Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Baker Down, Bonser Up, Cisco On the Shelf

Scott Baker is back on the Yo-Yo Express to Rochester, after the Rangers touched him for 8 runs in the 4th inning in last night's 9-0 Twins loss. However, perhaps it's just a necessary roster move to press Boof Bonser into an emergency spot start in today's game, after Francisco Liriano was scratched because of what the club is calling "discomfort in his left forearm," and not a knee-jerk reaction to a blowout loss.

Baker cruised through 3 innings last night, but then Carlos Lee led off the 4th with an 0-2 double off the Baggie. A groundout moved him to 3rd, before scoring on a Hank Blalock single. Nick Punto then made an impressive diving stop on the 3rd baseline to limit Ian Kinsler to an infield single; but with the next batter, Matt Stairs, he took a routine double-play ball but botched the throw to 2nd base, scoring Blalock and putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out, instead of ending the inning.

Baker, to his credit, went right after the next batter, Rod Barajas, quickly bringing him to an 0-2 count. He meant his next pitch to move Barajas off the plate with a little chin music, just as a young pitcher is taught, but it got away from him and hit Barajas on the hands. Up comes Brad Wilkerson, and Baker again starts him with two strikes before wasting a ball. Strangely, on the 1-2 pitch, Joe Mauer set up a high, standing target, just where the club feels Baker is most vulnerable, and Wilkerson smacked a groundball through the hole on the rightside, scoring another run. 3-0, Rangers. Bases loaded still, 1 out.

Up comes Gary Matthews, Jr. Baker fell behind with a couple balls, but came back to get a full count with a couple pitches fouled off by Matthews. The 6th pitch was supposed to be low, on the inside corner. Baker hit the corner but left it up in Matthews' wheelhouse. Free breakfast at Denny's. 7-0, Rangers. Acting manager Scott Ullger, showing all the touch that was his hallmark as the hitting coach for too many years, left Baker in to face Michael Young, and the process virtually repeated. Baker fell behind, rallied to get a full count, then coughed up a homer over the Baggie.

To give Ullger some benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was slow with the hook because the inning seemed to fall apart so quickly, without much warning. Even after the Punto error, Baker was getting batters to 2 strikes. Pitching coach Rick Anderson made a note of it after the game:

"I thought Baker was down in the zone better, but the tale of the whole night was there in the big inning. Obviously, we didn't make a play or two, but you look at the hitters in the fourth inning there, we had seven of them with two strikes and all of them got on base. That was probably the biggest thing, getting ahead and putting them away, and we didn't do that very well tonight."
Could it be that Baker is just too well-trained in the Brad Radke School of Pitching to Contact? And maybe he was just a bit unlucky on a couple of those balls hit into play, again. There is a difference of 1.70 runs between his ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) this season, and his 'normalized' Expected FIP approaches an encouraging level of decency at 4.80. As we've observed before, Baker also has shown a tendency to struggle when he has too much time between starts. Last night was the third time this season when Baker was rocked after Gardy skipped his turn in the rotation.

Fielding-independent indications show that Baker is a talented pitcher who belongs in the Twins rotation, and should become a reliable asset if he's given regular work, patient instruction, and the experience to help him learn. I don't think he's going to learn how to put away hitters with 2 strikes any better by shipping him back to Rochester.

We can hope that it is just a temporary move to accomodate Liriano, while we beg Merciful Jobu to let Liriano's arm problem be nothing but a little muscle soreness. After all, it was not the Cisco Kid who accepted the invitation to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

I must admit, though, that Rick Anderson's assurances ("It's not the elbow, it's just in the forearm.") do nothing to quell my sense of dread. I've seen too many pitchers go on the shelf for Tommy John surgery, or worse, after an initial diagnosis of "sore forearm." I've got my chicken bones at the ready. Jobu, please.


At 8/02/2006 9:24 AM, Anonymous jianfu said...

I knew Baker had a lot of guys on the ropes with 2 strikes, but SEVEN in that inning? Yikes.

Baker's got a lot of Radke to him, but he's still sporting a decent strikeout rate, and Santana often does the same things with 0-2, 1-2 counts, so I'm not so sure he's trying to pitch to contact too much and is getting burned because of it. I do agree with your opinion that he needs to pitch more often: learning how to put guys away would seem to be something that requires experience.

Blylevin made a couple of interesting points: first, he thought Baker should have thrown the breaking ball more (which was really quite good last night), and specifically he should have used it against Matthews with the bases loaded. I agree Baker probably should have used it a little more, but against Matthews, IIRC, he started him 2-0, and probably at that point just decided to challenge him, so I don't blame him too much in that instance. It's not like Baker's Joe Nathan and can drop any pitch he wants at any time. Bert's second point was that the Twins' efforts to get Baker to bring his pitches down have maybe been a bit counterproductive at this point, as his high rising fastball is now a belt-high, straight fastball.

At 8/02/2006 10:04 AM, Anonymous Jeff A said...

It seems to me that a lot of young pitchers struggle with putting hitters away when they get them to two strikes. I remember Eric Milton had a terrible time with it his first couple of years. It seems like a problem that good pitchers grow out of with experience.

At 8/02/2006 11:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don't think he's going to learn how to put away hitters with 2 strikes any better by shipping him back to Rochester."

I do.

At 8/02/2006 3:15 PM, Blogger frightwig said...


A pitcher can get away with mistakes at AAA that are more often punished by major league hitters; he may get AAA hitters to chase or swing through pitches, reinforcing tendencies that just won't work in the majors. Baker has shown a mastery of AAA batters already. To learn how to put away major league hitters, or how to get through a quality lineup more than once or twice in a game, I think is going to require major league experience... and the bumps and bruises that come with it.

At 8/02/2006 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This isn't Frank Viola and the '82 Twins. We're in a pennant race. Those "bumps and bruises" will kill us. What Baker needs is a better change-up and he needs to learn how to throw it in Rochester.

At 8/02/2006 5:19 PM, Anonymous ubelmann said...

I like your thoughts here, fw. Particularly, I hope the possibility of Baker going down as an emergency move is what actually motivated this particular roster decision.

The most discouraging thing about Baker right now is his roughly 30% GB%, as opposed to 40% last year. He can probably be a successful pitcher at 40%, but at 30%, he's probably going to give up too many HRs. It's really tough for me to see him struggle like this when he's sporting better K and BB rates than Verlander.


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