Thursday, February 3, 2011

Scott Baker: Underrated


I've heard a lot of Twins fans lately expecting the team to struggle this season. I certainly think the team could have done a lot more this off-season to ensure another division title, but the team should still be in contention for it even with a poor off-season. Most fans cite weaknesses in the starting rotation; and while I don't think Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing is anything special, I was surprised to hear fans complaining about Scott Baker. It made me realize that Baker is, for whatever reason, extremely underrated as a starting pitcher.

Scott Baker has been one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball over the last four years. During that time, Baker has averaged over 171 innings a season, while posting a 4.14 ERA and a K:BB ratio of over 3:1.

For comparison's sake, Matt Garza is widely considered a very good #2 starter, thanks in large part to his performance in the ALCS two years ago. The Cubs traded some highly regarded prospects to get Garza, and there's no doubting Garza is a good starting pitcher. During Garza's three full seasons in Tampa Bay, he averaged 187 innings per season, while posting a 3.86 ERA and a K:BB ratio of just over 2:1. Garza is widely considered a 'strikeout pitcher' because of his plus stuff, but he walks many more batters than Baker and the pitchers have been fairly comparable over the last few years.

Baker posted a 4.49 ERA last season, but chances are he's going to improve upon that this coming season. Over his career, Baker has allowed opposing batters to hit .304 on balls in play. Last season, we saw this number jump to .323, after allowing hitters to hit .285 and .277 in the two prior seasons. It's worth noting that Baker's a fly-ball pitcher, and the fact that the Twins outfield defense last season was among the league's worst undoubtedly hurt Baker's BABIP. That does explain at least some of the 40 point increase, but even if the Twins outfield defense is equally bad this coming season, Baker's likely to see his opponent's BABIP fall to a number closer to his career .304 mark. That would likely improve Baker's ERA from 4.49 to something around 4.25, and if Baker pitches better than he did last season (certainly possible) he could easily post a sub 4 ERA and give the Twins one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in baseball.

It seems silly that someone who has been as effective and consistent as Baker would be underrated, but for whatever reason Baker is. Most fans think of Baker in the same tier as Blackburn, Duensing and even Slowey, and that's simply a mistake. Baker is much more likely to outperform Carl Pavano this coming season than any of the other starters are likely to outperform Baker. If the team can get solid innings from Duensing, Blackburn, Slowey and/or Kyle Gibson for the last two rotation spots, the Twins may again finish with close to 100 wins. The team's pitching should be much better than people expect, and we'll look at the entire rotation in the near future.