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Scott Baker: Oriole Killer

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Scott Baker, who will take the mound tomorrow for the Minnesota Twins, is a pitcher who I always think is better than he actually is. Don't get me wrong, he's had success in his career, just not the kind I imagine when I think of him. Take a look at his stats; decent but certainly not overwhelming. In fact, since his very good 2008, he's actually gotten a bit worse every year (ERA-wise, at least). He's had an unimpressive 2011 so far, and if things continue the way they have his first three starts, it could be another year where he finishes the season with an ERA higher than the year before.

So why, then, is it my natural inclination to think that Baker is better than he is? All it takes is a look at his career numbers against the Orioles: 7 GS, 5-0, 2.53 ERA, 4.14 K/BB, .214/.249/.333. Pretty horrifying, right?

You might be saying to yourself, "Duh. The Orioles have sucked longer than Scott Baker has even been in the majors. It's likely that many pitchers have better numbers against the Orioles than they do against the rest of the league." That's of course true, but as I looked at the stats a little more I found something very curious: as Baker as seemingly gotten worse (or, if we're being generous, holding steady) overall, he's gotten better against the Orioles. Here is Baker's game log against the Orioles in his career:

Date Rslt IP H R ER BB SO HR 2B ERA WPA
2006-09-23 W 8-5 3.2 7 4 3 0 1 0 3 7.36 -0.136
2007-08-26 W 11-3 6.0 7 3 2 1 0 0 1 3.00 0.082
2008-06-05 L 2-3 5.0 5 2 2 1 3 1 2 3.60 0.030
2008-09-13 W 12-2 6.0 4 1 1 3 4 0 0 1.50 0.225
2009-08-24 W 2-1 7.0 4 1 1 1 5 0 1 1.29 0.308
2010-05-08 W 6-1 8.0 3 1 1 0 8 1 0 1.12 0.364
2010-07-24 W 7-2 7.0 4 2 2 1 8 1 1 2.57 0.118

Compare that to Baker's ERA/FIP/xFIP in his career (I omitted 2005 since he didn't face the Orioles that season):

Year ERA FIP xFIP
2006 6.37 4.99 4.64
2007 4.26 3.89 4.26
2008 3.45 3.79 4.08
2009 4.37 4.08 4.15
2010 4.49 3.96 3.82
2011 4.50 5.62 4.16
Career 4.32 4.07 4.15

I included Baker's FIP and xFIP (click the links for a detailed explanation) since his ERA has been higher than his FIP almost every year, but even those don't tell a great tale for Baker's career arc. I think it's interesting that he's regularly pitched to a worse ERA than FIP; he's like the reverse Jeremy Guthrie. I think both his and Guthrie's consistent differences are reason not to only give credence to those stats (just as we shouldn't only give credence to ERA). But that's another story altogether.

So what gives? How is it that you can make the argument that Scott Baker has gotten worse since 2008 but that he's getting better and better against the Orioles? What O's weakness (and there are many) is he exploiting?

After considering it, I think it really comes down to walks. Baker's strength is in control. His strikeout numbers are good, but not great, but he's able to keep his K/BB over three by being very stingy with walks. In his career his walk rate has been just 2.1 BB/9, and it was 2.3 last year. Against, the Orioles, however, Baker has a career BB/9 of 1.5. And if you take out the six-inning game in 2008 where he uncharacteristically allowed three walks, that number drops to 0.98 BB/9. Less walks, less baserunners, less opportunity to score runs.

Over the past three years, no starting pitcher has had a higher overall swing % than Scott Baker. In 2010, batters swung at 52.6% of his pitches. In 2009, 54.1%. And in 2008, 53.5%. When you don't throw much out of the strike zone (he is consistently near the top of the list in % of pitches thrown in the strike zone), that'll happen. The Orioles, over the past three years (well, probably longer), have been one of the freest swinging teams in baseball. In the two starts Baker made against the Orioles last year, he threw a total of 186 pitches in 15 innings. That's an average of 12.4 pitches per inning, which is just ridiculous.

So what will happen when the Orioles and Baker face off tomorrow? Your guess is as good as mine. So far in 2011 the Orioles are the swingingest team in baseball, taking a hack at 49.6% of all pitches. But Baker hasn't been the strike throwing machine that he's been in years past, as he's walked seven batters in his first three starts. His last start against Tampa Bay, however, was quite good (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K), and three total starts is certainly nothing to jump to conclusions over. But if Baker doesn't have his control (as he didn't appear to in his first two starts) he doesn't have much, and the Orioles might finally be able to have some success against him.