Seen as an up-and-coming pitcher ready to break out after a very fine 2008 campaign (11-4, 3.45 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 141 Ks in 172 1/3 IP),
Minnesota pitchers are supposed to be the rocks of a fantasy staff. Usually reliable and sometimes underwhelming, a Twins pitcher isn't supposed to cause worries for his fantasy owner. So what's happened with Baker in '09? Is his recent success a harbinger of things to come?
Let's play a game I like to call "Baker's Horrible Early-Season Wreck". I'll throw out some of his stats from April/early May and you can react accordingly.
- In four starts from April 15-May 3, Baker accumulated a 9.15 ERA. He gave up between four and six earned runs in each of the four appearances.
--Reasons for the first two shaky outings are the seven home runs he permitted in that time. Seven!
Strangely, the fun doesn't end there. He allowed a pair of dingers in three straight outings from May 19-29. And even more bizarre: he's allowed five to seven hits in all but two of his first 10 starts. That last stat isn't awful by any means, although he's averaging roughly a hit per inning -- led by the homer.
Home runs clearly have hurt him this year. The 15 long balls he's given up in 59 2/3 innings already match his total in 143 2/3 innings from '07. It's just five short of what he allowed in 172 1/3 frames last year. What makes this puzzling is batters aren't hitting that many more fly balls off him than in the past. His 50.8 fly ball percentage against is just five points higher than last year. That's still a very rough figure, but not one that would lead to the massive number of homers already hit off Baker. The HR/FB percentage -- 15.6 this year vs. 9.8 for his career -- suggests Baker's bad luck has been a sore spot.
Note that three of the five games in which he's allowed multiple homers have been Fenway Park (3), U.S. Cellular Field (2) and Tropicana Field (2). (Although they rank 14-16 in HR rate this year, The Cell and Fenway ranked four and five, respectively, last year.) The Trop, while not known as a hitter's paradise, can be unfriendly to arms at times.
Sometimes lost amid the home runs, earned runs and losses (Baker lost his first four starts) are clearer indications that a pitcher has the ability to break out of a slump. Right in line with the Twins organization's belief that a pitcher should pound the strike zone senseless, Baker's BB/9 rate has actually decreased in '09, to 1.66 from his '08 mark of 2.19. Only once has Baker issued more than two walks in a game and three times the righty has come away walk-free (in 21 combined innings).
Furthermore, his strikeout rate has stayed in line with his '08 trend. After a career-high 10-punchout effort on June 4 vs. the Indians, Baker's 7.39 K/9 rate is just ahead of last year's 7.36 mark. His fastball velocity has remained between 90 and 91 and his other pitches have actually gained some speed, about half a mile an hour on his slider -- 82 to about 82.5 -- and an additional mile an hour to last year's 82 mph changeup.
Do you need to be convinced any further that the stiff right shoulder he experienced in late March/early April has healed? Recovering from the stiffness of that joint could have been a primary reason for his early-season struggles. After all, confidence is one of those immeasurable characteristics which should always be held in high regard during a player's evaluation. Every player reacts differently to injuries, so perhaps Baker needed nearly two months to overcome any physical -- and mental -- issues he dealt with.
It can't just be coincidental that he's delivered two of his three quality starts in '09 in his past three outings. Or that he's walked one batter -- with 20 Ks -- in 21 frames over his past three appearances. I can probably throw every other stat in the world at you, but the basic message is that Baker is regaining his confidence.
Rather than inundate you with even more stats, it might be more helpful to tell you face-to-face (well, monitor-to-monitor) that Baker's second and third starts in June will be indicative of a return to fine pitching form. Buy low on Baker, and you'll have a story to tell in your league for the rest of the year.