After last night’s six-inning, five run beat down at the hand of the Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins righty Scott Baker holds an unimpressive 4.87 ERA. He’s also got a sub-.500 record, winning seven games and coming up short eight times. Those superficial numbers have led some fantasy folks to give Baker the boot — his ownership rate in Yahoo leagues is down to 81 percent. Take closer look at Baker’s season, and you’ll see a starter pitching well but getting dinged by a combination of poor luck and lumbering outfielders.
In 109 innings pitched, the 28-year-old has struck out 7.84 batters per nine innings and has dished out just 1.57 walks per nine frames. In terms of punch outs and free passes, Baker is actually exceeding his pre-season projections — CHONE predicted 6.98 K/9 and 2.11 BB/9, while ZiPS had 7.03 K/9 and 2.07 BB/9 for the former Oklahoma State Cowboy.
Baker’s plate discipline stats are right in line with his career averages. He’s getting swinging strikes 10.1%, while his career rate is 9.9%. Opponents are making contact against Baker 81.1% of the time. His career rate is 81.2%. Baker’s pounding the strike zone, placing 55.4% of his offerings over the plate (54.8% career average), and he’s getting a first pitch strike 65.4% of the time (60.9% career average). His outside swing percentage, relative to the league average, is about the same as usual.
Why is Baker’s ERA so high then? One factor is that he’s surrendering 1.4 home runs per nine innings pitched. Baker is an extreme fly ball pitcher, getting grounders just 35.3% this season and 33.9% during his career. He’s going to give up more homers than most. But even so, Baker has been a bit unlucky this season — 12.1% of the fly balls he has given up have left the yard, compared to a 9.6% career rate and the 11% MLB average.
Also, his BABIP sits at .335. Some will immediately point to Baker’s elevated line drive rate — 23.2% in 2010. It’s true that batted balls classified at line drives typically fall for hits 72-73% of the time, so that’s certainly a factor. But the more important question at this point may be, is that LD rate likely to persist? Line drive rate isn’t an especially stable metric, and there’s little else to suggest that Baker is suddenly getting hit much harder than usual.
Another explanation is Minnesota’s outfield defense, which can kindly be described as stationary when some combination of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel are Michael Cuddyer are manning the outfield corners. Twins fly catchers have a collective -6.8 UZR/150 this season. Young’s career UZR/150 in the outfield is -12, Kubel’s is -18.3 and Cuddyer’s is -6.5. Denard Span has a career -5.3 UZR/150 in center field, but he has rated as a plus defender in the outfield corners (+11.1 UZR/150) and he should rate batter in the middle garden over a larger sample.
As a fly ball pitcher, Baker may be disproportionately affected by sluggish outfield D. Even so, it’s near impossible to believe that the dramatic spike in his fly ball BABIP is solely the result of poor defense:
Baker’s BABIP by batted ball type
Baseball-Reference has somewhat different data for Baker — it shows his overall BABIP as .327. So, what I’m about to do here won’t match up perfectly with the BIS data on Baker’s player page. B-R shows that Twins outfielders have converted 83.4% of fly balls put in play into outs this season. Let’s say Baker had that same rate. B-R has Baker with 131 in-play fly balls this season, 28 of which have fallen for hits. If Baker had a .166 BABIP on fly balls instead of his actual .214 mark, he would have 22 hits given up on in-play fly balls. Baker has given up 107 total hits on balls put in play, out of 327. If he had 101 hits on balls put in play instead, his BABIP would be .309. Even accounting for Minnesota’s laggardly outfield leather, Baker has been unlucky.
As a fly ball pitcher backed by corner outfielders with limited range, Baker’s not in an ideal spot. Still, this guy’s better than his current surface stats suggest. Perhaps Baker won’t match the 3.72 xFIP that he currently totes, but he should be able to post a low-four’s ERA in the second half.
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