On the surface, Scott Baker is having his typical season. With a 4.12 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP, compared to his career marks of 4.31 and 1.28, respectively, he has performed pretty much in line with expectations. However, looking under the hood there is much more that we discover. Will these hidden treasures lead to his second breakout after his first breakout season in 2008?
Baker has been rather consistent in terms of his skill set throughout the years. He combines excellent control with a slightly above average strikeout rate, but is frequently hurt by the long ball due to his extreme fly ball tendency. The quality of his raw stuff certainly won’t wow you, as his fastball averages just above 91.0 miles per hour, and none of his pitches have consistently generated positive runs above average.
This year has been a bit different though. Baker entered the season with a 7.1 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9, however, both marks have jumped to career high levels in the early going. His current strikeout rate sits at 9.1 and walk rate at 3.3. Consider that Baker has never posted a K/9 above 7.8 (last year) or a BB/9 above 2.4 (2005 rookie season). So these spikes are rather surprising. One thing that has remained the same, though, is his fly ball rate, which stands at 47.1%, slightly higher than his career average. Mix those skills together and out pops a 3.67 xFIP, his best mark yet.
This new skills trifecta may seem like good news and help answer my introductory question with an emphatic “YES!” Unfortunately, we still have some more digging to do, which make me a little more pessimistic. The question now becomes whether these new skill levels are sustainable or just a small sample fluke. Looking at his pitch mixed, he is throwing his fastball more often at the expense of all three of his other pitches, but most notably his curve ball. Usually an increased use of a pitcher’s fastball would lead to fewer strikeouts, especially when you average just 91.0 miles per hour. But he has actually garnered the highest Whiff% from the pitch, which is a surprise, but maybe a sign that it will help his strikeout rate after all.
Continuing on, his overall SwStk% remains above the league average at 9.2% (versus 8.4%), but this rate is down from last year and his lowest since 2006. I would think maybe he has been making up for it by getting more called strikes, but this has not been the case. With a Contact% worse than league average and also at its highest rate since 2006, his strikeout rate is starting to really look suspect. Throw in an F-Strike% at its lowest mark since 2007, and right at the league average, and you realize that maybe that relatively high walk rate may actually continue.
So the bottom line is that Baker’s strikeout rate is due for a drop, and although it may be as simple as looking at his history and assuming regression, the majority of the underlying metrics suggest that this will happen. His increased walk rate may actually remain at that level, which combined with the strikeout rate decline, means his xFIP is going to rise and his ERA will not have a chance to meet it in the sub-4.00 range. No second breakout for Scott without a serving of some good fortune.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.