “noticed a lack of velocity and less sharpness in his breaking pitches.

For those watching the game, it certainly looked like Baker is not 100%.

Baker, who is typically in the low-90s, was sitting around 89 miles per hour when facing the Red Sox on Monday night. This became apparent during the middle stages of the game that the he looked flat when it came to amping up his fastball or snapping his slider over the zone. The sixth inning really proved to be his undoing and we witnessed examples of both of those problems. After a lead-off triple to Carl Crawford and several hard hit balls, David Ortiz deposited one of Baker’s 89 mile-per-hour fastballs into the upper deck of right field and Jarrod Saltalamacchia followed that by lifting a horizontal-moving slider into the plaza area (a 0-2 pitch, no less).  

According to Fangraphs.com pitch f/x warehouse, last night’s start was not his first tango without the high-grade heat. Since his July 5 outing against Tampa Bay when he left after five innings, there has been a noticeable decline in his velocity. Here you see that what pitch f/x categorizes as his main fastball (a two-seamer). The grey lines indicate the range of velocity while the green dots represent the average. What we can see is that Baker has been averaging 89-90 mph in his previous four starts when his elbow began barking again:

The drop in velocity in and of itself isn't necessarily a concern. What is striking is that the sudden downturn appears very similar to last season’s output. As you may recall, Baker’s 2010 was marred by the elbow injury that he attempted to play through - even receiving a cortisone shot – but ultimately needed to be shutdown and required offseason surgery to remove bone spurs.

Baker provided a bit of a scare in the spring when he reported a setback in his progress. While the bone spur surgery is viewed as a minor clean-up, the spurs have frequently led to further elbow damage. Spurs are generated by a loose UCL (the same ligament that snaps and then necessitates Tommy John surgery) and often the removal of spurs and chips can be a precursor to the eventual more intensive surgical procedure. Now, with the reports of his elbow discomfort flaring up again, it is time for the Twins to decide if they need to put their arguably best starter on the disabled list – and it is probably the right move to make.

Baker’s statements after the game leads one to believe that he is uncertain on where he stands. He noted that the pain was not as intense as it previously was but that he was struggling to get loose. He suggests that he could pitch through pain but, in all honestly, how much should the Twins push their top starter when the season is spiraling out of control fast?

By his own admission, he said he could “pitch with some discomfort” but conceded that pitching through that without being effective is counterproductive. While he hasn’t been a detriment (not like Nick Blackburn or Francisco Liriano anyways), Baker hasn’t been sharp. With the reality that the Twins’ chances of winning the division hover somewhere between slim and none, the organization needs to reassess Baker’s program. Furthermore, with a year left on his contract in addition to an option year for 2013, if the team wants to have Baker to return to pitch like he did from May through July when they have a chance to compete for the division next season, rest is likely the best course of action.