The Kevin Mather era is off to a start that we would consider efficient, if not remarkable, as the Mariners have made a non-guaranteed bet on a positive regression from Scott Baker. Baker has signed a minor league deal with the Mariners that could pay him up to $3.25 million, but if he makes $3.25 million the Mariners are almost certain to have received substantial surplus value from Baker.
Baker made his name in Minnesota as a guy who was a pretty good pitcher that was somewhat injury prone. From 2007-11 he averaged 3.9 WAR per 200 innings pitched, but only met the 200 inning mark once, when he threw exactly 200 innings in 2009. During those same years, Baker saw a steady rise in his strikeouts, and increased his strikeouts at a rate faster than his walks, improving his K/BB ratio each year from 2008-2011.
Then before the 2012 season Baker had Tommy John surgery. In 2013 he pitched only 15 innings after several setbacks involving his elbow.
Baker has never been a guy who would light up a radar gun consistently, averaging in the low-90s with his fastball, and part of his ineffectiveness and reduced strikeouts in his limited work last year may be attributed to a decline in velocity to the tune of nearly four miles per hour.
While things like strikeout rate and walk rate take substantial sample sizes to stabilize, historically fastball velocity stabilizes very quickly. But that’s mostly true regarding healthy pitchers. We’ve also seen that injured pitchers may make large, disproportionate improvements from year to year the farther they are removed from catastrophic injuries.
With two years now between present day and his surgery, and only entering his age 32 season, Baker—a reputed fly ball pitcher—leaves Chicago, where he pitched in 2013, to play in a ballpark that has been kinder to fly ball pitchers historically. With Dustin Ackley taking the place of Michael Morse or Raul Ibanez in at least one outfield corner, the team has also ostensibly improved their outfield defense.
A signing like this may be boiled down to “Jeremy Bonderman all over again,” or maybe Aaron Harang or Joe Saunders. There are a lot of things different about Baker, who was better at his best than any of those pitchers, and is also very inexpensive, something Saunders was not. To dismiss the size of the potential impact of this move based on those comparisons is like saying that I’m like Brad Pitt, only younger, far less attractive, and much less wealthy. It would also be like saying I’m just like Matthias, only slightly better looking, slightly wealthier, and a little bit older.
The point is Scott Baker might be different from those other guys. He might be better than them. He’s also better looking than them. All of them. Especially Harang. Gross.
The Mariners bet nothing on Scott Baker, and Scott Baker has a history of being very good, and occasionally injured, which for the right price can be very valuable.