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A Short(ish) Statistical Argument for Luken Baker

Making the case that the author may have been underappreciative of a recent draftee.

The 2015 ESPYS - Arrivals Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Everyone’s favourite winged horse (and you should be pronouncing that as wing-ged, not wing’d, in case you’re wondering, and I demand you do it right), is leaving us, which you know by now, and which sucks. It always sucks when someone leaves the masthead here — well, almost always; there have been a few I’ve been glad to be rid of over the years, but I won’t name names — and I never quite know what to say. I’ve always been bad at goodbyes, really. Actually, that’s not strong enough, even; I am terrible at goodbyes.

Do you know that when Craig sent out the email to announce he was leaving for a full-time FanGraphs gig, I didn’t even answer the email? I don’t think I commented in the post where he publicly said goodbye, either. Was it because I didn’t like Craig, or think he was a bad site manager? Not at all. I liked Craig quite a lot, actually, and he did a fantastic job running this place. But I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t awkward, or didn’t feel overly familiar to me, or just put me in a position of feeling like I had to respond in an honest way to someone else, rather than always maintaining my unassailable position in life of never, ever getting hurt. I am very much the kind of absentee father who would rather disappear in the night after a trip to Showbiz Pizza (and fuck Chuck E. Cheese! Holla if you hear me!), than have to face the disappointment of his kids as he walks away again.

You know, it’s funny; I’ve written a lot of very personal things over the years on this site. Things about dead fiancees, things about drug addiction, things about family issues. A person who didn’t really know me might think I’m very open, and sharing. But it’s all so one way. I’m great at the one-direction communication of the internet, of this blog, where I can tell strangers about the darkest, worst parts of my life, because those are just words, and the stories can be rearranged slightly to make them more interesting, more romantic if need be, and I never have to actually expose anything about who I really am. It’s why I never show up at VEB days, and why I probably never will. There’s no real vulnerability in the honesty with which I have conducted myself in these pages; you might know things about me that very few people in my real life do, but at the same time you’re not part of that real life, and so are safely sequestered on the other side of the wall.

I realise this is an incredibly narcissistic way to deal with people, and probably points toward some fairly serious personality disorder or other that I should have dealt with years ago. But that’s okay. One of the great lessons of getting older is that you can work on yourself, but you’re never really going to get fixed.

All of which is a very long-winded — and possibly slightly more than slightly intoxicated, which is perhaps not surprising considering the hour at which I am writing this intro — way of saying that I miss the writers who have left this site, and I miss the commenters who don’t come around any more, because while they were all just imaginary friends inside a magic box when it’s all said and done, they were my imaginary friends inside a magic box. And so I am sad that there’s another name who used to write here and doesn’t now.


This post was supposed to be published yesterday, and today I was going to have my big roundup of all the picks the Cardinals made from round eleven in the draft onward. Well, the day job didn’t cooperate, and I am having a hell of time digging up much in the way of really interesting stuff regarding many of these players (seriously, it’s like the Cardinals deliberately just took every college junior that none of my very limited contacts have any good info on for thirty rounds), and so I’m pushing that back to Wednesday. Probably.

What I want to talk about in this post, though, is an opinion I held very recently, which I have changed at least somewhat. Now, that’s probably not groundbreaking stuff; people change their minds all the time. When I was a kid I really liked Miracle Whip. Now, I don’t care for the stuff, and only buy real mayonnaise. (Or make it myself, which is always best, but just enough of a chore that I will cop to being too lazy like 75% of the time.) I had a Vanilla Ice haircut in fifth grade. Point is, we don’t always keep the same opinions forever. Sometimes we do; I still think my carmine red and white Jordan VI’s are the best sneakers ever conceived by man. (And they’re from basically the same time as Vanilla Ice, proving that there really are things that age much better than others.) But lots of times we change our minds.

I haven’t entirely changed my mind on this very recent opinion, but I have revised it, and in a relatively specific way. And given that this is a baseball blog in which I regularly share my draft-related thoughts, opinions, and analyses, this seems like the sort of very specific shift in opinion that is worth some discussion.

See, here’s the thing: when the Cardinals selected Luken Baker in the draft, I was not a fan of the pick. Sure, it was the 75th overall selection, and depending upon whose rankings you wish to use Baker was something like the 50th best prospect in the draft, which would seem to indicate some value, but I still just wasn’t really into it. Baker has been injured each of the last two seasons in one way or another, and even when he’s healthy he’s a very limited athlete.

Here’s what I said at the time, roughly a week ago. Basically, I put power in the positive category, most other things in the negative, and then made an offhanded remark at the end about how the Astros took Seth Beer at the end of the first round, 40 picks earlier, and Baker and Beer are actually fairly similar players, in terms of offensive profiles, so maybe the Cards getting Baker where they did wasn’t such a bad thing.

It’s funny; at the time I wrote that I was blazing through a short post, trying to get it written as fast as possible, and the Beer thing was a throwaway comment. Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t consider it at all, mind you; I do have a pretty decent mental rolodex of these players in my head, so it was at least an informed comparison. But it was also one made off the cuff, so I wasn’t all that concerned with great accuracy.

Well, in the week since I’ve had occasion to think about that offhanded comp, and when I actually looked at the numbers, I was surprised just how well Baker really does match up with Beer. And in looking at that, I started thinking the Cards may have gotten more of a bargain that I realised.

Now, first off, it must be pointed out and acknowledged that my concerns about Baker having missed so much time the last two seasons are valid. He injured his left (non-throwing), arm in 2017 in a collision on the basepaths, and then injured his ankle and leg on an awkward slide this spring. To be fair, neither of those injuries are the sort of soft tissue injuries one might expect to be chronic; i.e. one would perhaps be more concerned if Baker had recurring hamstring issues, or cartilage damage that was causing chronic pain or something. That’s the good news. The bad news, particularly in the case of the leg injury this spring, is that Baker doesn’t really have a ton of athleticism he can afford to lose before he starts to become marginalised. Leg injuries for what is already a big, lumbering brute of an athlete are scary. The line between lumbering and simply immobile can be a painfully fine one at times.

So let’s acknowledge that fact. The injuries are scary. But what about the kind of production the Cardinals may be getting from Baker, compared to what the Astros could potentially expect from Beer?

Well, to begin, let’s look at the slot values of the two respective picks. Houston took Beer at #28 overall, with a slot bonus of just under $2.4 million. ($2,399,400, to be exact.) There would seem to be little reason for Beer to either hold out for an above-slot deal, nor acquiesce to something markedly below that. Ergo, I think we should assume he will sign for something relatively close to that slot number.

Baker, on the other hand, lasted until pick 75, and comes with a slot bonus just under 800K. Now, please don’t think I’m trying to advocate for teams spending even less in the draft, gameifying their spending even at this level; I’m simply trying to get at what kind of relative value the slots come with. We could maybe argue for some voodooish concoction of opportunity cost above and beyond what we can see with draft picks, but that seems excessively speculative to me. So we’ll just go with the number, shall we? The slot where the Astros took Beer has a value of approximately three times where the Cards selected Luken Baker.

It’s fair to point out the ACC, in which Clemson plays (Beer’s school), is probably a little stronger on the whole than the Big 12, the conference in which one will find Baker’s TCU. Neither is as strong as the SEC, but are both solidly in that swirl of conferences vying for second place. The Pac-12, the ACC, and the Big 12 are all in that swirl; the Big 10 usually has a good team or two but tends to be shallower, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the number of cold-weather schools in the conference. The Missouri Valley Conference usually has Missouri State and Wichita State, and then maybe an upstart or two in a given year, but they can’t compete with the big conferences in terms of top to bottom quality. What I’m saying is if you want to give Beer a slight edge in quality of competition, that’s probably fair. It’s not a big difference, though.

So we have two players, separated by forty picks and a 3:1 ratio in terms of slot value. Both are probably 30-grade athletes, both limited to first base or DH. Actually, if you want my honest opinion, I think Baker has a better chance of being a quality defender at first base than Beer does. Seth Beer was born to DH; Baker has at least good actions and an arm that helps him make the occasional play on the infield.

An interesting angle to consider in these sorts of analyses is the parks in which the respective players perform. We all understand the concept of park factors, I assume; some places are harder to hit than others, and ditto for pitching. The concept applies to college stadia the same as it does in the pros; it’s just a far less explored aspect of things. The ur-park factor list, in terms of collegiate ball, is still the one from Boyd’s World, several years ago now. The issue of the list being up to date only as of the 2013 season is a concern, but in this particular case neither TCU nor Clemson have opened a new park since then, so we should be able to use the numbers for at least rough sketch purposes.

And what do we find on this list? Well, Clemson plays in a home field with a park factor of 106, meaning their stadium inflates offense by roughly 6%. (The second number is the PF of all parks in which the team played in 2013, but schedules change from year to year, so that’s no help to us.) Meanwhile, Texas Christian’s home field comes with a park factor of just 95, meaning it suppresses offense by about 5%. Now, how precise should we consider these numbers? Not very. But we should at least try to include any factors we can, meaning that if we have reason to believe two players play in meaningfully different environments, it’s worth at least noting.

Here are Seth Beer’s OPS totals by season, beginning with his freshman year: 1.235, 1.084, 1.098. Outside of his magical freshman campaign, in which he looked like the clear-cut best player in college baseball, Beer has been a very good hitter, but not an historically great one. You can find 1.100 OPS hitters in college.

Here are Baker’s numbers, also beginning his first year at TCU: 1.060, .982, 1.018. It’s interesting that both Beer and Baker were as good as they would ever be in their freshman years, but it’s worth pointing out Baker’s freshman campaign was propelled by a huge .419 BABIP that probably had some signal in it, but also plenty of noise. Still, Baker walked more often than he struck out that season, put up a BB% over 15%, and was just generally a pretty intimidating presence in the middle of the Horned Frogs’ lineup.

Beer has hit 56 home runs in 879 college plate appearances; Baker has put 28 over the wall in 645 PAs. Beer’s HR/AB average in college is 11.55, while Baker’s 18.64. Now, those may not seem like particularly similar numbers, but this season before getting hurt, Baker hit a homer every 12.5 at-bats. That’s much more similar, and I wish I knew if there was a specific change in Baker’s approach, but I haven’t followed him closely enough to know.

Perhaps Beer’s most notable quality has been his incredible plate discipline and patience; his college walk rates by year were 21.8%, 21.4%, and 18.2%. He paired that patience with extremely low strikeout rates: 9.5%, 11.7%, and 12.2%. (I have to admit, in looking at the production of Beer I’m really forced to reconsider just how good I think he might be down the road. There really is Joey Votto-level upside in his bat, if it translates. And, of course, there’s some question as to whether it will.)

Baker can’t quite match those numbers, but he was no slouch in the discipline department either. Walk rates by year: 15.1%, 19.3%, and 17.1%. Meanwhile, his strikeout rates were always very encouraging: 13.1%, 17.4%, and 12.9%. Again, he’s not quite at Beer’s level, but particularly in 2018 Baker was closer than a lot of people (including me, honestly), probably realised.

Beer ISO by year: .331, .308, .341.

Baker ISO by year: .198, .211, .256.

Now here’s where we really see a difference. Despite being physically huge, Luken Baker has never hit for as much power as Seth Beer naturally generates. I don’t have batted ball number for each, but I can tell you from watching that Beer has an easy, natural ability to lift the ball, while Baker appears to be a bit lower launch angle sort of hitter. Getting the ball up in the air would be a huge boon for Baker’s future value, I think. He has the strength to do damage on any ball in just about any location; a hitter with his power should not be driving the ball into the ground, basically ever. If Beer could be Joey Votto one day, Baker reminds me a bit of like mid-career Jack Clark. His last couple seasons in San Francisco and first year or two in St. Louis, before he had that incredible 1987 season in which he walked nearly 25% of the time and became a three true outcomes hero, specifically. Strikeout and walk rates both in the low- to mid-teens, ISOs in the .200-.230 range.

So is Luken Baker as good a bet as Seth Beer? No, he isn’t. Even ignoring the injury issues Baker has dealt with the past two seasons (which we shouldn’t, but bear with me), he has never produced at quite as high a level as Beer has. But if we look at their trajectories, and where each of them appeared to be as players their junior seasons, it’s a closer comparison than one might initially think, given their respective reputations.

And, of course, we have that huge difference in draft position, and bonus slot. Is Seth Beer better than Luken Baker? Probably. Is he three times as valuable right out of the box? I have a much harder time answering that in the affirmative.

My point is really this: when the Cards selected Luken Baker, I wasn’t a fan of the pick, because I was focusing on all the things he can’t really do. Just an adequate to average fielder, very slow runner, not a great athlete. But those are also the downside risks of one of the most highly thought of (if also somewhat controversial amongst scouting types), hitters in the whole draft, and said hitter went in the first round despite those misgivings. And when I looked at the two players, who I already felt/knew were similar, it was striking just how similar they appear to be now, at the ends of their junior years, ready to make that leap into pro ball. And in making that comparison, I came to the realisation that I was short changing Luken Baker a bit, I think. Sure, there are plenty of things he can’t really do, and those things will certainly be limiting factors in his future.

But it’s at least as important, and probably more so, to recognise what a player can do, and then weight it against what he cannot, rather than simply condemning him to history’s dustbin right off. And what Luken Baker can do is hit. Nearly as well as the most accomplished college hitter in the entire class, really. And I have to admit it’s made me much more a fan of Luken Baker in Cardinal red than I was even just a short week ago.

I do, however, reserve the right to turn on him viciously if he gets a Vanilla Ice haircut. Just saying.