Scott Baker: Most Underrated Hurler in the Bigs?

As someone who spends a significant part of their work day at a desk, I spend a lot of time perusing stats. Not exactly an earth-shatterer — this is FanGraphs after all — but it does prod my mind to some interesting questions and processes. In fact, you may have read about one last week. As most of you know, I’m willing to be an open book when it comes to researching my pieces — like the Larry Walker one — so keep that in mind as you read.

Nonetheless, each and every time I look at Scott Baker’s marks — last year especially but even his career digits — I get the increasing notion that he may indeed be the most underrated hurler in the junior circuit, if not all of baseball. As a result, I took to Twitter to do a little crowdsourcing. In fact, the entire thought process was spurred by a fan suggesting Jair Jurrjens is/was an ace, while I suggested that he was a nice 2-3, but that I’d prefer Baker. See, there’s this prevalent notion among Twins fans — especially those less saber-inclined — that the club truly lacks a number one starter, and that’s why the team doesn’t regularly advance in the playoffs. I have a different theory for that, but that’s for a different time and place. Back to your regularly scheduled rambling:

I received the following responses (edited for content):

@Larry_Koestler: I like Baker, though I don’t know that I’d agree he’s underrated.
@thecazbah: What do you mean? He never plays or is healthy.
@Ben_Duronio/@HitTheCutoff: Masterson is up there.
@Adams_Steve/@Matt_Filippi: Not the most underrated, but definitely undervalued.
@Adams_Steve: I’d add Anibal Sanchez.
@cuppingmaster/@stoltz_baseball: McCarthy was the best AL pitcher by FIP….I’d vote for him.
@matthewcoller: People in So-Cal have no idea who Ricky Romero is. He’s pretty good.
@GiantsNirvana: Maybe not most, but definitely in the discussion.
@mcdillon27: He could be, but his health/durability seem to be an issue.
@Al_Damlo: He’s never put together a whole season of work, has he?

There are a lot of different opinions here, and for what I’m trying to accomplish, I think it works. From here I received opinions from bloggers/writers I respect a lot, a few average — by no means a slight — Twins fans, and a good mix of people from all over the country on the whole.

Let’s first start with the definition of underrated from Merriam-Webster:

underratedverb – Underestimate the extent, value,
or importance of (someone or something).

“Underrated” is surely a slippery slope, so I’m going to operate as best I can on that basis. In doing so, I’m going to throw out financial commitments, because it isn’t fair to players who hit the market at a good time, or those pre-arb. Really, the heart of what I’m looking at is this: When talking about the 30-35 best pitchers in the game, whose name doesn’t come up enough? Baker’s name is one I come back to over and over again.

Why exactly do I think Baker is underrated? It really has nothing to do with the fact that he plays in my backyard, to be honest. He’s just 42 innings shy of qualifying for the 1,000 innings leaderboard at B-Ref, and he has a better career whiff rate than Edwin Jackson, Ervin Santana, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Halladay. He has a better career K/BB than Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and Josh Beckett. In my view, one or the other would be worth blowing off as veritable statistical noise; plenty of guys get the whiffs and walk a ton of guys, and by the same token, guys like Carlos Silva and Carl Pavano make careers out of not whiffing anyone but being extraordinarily stingy on the free pass. Baker, however, does both, and at least to me isn’t regarded even among the 50 or so best starters in the game.

How does Baker fly under the radar? Well for one, he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff. He won’t show up in any of the posts we’ve had or will have this week on best pitches, and he’s not really in the discussion for any of them either.

Indeed, he gets the whiffs (7.2 career per 9, 8.2 in ‘11), but he does so with almost surgical command of a 91 mph heater, and some pretty ordinary offspeed stuff. He’s also been plagued a bit by injuries, only once reaching 200 innings/30-plus starts, but three seasons out of four above 170 innings means he’s not Rich Harden, either.

So, let’s consider a few of the other guys mentioned, and how I think they stack up to Baker. Masterson plays in the same division, and was nearly a five-win pitcher last year. That’s pretty awesome, and he certainly qualifies as underrated, even for as hyped as he was as a vaunted Sox prospect (top-100 on Baseball America’s 2008 list). Baker and Masterson had virtually the same xFIP last season, though Masterson did so in 216 innings, or about 80 more than Baker. One thing, though, that I like a bit more about Baker is that his whiff rates seem to be trending up (and Masterson’s are just fine where they are, make no mistake), and with it also increases his K/BB, which registered a very comely 3.84 last season. Had Baker been a qualifying starter, that would have put him around 12th best in the entire big leagues. I like Baker just a bit more — though it really is close — going forward, as a fly ball/whiff pitcher in a spacious home park with a few more strikeouts, and a more normalized home run rate (relative to career). (Full disclosure: I’m just more of a K/9, K/BB guy. Feel free to disagree.)

McCarthy also fits the bill as the AL’s FIP leader in 2011 — playing in Oakland doesn’t hurt — but I have a few issues with him. He showed an unprecedented HR/9 rate — thank you O.co — but I won’t really hold that against him. He halved his free pass rate after a full year away from the bigs, and nearly TRIPLED his K/BB. He’s a fun tweeter, and a good pitcher, but his home/away ERA split (2.65 home/3.99 away) make me want another season or two before I consider him. Baker has the splits as well — and I find the two pitchers somewhat similar in a few ways — but like I said, I just prefer the whiffs and the track record.

The other hurler I studied was Romero. First of all, his name is Ricardo Romero. How bad ass is that? But I digress, as Romero had an exemplary 2.92 ERA last season to go with his second straight 200-plus inning campaign. Romero’s whiff rates aren’t sexy, but are ultra consistent, as his K/9, K/BB, and BB/9 have varied very little in his three major league seasons. His strand rate was a little high last season — hence the 4.20 FIP/3.80 xFIP — but as long as he can keep the whiffs above seven per 9 and the wormburners near 55 percent (ninth in the majors among qualified pitchers), he’s going to be an asset up north and perpetually underrated. I’m more of a projection/ceiling guy, so I’d still prefer the potential of Baker if all things were equal, but I’m expecting significant push back there. I blame Nick Blackburn/Carl Pavano, though. Can you blame me?

Sanchez is an interesting beast. He’s perpetually underrated because he’s — rookie year excepted — never had a good record, nor a particularly high number of decisions, and he plays in the relative obscurity of south Florida. My notion is that is all about to change, especially considering the new amount of attention that will be paid to the Marlins in their new digs, with a new get-up, and some brand new guerrillas. Sanchez missed nearly 25 percent of the bats he faced last season (Baker checks in at 22.5 percent), which was about five percent more than his career rate, last year included. In order to do so, Sanchez scrapped his breaking stuff in favor of a change, similar to what he did in 2009 as well. If his new-found strikeout act is for real, coupled with his steadily dropping walk rate (12.0-8.3-7.7 percent three-year trend), Sanchez will skip most-underrated and rise to the top of the class as a Cy Young candidate.

So by virtue of my digging on Sanchez, I’m going to crown him as the most underrated pitcher in the game. Sorry, Mr. Baker.

Please feel free to disagree, and state your case in the comments section.



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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dave
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Brandon McCarthy gets my vote… could be top 20 starter this year… completely changed his profile, just lacks Ks

j6takish
Guest
j6takish
4 years 4 months ago

I think now that Bill Smith is gone, the Twins ridiculous obsession with pitching to contact guys will start to wane

Scott
Guest
Scott
4 years 4 months ago

Outside of Santana and Liriano, the Twins have been pitch to contact for as long as I can remember. At least we used to have a bullpen capable of getting a strikeout, however.

Jessy S.
Guest
Jessy S.
4 years 4 months ago

Wasn’t Brad Radke a hard throwing pitcher?

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Yes. At least relative to high schoolers.

Jesus
Guest
Jesus
4 years 4 months ago

I agree.

Grant
Guest
Grant
4 years 4 months ago

Romero and Baker have longer track records of consistent success, compared to McCarthy and Masterton.

Visnovsky
Member
Visnovsky
4 years 4 months ago

The Twins are so stupid they were going to have Baker compete for the 5th SP role in spring training in 2011. #AllHailNickReplacementLevelBlackburn

Adrock
Guest
Adrock
4 years 4 months ago

Agree with them?

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS
4 years 4 months ago

I would say Baker is definitely underrated. If you do qualified pitcher WAR from 2007 onward Baker is 28th. He has more WAR in fewer innings than Gavin Floyd, Tim Hudson, Wandy Rodriguez. Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza, Zambrano, and Guthrie. All the guys mentioned I would consider guys some would list in the top 35 starting pitchers in the Game. On the other hand, I would not consider him an ACE because he just does not put in the innings. An Ace should be expected to pitch 200 innings year in and year out. Baker has pitched 200 innings once. So I would rank Baker as one of the best #2 starters in the game. Almost an Ace since 2007.

The Nicker
Member
Member
The Nicker
4 years 4 months ago

fWAR dramatically underrates Tim Hudson. I don’t think you could put Baker over Hudson over the last 4 years, maybe going forward.

Psst
Guest
Psst
4 years 4 months ago

Jason Hammel in 2009/10 but overall Baker is up there

Chris
Guest
Chris
4 years 4 months ago

I’ve always liked Baker and I had him two years running in my AL only league, where he is also underrated. My one big issue is his durability. He may not be Harden but he always seems an inch away from elbow surgery. So as far as performance goes I agree with you but I think you underestimate the high injury risk and durability factor.

bill
Guest
bill
4 years 4 months ago

I agree Baker is underrated, but not by Twins fans. His 2009 season always comes up as an example of what he “could be again this year.” But as you said, injuries shorten his seasons – every season. That elbow always flares up around early August like clockwork and from there on he gets pounded. He’s got solid stuff but on a better club he would be a power reliever.

Vin
Member
Vin
4 years 4 months ago

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/the-forgotten-ace/

Needs to be mentioned anytime we’re discussing underrated-ness.

Justin
Guest
Justin
4 years 4 months ago

I know the Cardinals won the WS, but Jaime Garcia is still pretty underrated

ben
Guest
ben
4 years 4 months ago

agreed. jaime garcia is my fantasy secret weapon. i dont know why people want to draft him so late, but he’s put up nothing but great numbers.

Ballsdeep
Guest
Ballsdeep
4 years 4 months ago

I would like to vote for McCarthy, but his wife’s hotness makes it difficult to go that route. I like Sanchez, good choice.

Eddie
Guest
Eddie
4 years 4 months ago

I agree with Twins fans that Baker isn’t a number 1 starter. He’s never eclipsed 4 WAR in a season in his career, let alone breaching that elite 5 WAR ceiling. He just isn’t one of the best starters in baseball, and the Twins don’t have anyone that fits that description.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 4 months ago

This is the aspect that bothers me ….

We’re comparing Scott Baker’s rate stats to those rates of pitchers that throw 40+ more innings than he does. Pitcher’s that throw ~25% more IP than Baker are naturally going to have lesser rates. Baker has better rate stats when he throws less innings.

The year Baker threw 200 IP, his K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 were the worst of the last 3 years. When he throws less IP, his rate stats are better.

He going to need multiple seasons closer to 200 IP to get off of the underrated list, IMHO.

As a cardinal fan, I also submit Jaime Garcia. Good K guy that supreses HR with a high GB%. Not flashy, but damn effective, durable. The only knock on Garcia is his home/away splits, which may or may not be significant given his career IP.

It’s more difficult to really value and/or notice a SP that averages 163 IP over the last 5 years, unless his rates are off the chart.

Zips projects Baker to have 107 ERA+ over 159 IP. How much should I value that SP?

bill
Guest
bill
4 years 4 months ago

Well Garcia was tied for 3rd in 2010 RoY voting, which is where he belonged considering he was tied for 2nd in WAR among rookies. So I think the popular judgment of him is probably pretty fair at this point.

bill
Guest
bill
4 years 4 months ago

edit: Not tied for 3rd in votes, only tied for 2nd in rookie WAR

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 4 months ago

I don;t really consider ROY voting in terms of being valued. Of the what? 3 or 4 candidates he received the 2nd most votes? Every year someone has to receive the 2nd most votes. *grin*

I think of “value” as meaning “How much would tams pay for this guy on the open market?”

Anyone paying12-15M/y for Baker, Jackson, Garcia for multiple years?

Why do you call me Mr. Tibbs?
Guest
Why do you call me Mr. Tibbs?
4 years 4 months ago

Baker does have a fastball that can reach the mid 90’s. He can consistently dial it up to 95 with precision like you said.

Cory
Guest
Cory
4 years 4 months ago

He might be underrated if you only start him in home games.

Justin
Guest
Justin
4 years 4 months ago

While Cory Luebke has not pitched in the bigs for very long, he also quietly put together a very impressive rookie season

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Terrific choice. Definitely someone I’m monitoring in fantasy drafts.

joe torre
Guest
joe torre
4 years 4 months ago

he had to compete for the 5th spot. bonehead twins, and yes they pretty much ruined his arm now. shouldve saw that coming.

lets hope they know when to bring up their young studs in the farm

ted
Guest
ted
4 years 4 months ago

Funny I find Baker OVERRATED in fantasy drafts because people look at him with the same mind set you just did.

I used to have the same love for K/BB until I drafted this guy:

K% 7.44 BB% 1.49 K/9: 4.9 ERA: 4.86 FIP: 4.26 XFIP: 4.16 Career HR/9 : 1.42

This is Kevin Slowey in 2009. A lot of stats people were very high on this guy because of these gaudy K/BB numbers. But if you look past the K/BB there are other numbers there that are just as (if not more) important such as HR/9 and GB%.

Scott Baker is an Average pitcher pitching in a great ballpark for pitchers which will probably help his HR/9 a bit. But to ignore his glaring weaknesses (not to mention injury concerns) is folly.

MGL
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Gotta agree. Even FG writers can posture all they want, but…

I took the average of the following projections, after adjusting for park:

MGL
Pecota
Cairo
Oliver

Exactly league average in run prevention and everyone is pretty much in agreement (Pecota .2 better and Oliver .3 worse). In addition, Zips has him with a 3.91 ERA and Clay Davenport 3.95, pretty average as well.

Where is the “underrated” unless the consensus (from whence the underrated comes) is that he is worse than average?

BlahBlahBlah
Guest
BlahBlahBlah
4 years 4 months ago

I’m confused…

Career
4.15 ERA / 3.95 FIP / 4.07 xFIP
Last 3 years
4.08 ERA / 3.87 FIP / 3.89 xFIP

821 IP over last 5 seasons, for an average of 165/Yr

That doesn’t say Underrated to me, it says pretty Average

In fact, to better show my point:
3.86 FIP / 4.00 xFIP – Baker
3.86 FIP / 3.91 xFIP – Liriano
3.98 FIP / 3.99 xFIP – Pavano
4.10 FIP / 4.17 xFIP – Duensing (4.08/4.04 over 294IP as starter)
4.24 FIP / 4.19 xFIP – Slowey
4.45 FIP / 4.45 xFIP – Perkins
4.63 FIP / 4.42 xFIP – Blackburn

Those are the stats the Twins have received from their Starters (min 300IP) the last 5 seasons. Outside the two slugs, you can see each and every one has provided pretty similar production. I would therefore have to say that Baker is no more underrated then Pavano, Slowey and Duensing really

Also, while Baker looks great with the 7.25-range (and higher recently) K/9 and micro 2.1-range BB/9, there is one huge problem he seems unable to overcome at all – the nasty 1.15-range HR/9

To put it in perspective, since 2005 (his first year) there have been 108 starters to throw 300 IP in the American League. His 1.15 HR/9 ranks him 72nd. And that’s why you see a difference like this
7.96 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 3.40 K/BB, 3.36 ERA, 3.32 FIP – Sabathia (0.77 HR/9)
7.23 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 3.41 K/BB, 4.17 ERA, 3.96 FIP – Baker (1.15 HR/9)

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Very good research there. To address you and the last commenter, it just boils down to perception. I think Baker is a much better pitcher than he is perceived. That’s all.

ted
Guest
ted
4 years 4 months ago

So your lying eyes tell you that Scott Baker is underrated. Yet you have no statistics to back this up? You realize this site usually uses statistics to back up arguments not blind assertions? You also felt the need to make a column about this……

facepalm

ted
Guest
ted
4 years 4 months ago

Just paying attention to K/BB is like saying Casey Kotchman was one of the best First Basemen in the league last year because he had a .378 OBP while completely ignoring his other major weaknesses.

BlahBlahBlah
Guest
BlahBlahBlah
4 years 4 months ago

But, again, the problem is probably best outlined with this exercise; who would you rather have:

3.81 FIP, 3.99 xFIP, 8.38 K/9, 3.68 BB/9, 0.86 HR/9, 5.7 IP/St (NL)
4.08 FIP, 4.04 xFIP, 5.99 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 5.9 IP/St
3.89 FIP, 3.90 xFIP, 7.71 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, 1.18 HR/9, 6.0 IP/St
4.07 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 7.42 K/9, 3.17 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, 5.6 IP/St (NL)

I figure most people wouldn’t care which they had on their club; they are extremely similar. Player A just Walks too many, Player B doesnt K enough, Player C gives up way too many Homers and actually player D is fairly well balanced, just unspectacular (and unpredictable).

And so you know, those players are the 3 years stats (as Starter) for Scott Baker, Brian Duensing, Felipe Paulino and Homer Bailey. I’ll let you figure out which is which…

So I guess the question is – how low do you think Scott must be rated by people to be so Underrated? And then the problem is that I am fairly confident people think higher of Baker then they do Duensing, Paulino and Bailey. Wouldn’t those three then be underrated even more then Baker though?

Steve
Guest
Steve
4 years 4 months ago

Baker is “underrated” b/c he is good at the things that FIP values.

In real life however, he is a slightly above average pitcher because he has mediocre stuff.

Nothing wrong with that. And it is certainly possible to be both underrated and a little above average, but I would much rather have Romero or Masterson on my team (which I concede was not the point of the article).

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 4 months ago

For the past century plus, everyone has valued [1] high K’s, [2] low walks, and [3] low homers allowed. It’s the basis of pitching. FIP didn’t really draw attention to that, it was already well known. What FIP did was assign quantities/values to each outcome and scale it to ERA.

Baker is under-rated because …

1. He plays for the Twins and they have not been really competitive of late.
2. He hasn’t had the “ace” moniker.
3. He hasn’t had a big win season or a low ERA season.
4. He’s not dominant in any one thing.
5. He’s never had a CYA caliber season.

In the general public, it’s better to be dominant in one year than above average over multiple seasons.

He’s viewed as a 2-3 starter and those guys, by and large, are under-valued.

The Nicker
Member
Member
The Nicker
4 years 4 months ago

The Twins haven’t been competitive for one season, before which they were competitive every season for almost a decade.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 4 months ago

You’re exactly right. Somehow my brain added a “blank year” between 2010 and 2011. I was thinking that it was 2 seasons ago that the Twins last made the playoffs, but it was actually 2010.

I need whiskey.

So Serious
Guest
So Serious
4 years 4 months ago

The guy has 3.2 career innings, and that was almost 20 years ago. So no, I don’t rate him very highly at all.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

OK OK OK. Tim Scott Baker. You got me.

Dekker
Guest
Dekker
4 years 4 months ago

Jurrjens beats Baker’s Pitch/fx values in every pitch but the slider. Both are pitch to contact guys, but Jurrjens has allowed weaker contact throughout his career and thus has a better career ERA.

Baker is a very consistent pitcher while Jurrjens’ seasons have had the following Bapip: .301, .268, .300, .269. I think this year he’s due for something closer to his lifetime Babip of .280 and have a strong year.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff
4 years 4 months ago

What RA Dickey?

bourne
Guest
bourne
4 years 4 months ago

You said the twins don’t regularly make the playoffs because they lack a true ace. 6 of the last ten years isn’t good enough? As a Detroit fan I am jealous? 3 times as often as you should seems pretty good indeed, no aces and all.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 4 months ago

I read through the thread to see whose comments you might be referring to. The only ones that come close are mine:

Baker is under-rated because …

1. He plays for the Twins and they have not been really competitive of late.
2. He hasn’t had the “ace” moniker.

If you’re replying to my comments, you’re creating two easily slain Strawmen. If you’re not replying to my comments, then ignore this post.

AJS
Guest
AJS
4 years 4 months ago

He was responding to the author, who wrote: “See, there’s this prevalent notion among Twins fans — especially those less saber-inclined — that the club truly lacks a number one starter, and that’s why the team doesn’t regularly advance in the playoffs.”

But in fact the author never said the Twins don’t make the playoffs, just that they don’t regularly advance within the playoffs, which is a different argument entirely. You don’t necessarily need a single ace to make the postseason, but in a short series, it certainly makes a big difference.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

When the Twins had an ace (Johan Santana) it didn’t matter and the Twins keep facing the Yankees, who are a horrible matchup for them.

Nibbling pitchers versus a team with amazing plate discipline? Eep.

Baker's Dozen
Guest
Baker's Dozen
4 years 4 months ago

From 2008-2011 Baker has the 6th lowest GB% in the league. He throws up in the zone and lives and dies by the fly ball. While that can be effective, I wouldn’t say he’s an ace not only due to his durability (as was mentioned earlier) but in that he doesn’t have the groundball-inducing stuff of a Felix or a Halladay. He’s reliant on his outfield defense, which was particularly rough when he had Delmon Young and Jason Kubel manning the corners.

As for him battling for the 5th spot in the rotation, that’s ridiculous. When he’s healthy he’s their best pitcher.

BlahBlahBlah
Guest
BlahBlahBlah
4 years 4 months ago

No, he’s not. Again,

4.08 FIP, 4.04 xFIP, 5.99 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 5.9 IP/St
3.89 FIP, 3.90 xFIP, 7.71 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, 1.18 HR/9, 6.0 IP/St
4.04 FIP, 3.96 xFIP, 5.13 K/9, 1.63 BB/9, 1.02 HR/9, 6.6 IP/St
3.84 FIP, 3.84 xFIP, 8.47 K/9, 3.82 BB/9, 0.85 HR/9, 5.8 IP/St

That’s Duensing, Baker, Pavano and Liriano (in that order) over the last 3 years of starts

Baker is no better then the other three – and is arguably the worst of the bunch considering his inability to keep the ball in the park destroys all possibilities of run prevention (and even most chances for dumb luck)

Side note – Jason Marquis has been extremely similar himself outside the fluke BAbip and HR/9 rate of his injured 2010 season. If the Twins gave the 5th spot to Duensing instead of Blackburn (or I guess, Perkins), they could run out possibly the most mediocre 5-man staff in baseball history.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Not with Baltimore in the same league.

MGL
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Circle Change wrote:

“He’s viewed as a 2-3 starter and those guys, by and large, are under-valued.”

If he is viewed as a 2-3 starter and he IS a 2-3 starter (which he likely is, according to all of the forecasters, including myself), how can he be underrated?

Being viewed as a 2-3 starter means being viewed as an average starter, since there are 5 staring slots in which someone can be viewed, and 2-3 is exactly in the middle. So he is viewed, by definition, at least according to you (I have no idea how he is viewed), as an average starter. He is. How can he be undervalued? I assume that undervalued means “provides more value than how he is viewed…”

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