During the off-season, Scott Baker signed a four year, $15.25 million deal. Other than a few Joe Mays-related rumblings, the public response to this deal was quite positive.
Why wouldn't it be? Baker was coming off of his best season as a professional, going 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA and 141 strikeouts. He held batters to a .247 BAA and posted a WHIP of just 1.17.
Baker started 2009 on the disabled list after having some shoulder pain in camp, but the problems began when Baker made his first real starts of the season. Baker gave up seven home runs in his two starts of the year, failed to get a quality start until his fifth start of the year, and generally underperformed.
But did he really?
In two of his last three outings, Baker didn't allow a hit until at least the fifth inning, and in the other, he shut out the Mariners for seven innings.
Still, Baker is 1-4 and was lucky to emerge from Thursday's meltdown with a no decision.
His fastball is at the same level it was last year, he's mixing pitches about the same, his BABIP is actually lower than last year's, but he's still yielding a higher total batting average against him.
The problem with Baker seems to be two-fold, neither of which is easily fixable.
First, he's giving up hits in bunches.
On Thursday, Baker went 5.2 innings giving up just three hits and no walks. In the process of getting the final out of his day, Baker gave up a double, a single, another double, a walk, and a final single before retiring Brandon Inge to stop the bleeding.
Had he scattered those hits, Baker would have been fine. Seven hits in six innings is more than serviceable, especially when walks are kept to a minimum. Its when Baker can't seem to stop hit parade that he gets into trouble.
Second, he's simply getting hit harder than he was last year.
Its unclear why, Baker's fastball averages 90.8 MPH, more or less the same as last year. Some of it could be simple bad luck, but there could be a secondary reason: a decline in the play of the outfield.
Last season, Baker had Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, and Delmon Young backing him. Together, they posted a 8.6 UZR (sans Delmon Young, 25).
This year, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Delmon have combined for -10.2 UZR, with every member posting a negative number.
For a flyball pitcher like Baker, this means a lot of balls that were caught last year are getting past the outfielders, frequently for extra bases, this season.
This is not to say that Gomez should be in every time Baker starts, but it would certainly help to shore up an outfield that has been fairly porous so far this season.
One worrying sign is that Baker is leaning more heavily on his fastball, a trait that got him in trouble in the past, but it hasn't reached levels that would constitute a real issue.
Even so, it is still too early to be really concerned about Baker, and I suspect some of the angst surrounding him is based on the fact that Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey are both underperforming as well.
If in a few starts Baker hasn't yet figured out how to avoid the big inning that has plagued him so far, I'll be more concerned. Until then, its something to watch, but nothing to lose sleep about.
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