Over at FanGraphs, Brandon Warne tries to track down MLB's most underrated starting pitcher. His favorite candidate is Scott Baker, but I'm not going to tell you if Baker's the final answer. Hit the link and find out for yourself. But Warne spends more time on Baker than anyone, and for good reason ...
Why exactly do I think Baker is underrated? It really has nothing to do with the fact that he plays in my backyard, to be honest. He's just 42 innings shy of qualifying for the 1,000 innings leaderboard at B-Ref, and he has a better career whiff rate than Edwin Jackson, Ervin Santana, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Halladay. He has a better career K/BB than Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and Josh Beckett. In my view, one or the other would be worth blowing off as veritable statistical noise; plenty of guys get the whiffs and walk a ton of guys, and by the same token, guys like Carlos Silva and Carl Pavano make careers out of not whiffing anyone but being extraordinarily stingy on the free pass. Baker, however, does both, and at least to me isn't regarded even among the 50 or so best starters in the game.
At the moment, it's hard to say exactly how Scott Baker is regarded. He's coming off a season in which he posted a 3.14 ERA, which at least a few canny souls must have noticed. But just one year ago, he had to fight hard for a spot in the Twins' rotation, and didn't actually win that spot until the end of spring training ... Despite being exactly the same pitcher then as now. Just to hammer this point home: One year ago, Twins management, by all accounts, wasn't sure that Scott Baker was one of the five best starting pitchers in the organization.
Which was preposterous, of course. Baker does give up scads of home runs, because he's always around the plate and doesn't throw real hard, I guess. And I'm actually not sure he is one of the 50 best starters in the majors, because of those home runs. FanGraphs has him 42nd in WAR over the last three seasons, which probably does place him comfortably among the top 50 if you consider the American League's superiority, etc. But the homers do prevent Baker from being a real star.
What's most interesting about Baker -- and what makes the Twins' lack of confidence in him seem all the more ridiculous -- is his consistency. He's had some problems staying healthy, but when he's able to pitch you know exactly what you're getting. Baker's career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3.44; in the last five seasons, his seasonal marks have been
So he sort of broke the string last season, though of course 3.88 is well within the range of expected variation.
His home-run rates have been remarkable stable, too. He gives up slightly more than one home run per nine innings, give or take a big fly here and there.
Because his ERA was so good last season, he presumably doesn't have to worry about his place in the rotation this spring. But he remains underappreciated, and eventually some smart team in a ballpark with a big outfield will get Scott Baker for a bargain price.