Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Scott Baker and Ace-dom

This offseason, Twins fans spent a lot of time whining about Zack Greinkie, and how the Twins needed to find An Ace. Maybe we found one?

Scott Baker pitched another gem yesterday, throwing 7.1 shutout innings and lowering his ERA to 3.15. For the season, he now has 101 strikeouts in 105.1 innings. That puts him in 6th place in the American League, behind James Shields, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, David Price and Jered Weaver. Those names sound a lot like Aces. It puts him above names Twins fans like to lust over, like CC Sabathia, Ricky Romero and Josh Beckett. And, of course, Zack Greinke.

By the way, it also puts him above Francisco Liriano, both in raw numbers (Liriano has 61 K) and K/9 rate.

But I’m not here to argue about whether he’s An Ace. My experience with people that say they want An Ace is that they don’t want to define what An Ace is. What they really mean is they want “that guy.” Anyone besides that guy (this offseason, it was generally Greinke or Cliff Lee) is not An Ace. It’s a convenient way to whine about how grass the green is someplace else.

Instead, I want to know: should we have seen this from Baker?

In some ways, we did. Back in October, we ran a two part series looking for Hidden Aces that started on the TwinsCentric blog and finished up on The method was simple: pick all those pitchers who had enough innings to qualify for an ERA title and then sort them by how good they were at striking out people. Greinke was 38th on that list, so we decided to look at the one above him on the list and see if there was any chance of the Twins acquiring each pitcher.

I think its worth going back to read that series, because some of the names really jump out. We wondered if James Shields might be a good target for a bounce back year. He might just start the All-Star game. We wondered if Toronto’s Shaun Marcum could be had in a trade. Milwaukee did just that, and he’s leading their rotation which is leading their team which is leading their division.

And we found another name on that list we didn’t expect to find: Scott Baker. Here was what was written:

First, I should point out that he had the second highest ERA of anyone on this [Hidden Aces] list, second to Jamie Shields. But it’s also worth noting that his strikeout rate and walk rate this year were very, very good. He just gave up too many damn hits. Oh, and led the league in slumped shoulders.

It turns out I could say the same thing about Jamie Shields (#18 yesterday), and I’m fairly confident Shields will bounce back. Would other teams be saying that about Baker? Are they wrong, or would a little distance give us a better perspective? And how much did the elbow problems, on which he had surgery immediately following the season, play into things?

This whole exercise is making me wonder if he is a very good candidate to have that breakout year we’ve been waiting for. He just turned 29 years old. His career strikeout rate is over 7 per nine innings. His walk rate is close to 2 per nine innings. His hit rate was below 1 per inning for the last two years. He is exactly the kind of sneaky good struggling pitcher that I would target just looking at his stats. Oh, plus, he’s relatively cheap.

That doesn’t mean he belongs on a list of possible aces. But he’s exactly the kind of sleeper that suddenly breaks through and everyone looks back and wonders how they didn’t see it coming. Shouldn’t we know better? Didn’t we just go through this with Liriano?

Before today I wouldn’t have given two cares about whether Baker got traded away this offseason. Now, I’d love to see him stick around, because I want to see what kind of year he has. I suspect I’m going to want to see it happen with him as a Twin.

What does all this mean? Probably that we got lucky, both as prognosticators and Twins fans. But it absolutely means we are doing this exercise at the end of next season, too.


Kevin said...

You say he's behind Greinke in K's but it's worth noting that Greinke has thrown about 40 innings less than Baker due to injury. Greinke has the edge in K/9 by about 3 K/9.

frightwig said...

Last year, Baker had a 4.49 ERA, but a 3.96 FIP, 3.82 xFIP, and .323 BABIP, indicating that he'd been unlucky. This season, before today's start, he had a 3.39 ERA, but a 3.64 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, and a .295 BABIP. So, he's pitching a bit better than last year, while his luck has also turned.

I wouldn't call Baker an "Ace," as in a likely Cy Young candidate, someone any contending team would love to have at the top of the rotation, or even a likely All-Star. (His 3.64 FIP before today rated 47th in MLB, just ahead of Jonathan Niese, and just ahead of Livan Hernandez, Ricky Romero, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Paul Maholm, and Brian Duensing.) However, since 2007 he's been a very good, if underrated, pitcher who would be a solid #2-3 starter in most team's rotations. It's a shame that he's never been really appreciated in Minnesota (besides some fans who pay close attention). The Twins are lucky to have him under contract for 2 more years, especially after that stunt of making him supposedly compete for a #5 spot last spring.

frightwig said...

P.S. The Dodgers game gives Baker a 3.44 FIP, which rates 40th in MLB, just behind Ricky Nolasco, Bud Norris, and Charlie Morton, just ahead of Carlos Carrasco, Alexi Ogando, Derek Lowe, and Phil Humber (hey!).

Jack Ungerleider said...

I guessing the Twins saw something when the gave Baker the contract he currently has. Before Pavanno came in as the veteran anchor weren't Baker and Liriano supposed to be the 1 and 1A starters with Blackburn, Slowey and Perkins/Duensing as the 3-5 starters in no particular order?

If so then I guess maybe the front office saw this coming.

Jim H said...

Largely, over the last three and one half years the best Twins pitcher has been Blackburn. This year up to their last starts, the Twins best pitcher has probably been Blackburn. Baker has been good as well, but Blackburn has been better, both since he came to the majors and this year. I just wonder why no one seems to want to acknowledge that.

I get that Blackburn doesn't strike out as many, and when he has a bad start, it is really bad. Still, he has more good starts than any other pitcher on the Twins staff. (At least measured by quality starts). I still see people posting that he should be traded to make room for Slowey or Gibson. I just wonder why the Twins should want to trade their best pitcher.

TT said...

Just a reminder, K/9 is a measure of the proportion of outs a pitcher gets by stikeout. It is not a measure of how often they strike batters out, although the two are obviously related. For instance, Greinke has struck out almost 30% of the batters he has faced while Baker has struck just 23%.

The notion that BABIP is just luck is ludicrous. Good pitchers give their fielders a chance to get hitters out. Its not that Baker's "luck" turned, its that he is doing that more often this year.

If getting hitters out is the measure of a pitcher's success, then you could say Pavano has been the Twins best pitcher. He has got the most outs. But he has only got 70% of the batters he faced out while Baker has got 73%.

FWIW, Blackburn has got 69% out, Liriano 71% and Duensing 68%. Guys like Hughes and Hoey are down around 60%. The percentage of batters a pitcher gets out tracks pretty well with their other results.