During the last offseason, many fans, pundits, and bloggers felt that the Twins’ biggest weakness was the lack of a true ace pitcher. But Cliff Lee commanded huge sums of money that the Twins could not afford, and the Royals refused to trade Zach Greinke within the division, so the Twins had to hope an ace would emerge from their existing roster. Carl Pavano, winner of 17 games in 2011, got some recognition, but the leading candidate by far was Francisco Liriano.
Midway through the 2011 season, another Twins pitcher has passed Liriano and is making a strong case for ace status. Righthander Scott Baker has quietly put together an exceptional first half of the season on the mound.
Today’s game was a perfect example of Baker’s ascension to stopper status. The Twins needed a victory to win the interleague series against L.A. after having dropped the previous two at San Francisco and Milwaukee. The offense proved early and often that they would not provide much help, and they essentially took the day off after a leadoff triple by Ben Revere. But Baker did not need help today. He baffled the Dodger hitters for 7 1/3 innings, striking out nine of them to earn a 1-0 win.
This game was not an exception. It was the fourth time in 16 starts that Baker has pitched at least seven innings and not allowed a run. He now has an ERA of 3.16, the best total on the team, and one that is lower than such greats as CC Sabathia (3.25), Felix Hernandez (3.35), and David Price (3.43). Almost as impressive, Baker has displayed a rare talent a Twins starter: the ability to strike batters out. He now has 101 strikeouts in 105.2 innings, which puts him on pace for over 200 this season. That ability to make batters miss helps Baker pitch his way out of tough situations.
The Twins have expected good things from Baker ever since they drafted him in the second round in 2003. For the majority of his career, he has been a steady middle-of-the-rotation type starter, putting up decent, but not impressive numbers. He had one big flaw, though. As a prototypical fly ball pitcher, he gave up so many home runs that Star Tribune columnist Howard Sinker cleverly nicknamed him Scott “Home Run” Baker (for those casual fans who don’t know much about 1910s era baseball, here’s the origin of that reference). Interestingly, his home run pace has not diminished much. This year, Baker has given up 12 homers so far, which is not a major drop from his 2009 pace, when he gave up 28 in 200 innings. But the added strikeout totals are allowing him to get out of jams before a power hitter can clear the bases.
Aside from the home runs, the biggest knock against Baker is that he gives up a lot of foul balls. He has had many outings over his career where his pitch count soars into the 100 range by the 5th or 6th inning, thanks to the numerous two strike foul balls he allows. Not only did this guarantee a long night for the bullpen, it created a lot of annoyingly long at bats for TV viewers to sit through. Before I looked it up, I was convinced that this tendency had changed, but I was surprised to learn that it really hasn’t. According to Baseball Reference, Baker allowed fould on 35% of his strike pitches in 2009. The number has dropped slightly this year, to 32%, but it’s still well above the league average of 27%. But I, for one, am willing to put up with a few long at bats as long as Baker keeps stifling opposing hitters like he did today.
Fortunately for the Twins, Baker is under contract through 2012 with a team option for 2013. So even if Baker cannot lead this injury-riddled squad back into contention this year, he’ll still be around to anchor the pitching staff for the next two.