Inside the 2013 Cubs: Scott Baker
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The Cubs got their offseason started with a value play last week, signing veteran right-hander Scott Baker to a one-year contract with a reported base salary of $5.5 million. Baker spent his entire career with the Twins, who selected him out of Oklahoma State in the second round of the 2003 draft. When healthy, he was often one of Minnesota’s top two or three starters. Various ailments, however, kept him under 200 innings in all but one season, and he missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Still, Baker could be a bargain if he’s able to recover his form.
That’s because few major league pitchers have been able to match Baker’s command of the strike zone. Though he needs another 42 innings to make Baseball-Reference’s leaderboard, Baker’s career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.4 would rank 22nd best all time. His K/BB improved each year from 2008-11 largely because of a strikeout rate that reached its peak of 22 percent in 2011 (MLB average is roughly 18 percent). During that season, he had a career-best 3.15 ERA, a big drop from the 4.49 and 4.37 marks of the prior two seasons. He did it by making the most of a fairly limited arsenal, according to PITCHf/x data tagged by BrooksBaseball.net.
There are some caveats to Baker, however. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, who may face some challenges when playing against Wrigley Field’s notorious headwind. (Remember Ted Lilly? The two have identical career GB/FB rates of 0.53.) Baker is comfortable locating his fastball up and has generally done a decent job of limiting home runs, but his margin for error will decrease if his strikeout rate goes down. Theo Epstein acknowledged there is risk to pitchers coming back from elbow surgery, though historical evidence suggests the 31-year-old Baker may be able to regain some of the velocity he lost during the 2011 season.
Epstein also said Baker is on track to be ready for Opening Day, but the front office will monitor his rehab and won’t be concerned if he needs more time. At the very least, Cubs fans can expect a pitcher who will throw strikes, hit his spots and show veteran pitchability in the middle of the rotation.