Scott Baker: Most Underrated Hurler in the Bigs?

As someone who spends a significant part of their work day at a desk, I spend a lot of time perusing stats. Not exactly an earth-shatterer — this is FanGraphs after all — but it does prod my mind to some interesting questions and processes. In fact, you may have read about one last week. As most of you know, I’m willing to be an open book when it comes to researching my pieces — like the Larry Walker one — so keep that in mind as you read.

Nonetheless, each and every time I look at Scott Baker’s marks — last year especially but even his career digits — I get the increasing notion that he may indeed be the most underrated hurler in the junior circuit, if not all of baseball. As a result, I took to Twitter to do a little crowdsourcing. In fact, the entire thought process was spurred by a fan suggesting Jair Jurrjens is/was an ace, while I suggested that he was a nice 2-3, but that I’d prefer Baker. See, there’s this prevalent notion among Twins fans — especially those less saber-inclined — that the club truly lacks a number one starter, and that’s why the team doesn’t regularly advance in the playoffs. I have a different theory for that, but that’s for a different time and place. Back to your regularly scheduled rambling:

I received the following responses (edited for content):

@Larry_Koestler: I like Baker, though I don’t know that I’d agree he’s underrated.
@thecazbah: What do you mean? He never plays or is healthy.
@Ben_Duronio/@HitTheCutoff: Masterson is up there.
@Adams_Steve/@Matt_Filippi: Not the most underrated, but definitely undervalued.
@Adams_Steve: I’d add Anibal Sanchez.
@cuppingmaster/@stoltz_baseball: McCarthy was the best AL pitcher by FIP….I’d vote for him.
@matthewcoller: People in So-Cal have no idea who Ricky Romero is. He’s pretty good.
@GiantsNirvana: Maybe not most, but definitely in the discussion.
@mcdillon27: He could be, but his health/durability seem to be an issue.
@Al_Damlo: He’s never put together a whole season of work, has he?

There are a lot of different opinions here, and for what I’m trying to accomplish, I think it works. From here I received opinions from bloggers/writers I respect a lot, a few average — by no means a slight — Twins fans, and a good mix of people from all over the country on the whole.

Let’s first start with the definition of underrated from Merriam-Webster:

underratedverb – Underestimate the extent, value,
or importance of (someone or something).

“Underrated” is surely a slippery slope, so I’m going to operate as best I can on that basis. In doing so, I’m going to throw out financial commitments, because it isn’t fair to players who hit the market at a good time, or those pre-arb. Really, the heart of what I’m looking at is this: When talking about the 30-35 best pitchers in the game, whose name doesn’t come up enough? Baker’s name is one I come back to over and over again.

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.

How does Baker fly under the radar? Well for one, he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff. He won’t show up in any of the posts we’ve had or will have this week on best pitches, and he’s not really in the discussion for any of them either.

Indeed, he gets the whiffs (7.2 career per 9, 8.2 in ‘11), but he does so with almost surgical command of a 91 mph heater, and some pretty ordinary offspeed stuff. He’s also been plagued a bit by injuries, only once reaching 200 innings/30-plus starts, but three seasons out of four above 170 innings means he’s not Rich Harden, either.

So, let’s consider a few of the other guys mentioned, and how I think they stack up to Baker. Masterson plays in the same division, and was nearly a five-win pitcher last year. That’s pretty awesome, and he certainly qualifies as underrated, even for as hyped as he was as a vaunted Sox prospect (top-100 on Baseball America’s 2008 list). Baker and Masterson had virtually the same xFIP last season, though Masterson did so in 216 innings, or about 80 more than Baker. One thing, though, that I like a bit more about Baker is that his whiff rates seem to be trending up (and Masterson’s are just fine where they are, make no mistake), and with it also increases his K/BB, which registered a very comely 3.84 last season. Had Baker been a qualifying starter, that would have put him around 12th best in the entire big leagues. I like Baker just a bit more — though it really is close — going forward, as a fly ball/whiff pitcher in a spacious home park with a few more strikeouts, and a more normalized home run rate (relative to career). (Full disclosure: I’m just more of a K/9, K/BB guy. Feel free to disagree.)

McCarthy also fits the bill as the AL’s FIP leader in 2011 — playing in Oakland doesn’t hurt — but I have a few issues with him. He showed an unprecedented HR/9 rate — thank you — but I won’t really hold that against him. He halved his free pass rate after a full year away from the bigs, and nearly TRIPLED his K/BB. He’s a fun tweeter, and a good pitcher, but his home/away ERA split (2.65 home/3.99 away) make me want another season or two before I consider him. Baker has the splits as well — and I find the two pitchers somewhat similar in a few ways — but like I said, I just prefer the whiffs and the track record.

The other hurler I studied was Romero. First of all, his name is Ricardo Romero. How bad ass is that? But I digress, as Romero had an exemplary 2.92 ERA last season to go with his second straight 200-plus inning campaign. Romero’s whiff rates aren’t sexy, but are ultra consistent, as his K/9, K/BB, and BB/9 have varied very little in his three major league seasons. His strand rate was a little high last season — hence the 4.20 FIP/3.80 xFIP — but as long as he can keep the whiffs above seven per 9 and the wormburners near 55 percent (ninth in the majors among qualified pitchers), he’s going to be an asset up north and perpetually underrated. I’m more of a projection/ceiling guy, so I’d still prefer the potential of Baker if all things were equal, but I’m expecting significant push back there. I blame Nick Blackburn/Carl Pavano, though. Can you blame me?

Sanchez is an interesting beast. He’s perpetually underrated because he’s — rookie year excepted — never had a good record, nor a particularly high number of decisions, and he plays in the relative obscurity of south Florida. My notion is that is all about to change, especially considering the new amount of attention that will be paid to the Marlins in their new digs, with a new get-up, and some brand new guerrillas. Sanchez missed nearly 25 percent of the bats he faced last season (Baker checks in at 22.5 percent), which was about five percent more than his career rate, last year included. In order to do so, Sanchez scrapped his breaking stuff in favor of a change, similar to what he did in 2009 as well. If his new-found strikeout act is for real, coupled with his steadily dropping walk rate (12.0-8.3-7.7 percent three-year trend), Sanchez will skip most-underrated and rise to the top of the class as a Cy Young candidate.

So by virtue of my digging on Sanchez, I’m going to crown him as the most underrated pitcher in the game. Sorry, Mr. Baker.

Please feel free to disagree, and state your case in the comments section.

In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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12 years ago

Brandon McCarthy gets my vote… could be top 20 starter this year… completely changed his profile, just lacks Ks

AL Eastbound
12 years ago
Reply to  Brandon Warne

I’d have to go with Romero, just more of a gamer. No stat to prove that statement but watching his intensity on the mound you can tell he learned from Doc Halladay.

Seems more impressive physically/athletically as well, if that counts for anything in terms of durability going forward?

AL Eastbound
12 years ago
Reply to  Brandon Warne

*of course Baker is ‘bigger’ but Romero seems more athletic in his delivery.