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June 11, 2013

What You Need to Know

Baker's Deep-Fried Southpaws

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Left-handed pitchers, meet your new worst enemy: Jeff Baker.

Signed to a minor-league contract by the Rangers on January 26, Baker came into the 2013 season with a career value of 1.2 WARP compiled over 1,488 trips to the box. He was, essentially, a replacement-level player. But 88 plate appearances into the 2013 campaign, he has already brought Texas—which is paying him $1.75 million per the late-winter agreement—more than one win.

With the Rangers trailing, 3-1, in the bottom of the fourth inning on Monday, Baker sent a changeup from Scott Kazmir over the left-field fence to tie the game. The two-run blast was his ninth of the season, the third-highest total on the team, exceeded only by Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, and Mitch Moreland, whose injury has opened the door to more playing time for Baker. Lance Berkman, general manager Jon Daniels’ more-heralded free-agent addition, delivered the game-winning blow in the seventh inning with a two-run shot of his own, but he lags behind the pack with only five homers in 55 games.

Left-handed pitchers, like Kazmir, have borne the brunt of Baker’s wrath, to the tune of a triple-slash line that you’d have trouble assembling on “Rookie” mode in MLB: The Show. Baker, a right-handed batter, has hit eight of his nine long balls off of southpaws, and thrown in three doubles and eight walks for good measure. The aforementioned triple-slash line: .386/.491/1.000 over 53 plate appearances, including one total base for each of his 44 at-bats.

“He’s given us a big shot in the arm,” said Berkman, of Baker, after the 6-3 win, which marked the Tribe’s eighth loss in a row. A shot in the arm that the Rangers have needed, with Elvis Andrus and David Murphy off to slow starts, Ian Kinsler on the disabled list, and Berkman struggling to supplant the power output of the departed Josh Hamilton, who is currently tied on the home-run leaderboard with one Jeff Baker.

The Bad Kissingen, Germany native has always covered the zone well against left-handed pitchers, a trait that fueled his breakout 2008 showing, when he authored a .290/.336/.590 line versus southpaws with nine doubles and seven homers in 113 trips to the box. His start to the 2013 season, though, is on another level.

Justin Upton needed only 66 plate appearances to send nine balls into the seats. Chris Davis drilled nine in a 68-plate-appearance surge between May 18 and June 2. But, among players whose Opening Day role was either part-time or undefined, Baker’s outburst is rivaled only by that of Braves rookie Evan Gattis, who smacked his 14th home run of the season in his 156th at-bat on Monday night.

Asked by reporters about the role he has played in the Rangers’ 38-25 start, Baker—who, in addition to the pop, has seen time at four different positions—replied, “I just try to do my job.” If there existed an award to honor each league’s most valuable reserve, Baker might be the junior circuit’s leader in the clubhouse through 63 games.

Matchup of the Day
Just when it seems as though Dan Haren is finally turning the corner, the first-year Nationals starter throws up a clunker that sends the process back to square one. That’s precisely what happened on June 5, when the Mets went yard thrice, including two big flies by Marlon Byrd, chasing Haren after four innings of five-run work. The right-hander posted his second consecutive walk-free outing, but little else went his way, and he has now served up 15 gopher balls in 67 2/3 innings.

Well aware of that weakness in his current game, a trip to Coors Field is surely the last thing that Haren wanted to see on his docket. Alas, that’s precisely where he’s scheduled to toe the rubber this evening. And if he hopes to keep that home-run tally at 15, he’ll need to come up with a new recipe for retiring Carlos Gonzalez.

Haren and Gonzalez were traded for each other in an eight-player deal consummated by the Athletics and Diamondbacks in 2007, and they squared off for the first time on June 18, 2008. Since then, Gonzalez is 7-for-18 (.389/.476/1.000) versus Haren, with two doubles, three homers, three walks, and only two strikeouts in 21 plate appearances. An aggressive hitter bent on punishing anything in the zone, Gonzalez has taken full advantage of Haren’s strike-heavy style, and the right-hander has not gotten away with many mistakes.

As the chart above, from Gonzalez’s hitter profile, shows, there is no in-the-zone hole that right-handed pitchers can exploit when he is in the box. The lefty slugger thrives when he is able to extend his arms, teeing off on everything in the middle and outer thirds, but he’s no slouch on the inside corner, either. The best hope that opposing pitchers have is to get in his kitchen or coax him into chasing upstairs. Gonzalez is also vulnerable to breaking balls down and away, but pitchers who miss that target and see their offerings sail over the plate don’t often live to tell the tale.

Haren, as you might guess, based on the aforementioned track record, has learned many of those lessons the hard way.

Gonzalez’s first hit off of Haren, a double, came on a center-cut curveball. His next, a homer, came on essentially the same pitch. His other two homers came on cutters—right down the middle and right down the middle. Those are location mistakes that pitchers simply cannot make to Gonzalez, and they are location mistakes that Haren has paid for on multiple occasions this season.

With an approach that is more dependent on sequencing and command than overpowering velocity and electric movement, Haren must paint the corners and keep hitters on their heels to succeed. If he doesn’t do that tonight, Gonzalez and the Rockies could send him to the showers early for the second time in as many starts (8:40 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • With the projected Super Two window now in the rearview mirror, the Pirates have decided to call up number-one prospect Gerrit Cole to help supplant the injured Jeanmar Gomez and Wandy Rodriguez in their starting rotation. Cole, the first-overall pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA, has permitted only 44 hits over 68 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis, though his 47-to-28 K:BB does not jibe with the electric stuff about which Jason Parks and other evaluators are so giddy. Tonight, we’ll find out if a promotion to the highest level brings out the best in Cole, who has a legitimate ace-level ceiling. He’ll take on fellow Pac-10 (er, -12) standout Tim Lincecum in his debut at PNC Park (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Pop quiz: Name the only major-league regular who has not struck out since the calendar flipped to June (actually, since May 25). This outfielder is 13-for-39 this month, and has followed up a strong first campaign by performing nearly as well in every department so far in 2013. The only quibble with the 31-year-old’s overall line is his dismal performance on the basepaths, where he has stolen six bags and been caught seven times.

    If you haven’t already guessed, the answer is Norichika Aoki, who was last punched out in the fifth inning of the Brewers’ loss to the Pirates on May 25. Aoki has walked 23 times this season and gone down hacking or looking only 12, and his last swinging strikeout came at the hands of Jaime Garcia in the first inning on May 17. Jacob Turner, owner of just 51 strikeouts through his first 80 2/3 big-league innings, seems a poor bet to snap Aoki’s streak, but he’ll try to do just that at the outset of tonight’s contest, the middle match of a three-game set at Marlins Park (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Reds could not have been more pleased with Tony Cingrani’s six-start cameo in place of Johnny Cueto earlier this season, when the right-hander missed more than a month with a strained lat and the left-hander notched a 3.27 ERA over the half-dozen assignments that he missed. Now, Cueto is back on the disabled list with a lat strain, and Cingrani, the victim of a numbers game when Cueto was activated, is back in Cincinnati. The 23-year-old Rice University product whiffed 18 batters in 12 innings in his two most recent starts for Triple-A Louisville, and tonight, he’ll challenge the Cubs with the same deceptive fastball that enabled him to thrive in his first taste of the bigs.

    Cingrani allowed six runs over 13 innings in his first two dates with Dale Sveum’s club. To improve on those showings, he’ll need to be extra careful with Alfonso Soriano, who touched him up for four hits in six at-bats, including two home runs. The home team will counter with Matt Garza in game two of four at Wrigley Field (8:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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