When diagnosing the many problems of the 2009 Minnesota Twins, a combined team ERA of 4.76 is especially tough to swallow. It's actually quite hard to wrap your head around how bad the majority of the Twins' pitching staff must be, considering they boast three relievers with ERAs under 3.00.
But then there's Scott Baker, an enigma in every sense of the word. His 4.47 ERA is above-average on the team, but still quite hideous compared to other "aces" in the league.
How does a pitcher who has won his last six decisions (with a 3.10 ERA during that stretch) not have more attractive statistics? Truth is, Baker has pitched brilliantly as of late, but his results aren't the kind you see in a box score.
Baker's first nine starts this year were nothing short of disastrous. The stats being thrown around by irked fans and concerned bloggers were not pretty: a 2-6 record, 6.32 ERA, .821 opposing OPS.
But digging deeper than that, one could find that he also sported a career-worst 2.4 HR/9IP. Let that sink in for a moment: every nine innings Baker completed (which would take at least two or three starts for him to accomplish) came bundled together with more than two home runs.
Baker is known as a fly-ball pitcher, but this was ridiculous. Could this be the same hurler who went 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA last year?
Despite looking every bit like the '98 Andy Larkin early in the season. Since the beginning of June through two days ago Baker has lowered his ERA to 3.50 and his HR/9IP rate to a very acceptable 0.72.
What caused the massive shift in success? Here's a graph of the pitch locations Baker threw during his start on April 22, his second of the season (courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net).
Woah. Talk about lack of control. Home plate umpire Tom Hallion was especially generous in his strikezone that day, giving Baker 17 strikes that should have been balls. Even so, Baker retired just fourteen batters during his outing, giving up 10 hits and six runs, all of which came off of the three home runs Baker surrendered.
Now that we've established just how awful Baker was for that first game of the double-header against the Red Sox, let's take a deeper look at his delivery and compare it side-by-side to his recent complete game, two-hit shutout against the Indians. (His complete game is on top.)
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On Aug. 14, Baker's cutter crossed the plate over six inches to the left of where it crossed on April 22. Most important, however, is the fact that the curveball that was nonexistent in April was finding the plate in August and that his slider moved into the strike zone.
An effective slider and curveball are critical pitches in Baker's arsenal simply because they're (usually) extremely tough to hit. At about this time last year, according to data compiled by ubelmann of the WGOM, opposing hitters whiffed at 26 percent of Baker's sliders and 20 percent of his curveballs.
This year, opponents are missing his slider 27.1 pct of the time and his curveball 23.3 pct of the time in 2009, according to both Josh Kalk's pitch f/x tool and Fangraphs.com fellow blogger TwinsFanc1981.
Sounds horrible, right?
Although I don't have access to (who am I kidding? I simply can't find) the game-by-game pitch version of breakdowns listed above, I'm sure both Baker's curve and slider are missing far more bats than they were at the start of the season.
37 percent of Baker's entire pitch count came from the first nine games of the season, and just looking at the box scores, you can tell that he didn't miss many bats during that stint.
Lately, though, Baker has put up excellent numbers and his success has been plainly evident. More important for Baker, however, is the fact that his curveball and slider are finding the plate and missing opposing bats. His unattractive ERA aside, Baker is back on the fast-path to league-wide recognition.
The Twins may really have an ace, after all.
Originally posted on TwinsFix.com