Scott Baker's Ailing Elbow

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09: Scott Baker #30 of the Minnesota Twins throws a pitch against the New York Yankees during Game Three of the ALDS part of the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2010 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

On Monday, we learned Scott Baker will have an MRI on his ailing right elbow sometime this week. This is the same right elbow that required cortisone shots twice this season, including in September when Scott was only able to make 3 starts.

The health of Scott Baker's elbow has big-time implications for the Twins 2011 season and, more immediately, their plans for this off-season. The team is already pondering what to do with free agent starter Carl Pavano, who was the team's second-best starter this season. If the team does lose Pavano to free agency, it's unclear how much payroll they'll have available to invest in a replacement starter, meaning the Twins may be looking to replace his production from an in-house candidate.

Enter Scott Baker.

Over the past two seasons, Scott Baker has posted a lackluster 4.42 ERA in nearly 400 innings of work, while battling through several bouts of elbow tendonitis. Between the missed starts and the mediocre performance, many Twins fans have grown weary of Scott. It's hard to blame them. But ever the optimist (and, perhaps, an enduring Baker apologist) I believe there are some very good reasons to think a healthy Baker might be able to post Pavano-like numbers next season, assuming he's back healthy.

Why I believe this to be true, after the jump.

Look at the following list of names:

Cliff Lee

Roy Halladay

Jered Weaver

Dan Haren

Josh Johnson

Shaun Marcum

Adam Wainwright

Mat Latos

Ted Lilly

James Shields

Roy Oswalt

Francisco Liriano

Cole Hamels

Felix Hernandez

Hiroki Kuroda

Zack Greinke

Carl Pavano

With some exceptions, that's pretty much a who's who of the best pitchers in baseball, right? What I've presented here is a list of pitchers ranked by their strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2010, extending the list far enough to capture Pavano. As you may have guessed, I did remove one name:

Name

K/BB

HR/9

Cliff Lee

10.28

0.68

Roy Halladay

7.3

0.86

Jered Weaver

4.31

0.92

Dan Haren

4

1.19

Josh Johnson

3.88

0.34

Shaun Marcum

3.84

1.11

Adam Wainwright

3.8

0.59

Mat Latos

3.78

0.78

Ted Lilly

3.77

1.49

James Shields

3.67

1.5

Roy Oswalt

3.51

0.81

Francisco Liriano

3.47

0.42

Cole Hamels

3.46

1.12

Scott Baker

3.44

1.22

Felix Hernandez

3.31

0.61

Hiroki Kuroda

3.31

0.69

Zack Greinke

3.29

0.74

Carl Pavano

3.16

0.98

Of course, Twins fans will quickly recognize that strikeout-to-walk ratio conveniently ignores Scott's biggest weakness: allowing home runs. That's why I added that third column: homeruns allowed per 9 innings. Being a fly-ball pitcher, Scott gives up his fair share of homers: of the 18 pitchers included on the list above, only 2 (Shields and Lilly) gave up more homers more frequently than Baker, although Haren, Hamels, and Marcum all posted similar homerun rates.

But even with the high number of homeruns, Scott has still shown the stuff to be an awfully good major league starter. Using common defense-independent stats like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, Baker measures up very well with the man who started game 2 of the ALDS:

ERA

FIP

xFIP

SIERA

Pavano

3.75

4.02

4.01

4.15

Baker

4.49

3.96

4.02

3.69

Judging just by their peripheral statistics - Ks, walks, homers allowed, ground balls, fly balls, etc - Baker appears to have slightly out-pitched Pavano, albeit in fewer innings.

Of course, as I'm sure you've already recognized, the big difference in the two pitchers' ERAs stems mostly from their BABIP. Pavano was a ground ball pitcher pitching in front of a great defensive infield. Baker, on the other hand, was a fly ball pitcher pitching in front of Delmon Young and Jason Kubel. That difference goes a long way in explaining the wide variance in ERA between the two pitchers, and needs to be accounted for in predicting how well Baker will bounce back next season.

As the front office begins the process of putting together the 2011 Minnesota Twins, the health of Scott Baker looms large. He's under a reasonable contract through 2012, he misses bats and limits walks, and he has the potential to pitch like a solid #2 behind Liriano, especially if the team finds a way to improve the outfield defense behind him. The results of his MRI and the report from his doctors will certainly impact how the team handles the Pavano situation, and whether they dip their toes in the free agent pitcher market.

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