Although his peripheral statistics do not really suggest there was much of a deviation from his 2008 or 2009 season, there were underlying issues that kept Scott Baker from pitching at the same level as he did in the second-half of 2009. Even though the elbow soreness wasn’t discussed as a factor until July, there are signs that it influenced his pitches dating back to the beginning of the season and throughout most of the past year.
Over at BaseballProspectus.com, Pitch f/x guru Mike Fast identified a handful of pitchers who had altered their release points – either horizontally or vertically. Fast noticed that Baker demonstrated a significant vertical drop comparative to his 2008 and 2009 seasons:
In his study, Fast did not offer a conclusion or a theory as to why he believed Baker had changed his delivery. A case could be made that Baker’s elbow pain started somewhere in the early part of the season and caused him to shift his delivery – often a mechanical alteration pitchers make to protect ailing components.
What did this lowered arm angle mean for Baker?
After reporting some discomfort in July, which resulted in a cortisone shot, he was shut down for a spell in September. Of his condition Baker said:
"I can deal with the discomfort. But when it started to affect my pitches, I wasn't able to finish them and able to get the ball down.”
Truthfully, Baker has never been one to keep the ball down – even when healthy. He’s essentially Maverick and likes to fly in the Danger Zone, constantly elevating his pitches. Nevertheless, this method had provided him with a smattering of strikeouts as he enticed hitters to chase a high fastball. On the other hand, the constant flirtation up in the zone also meant that placement a fraction of an inch the wrong direction prompts plenty of hard contact - the kind that requires a cab ride to go fetch the ball.
What’s more is that there is a sizeable difference between deliberately going upstairs and accidentally meandering up there. There are times as a pitcher when you want to burn a letter high fastball by a hitter and other times when you want to stay down and away. By Baker’s testimony, it appears that his intentions and his actual results in 2010 were vastly different.
Below is a prime example of this. On June 27, Baker was behind in the count to the Mets’ Ike Davis two balls, one strike. Catcher Joe Mauer sets up outside and calls for a fastball middle-away, hoping to shave the outer-half or coax weak contact off the end of Davis’s bat. Instead of reaching its intended destination, Baker’s pitch remains up in the zone and wanders over the fat part of the plate, allowing Davis to jerk it onto the Van Wyck Expressway:
The above clip was fairly indicative of Baker’s overall struggles with his fastball in general. In 2009 Baker was able to spot his fastball on the outer-half of the plate better and at avoiding the meaty portion of the zone. More recently, this has not been the case.
While his fastball’s velocity remained the same, Baker simply did not hit the same spots he did the previous season. Here you see in a heat map Baker’s location of his fastball against lefties. What is seen through the catcher’s perspective is that in 2009, Baker demonstrated a much greater propensity to hitting the corner of the zone away from the hitter. This past season, the majority of his fastballs resided within the zone in an easily accessible area for the hitter:
Like we saw in the Davis example, Baker may have wanted to place his pitch away like he did in 2009 but was unable to because of control issues stemming from the elbow injury.
Another aspect of his game that gave Baker fits was his slider. In 2009, according to Inside Edge, Baker allowed just 37% of his sliders to be put into play – which also happened to be the league average on sliders. In 2010, that rate increased to 46%, a noticeably jump for a pitch that is not supposed to garner a lot of contact. For the most part it is his secondary pitch. While not used nearly as much as his fastball in two-strike situations, Baker will occasionally turn to it for a strike out. Unfortunately for him, the slider wasn’t nearly as effective for him.
On June 10th, while facing Wilson Betemit and the Kansas City Royals, on a 2-2 count, Baker delivers a rather juicy hanging slider that Betemit uncorks on it:
Watching Joe Mauer’s original target, you know that it was not premeditated to throw it jock-high out over the middle of the plate. Following Baker’s release point on the slider, you can see that he fails to stay on top of the ball, resulting in the pitch staying up in the zone.
Baker's elbow pain clearly had an adverse affect on his pitches. Perhaps Target Field's pitcher-friendly confines masked what could have been a disastrous season. After all, his 10.2% home runs-to-fly balls rate was his highest since his 2006 campaign. Had the Twins still been playing at the Metrodome, fans in the Home Run Porch may have been picking baseballs out of their teeth.
With less than two weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to Florida, two of the team’s presumed starting pitchers, Baker and Nick Blackburn, are in the process of recovering from their respective offseason elbow surgeries. While not yet testing out his slider, Baker says that he is feeling good about his progress:
"I've been fortunate. [My elbow] feels good. I've got all this newfound range of motion. We'll see what I can do with it."
The “newfound range of motion” is the key to getting back the Scott Baker who is capable of fronting a rotation.
While it might not be the popular opinion among fans, when healthy and able to hit his spots, I believe Baker has elite-caliber stuff. Though it has not much of a spectacle to behold by radar gun standards, his fastball has been a successful pitch for him in the past. According to Fangraphs.com, in 2009 it was the third-highest valued fastball in the American League, topped only by Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander. Likewise, from 2007 to 2008, Baker possessed one of the best slider’s in baseball. If he can bounce back from the offseason surgery quickly, enabling him to return to his familiar mechanics, Baker is a prime candidate to be a number two pitcher in the Twins rotation.