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Scott Baker, Jake Odorizzi, and how pitch-to-contact might have ruined a decent pitcher.

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With modern coaching, we might remember Baker very differently

Texas Rangers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Remember Scott Baker? He was probably the best homegrown pitcher of the pitch-to-contact Twins in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. Are we abbreviating decades this century like that now, because it feels weird to type. Anyway, Baker looked good for a few years before flaming out amid injury, but at his peak, today’s Twins could have made him great.

Baker’s pitch mix was pretty standard for the era, roughly 60-65% fastballs in the low 90s, 12-20% low-80s slider, 10-15% curveball, and 5-8% change. At the tail end of his career, he dropped the curve entirely and doubled his slider usage. By then, it was probably too late, and his last appearance in the majors was his age-33 season in 2015. He left the Twins after 2012, and bounced around to the Cubs, Rangers, and finally Dodgers.

Compare Baker’s arsenal to Jake Odorizzi, perhaps the poster child for “Wes Johnson magic.” Odorizzi throws a low 90s fastball as well, though his has a couple more ticks on it than Baker’s. He also utilizes a slider with similar velocity, an occasional curveball, and a change up. When you combine Odorizzi’s fastball and cutter, the career usage percentage is similar to Baker’s fastball usage, though Odorizzi has thrown the cheddar significantly less in recent years. With the Twins, he’s leaned more heavily into his changeup and breaking pitches. More importantly, the Twins have focused on locating and sequencing the pitches to maximize Odorizzi’s effectiveness. A great fanpost here about a year ago also looked at Jake Odorizzi’s “slutter,” and the tweaks made to his slider to bring out its best. John Foley also effectively illustrated for us how Wes Johnson was able to maximize Odorizzi’s performance.

Jake Odorizzi is one great example. Acquired from the Rays prior to the 2018 season, Odorizzi had an up and down campaign in his first go around with Minnesota, pitching to 4.49 ERA / 4.20 FIP, striking out 22 % of the batters he faced and allowing 1.10 home runs per nine innings. That was his second straight season with an ERA above 4.00 and his fastball averaged below 92 mph. Thanks to a new off-season training program endorsed by Johnson and the Twins technology and analytic infrastructure, Odorizzi averaged 93 mph in 2019 on the way to a 3.51 ERA / 3.36 FIP, 4.3 fWAR, and a 27% strikeout rate. The last three figures were all career-bests.

But the velocity increase isn’t the whole story. Even with the velocity jump, Odorizzi’s heater speed was still well below average (23rd percentile) as was the pitch’s spin rate (39th percentile). Nonetheless, Odorizzi threw a bunch of fastballs (57.9% of his pitches), mostly up in the strike zone:

A location heat map like this for a seemingly below average fastball probably would make many pitchers and pitching coaches cringe. But, for Odorizzi it worked beautifully. His fastball allowed batters just a .209 batting average, .287 wOBA, and generated a whiff more than 30% of the time.

As you might guess by now, a key factor that made this success possible is a lot of active spin. In addition to the velocity jump, Odorizzi also improved his active spin from its 2018 levels. That season he ranked in the 75th percentile with 89.2% active spin (still good). But in 2020, he was able to improve to the 86th percentile with 91.4%. While those improvements might seem small, the margins in the highest level of baseball in the world are small, and they were enough for Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs to declare Odorizzi’s the best fastball of 2019.

Coming back around to Scott Baker, his spin rates are only available for the final year of his career, 2015. His slider, sinker, and fastball all showed up right around 2100 rpm, and his curveball was around 1250. For Odorizzi, pre-Twins he had a little more spin on most pitches, and a lot more on his curve, but he increased all those numbers slightly in 2019 and 2020. Still, I think the numbers are close enough to continue calling them similar pitchers. So the real difference in 2019 Jake Odorzzi and 2011 Scott Baker (each player’s best season) can be attributed to coaching. One might normally have made a case that catching could have a part, but Baker was throwing, in large part, to peak Joe Mauer.

The 2019 version of Jake Odorizzi struck out 10.08 men per nine, while 2011 Baker was at 8.22. Odorizzi walked more men that season than Baker ever did—3.00 to 2.14 in the years we are comparing—likely a function of a pitch-to-contact philosophy as well. BABIP treated them similarly (.302 for Odorizzi, .297 for Baker.) Their HR/FB rate was nearly identical as well, with Odorizzi at 8.8 and Baker at 8.7 at their respective best, and a couple points higher overall. Both pitcher were also flyball heavy, and were both hovering right around 45% in both their best season and their career. That brings up one other major difference in 2011 and 2019 though — the men playing out in the grass.

Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler each played over 130 games in 2019, and Byron Buxton appeared in 87. Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Cave were the next most frequent men out there. In 2011, the defense was nowhere near that solid Speedy Ben Revere couldn’t make up for the butchery of Delmon Young in left, and the limited range of Michael Cuddyer in right. The other subs weren’t much better, with Jason Kubel, Jason Repko, and Rene Tosini highlighting the group. Denard Span was nominally the centerfielder, and would have helped, but he was injured much of the year. 2011 was the doomed 99-loss team, but the Twins used a similar outfield crew in several successful prior seasons.

In 2019, Odorizzi’s ERA was 3.51, and his FIP was 3.36. In 2011, Baker posted similar numbers there as well, with a 3.14 ERA and a 3.45 FIP. The career versions of their numbers are not too far apart either. The big contrast in the season for the two players was that Baker was injured in July of 2011, and barely played after. He missed all of 2012 due to elbow surgery, and was never really the same after. Despite the injury, Baker has a large enough sample to draw these conclusions—he pitched in 23 games and made 21 starts. In 2019, Odorizzi made 30 total appearances, all were starts. For Baker, that was about 135 innings, for Odorizzi, 159.

The real difference in the two is something we’ve discussed before. Odorizzi leans heavily on a high fastball. Baker was forced to throw the ball down, and pitch to contact. The “new” Twins are also doing great things with sliders, as we’ve seen with any number of marginal bullpen guys.

I’m not sure I’m willing to go far enough to say that Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire, and Bill Smitth broke Scott Baker, but I absolutely believe that Baker would have performed much better under Wes Johnson, Rocco Baldelli and the current Twins front office. Its also hard to say that modern analytics and training methods might have saved Baker’s elbow, but it certainly wouldn’t have been any worse than it was a decade ago. Overall, perhaps we should reevaluate Baker in a more charitable light than we Twins fans tend to remember him.