Outside of Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, the Twins' rotation has been struggling mightily for nearly the entire season. We've seen an occasional beam of light emerge in the performances of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn, but for the most part these starters have been struggling and that's reflected in their bloated earned run averages.
It's not difficult to determine the roots of Slowey's and Blackburn's issues. In his first season back from a major wrist surgery, Slowey is essentially re-learning how to pitch. He's striking out fewer, walking more and relying more heavily on his below-average secondary stuff. Blackburn, meanwhile, has always walked a dangerous line with his propensity for pitching to contact, and he's inducing fewer missed swings than ever this year.
Baker, however, is more difficult to figure. He's a traditionally slow starter, with a 5.30 career ERA between the months of April and May, but he usually starts to come around in early June. Yet, we're at the end of June and Baker still hasn't gotten on track. After surrendering three homers to the Mets on Sunday, the right-hander finishes the month of June with a 6.07 ERA, thanks largely to his allowing eight homers in five starts.
The underlying numbers say that Baker isn't pitching that poorly. He hasn't allowed an inordinate number of base runners, as his 1.35 WHIP is roughly average. He's striking out batters at the highest rate of his career and he's been typically stingy with walks. His 30-to-3 K/BB ratio in June was nothing short of spectacular. Overall, he's struck out 4.37 times as many hitters as he's walked, which ranks him fourth in the American League behind Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver and Zach Greinke -- excellent company. (Lee, by the way, has a 19.0 K/BB ratio. Freaking insane.)
Yet, the results have not been there for Baker and balls continue to fly out of the yard. He's on pace to surrender a career-high 32 gopher balls this season and one has to wonder how much worse that figure might look if he didn't have the luxury of pitching his home games in spacious Target Field.
The stat-head in me wants to attribute Baker's poor results to bad luck and nothing else. After all, a whopping 12 percent of his fly balls have left the yard and his batting average on balls in play is .338, well over his career average of .307. But from actually watching Baker this year, I hardly get the impression that he's been all that unlucky. His strikeout rate suggests that his stuff has been filthy -- and certainly he's thrown a lot of good pitches -- but his tendency to lapse and leave hanging breaking balls out over the plate has seemingly been worse than ever. I watched the Mets broadcast of Sunday's contest from the La Guardia Airport and the team's announcers remarked repeatedly about how many meat balls Baker was throwing.
It seems odd, to say the least, that Baker is managing to baffle more batters than ever while simultaneously getting hit harder than ever before. One would imagine that something has got to give. He no longer has the excuse of being an inexperienced and wide-eyed kid; Baker is 28 years old and the Twins have shown their faith in him by handing him a long-term contract and lining him up as their Opening Day starter in each of the past two seasons (though injuries prevented him from being able to fulfill that duty on both occasions). It's time for him to step up and help stabilize a rotation that is quickly spiraling out of control.
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