Taijuan Walker was rolling entering Tuesday night’s game against the Tigers, having struck out 51 batters in his last 48 1/3 innings against only three walks. A 1.68 ERA and 0.79 WHIP during that stretch lowered his season-long ratios from a ghastly 7.33 ERA and 1.84 WHIP to a tolerable 4.34 and 1.28, respectively. It was a big turnaround for a guy DRA had pegged as the worst starter in the major leagues through the first month-and-change of the season.
I’ve long been a Walker fan, coveting his superior athleticism and the ease with which he generates mid-90s velocity. I own a few shares and while the last month has been enjoyable, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for the April version of Walker to re-appear up every once in a while. Seven-start stretches of utter dominance are pretty unique but are rarer still when immediately preceded by nearly 50 innings of crooked numbers.
Wanting to judge for myself the extent to which I should buy Walker’s renaissance, I was excited to put him under the microscope on Tuesday, with a particular eye on his ability to hit spots and effectively sequence in his secondaries. Walker did have a few stints where he commanded his fastball and he did put away a pair of batters with splitters out of the zone. Mostly, though, I kept coming back to something I read just before the game started:
“[Walker’s] most common misfire often had the arm coming through late in the kinetic chain, resulting in pitches that missed up and to the arm side…Walker was punished when he caught too much plate…Walker was able to bury a few splitters, but the right-hander was elevating fastballs throughout the game…Even in a ballpark that carries penalties for balls hit in the air, Walker was too fly-ball-heavy due to his pitch location. The other factor that likely came into play was that Walker was throwing everything within a narrow velocity band.”
While that was Doug Thorburn’s commentary on Walker’s disastrous first start of the season, it might as well have been written about yesterday’s game.
The most egregious example of this was during a four-pitch sequence that resulted in a walk to Alex Avila, though Walker did miss up and/or to the arm side with his fastball throughout his six innings of work. Here’s the visual proof, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
I acknowledge that dwelling on one walk that followed a stretch of 111 consecutive batters Walker managed to not walk isn’t necessarily a great look. It’s akin to, say, complaining about a website that provides an immense amount of content 250 days a year for the price of about 15 cents per day taking a day off to try something fun and different, but hear me out anyway.
Against Avila, Walker missed up and away with three four-seamers that weren’t even close, despite being even or ahead of Avila the whole at-bat. To be fair, Avila did spoil a solid offspeed pitch that several of his teammates whiffed on or rolled over. However, especially against lefties, Walker doesn’t have many places to go when his fastball command deserts him. The splitter is the only other pitch he throws with any regularity against left-handers and his swing rate on that pitch is among the lowest in the majors, though it was up during his excellent June. Batters don’t offer at his curveball either. All three of Tuesday’s deuces were called balls thrown at a lefty’s back foot despite Mike Zunino being set up on the outer half.
Catching Too Much Of The Plate
There were a couple of obvious examples of this in Tuesday’s game, including 3-2 splitter that leaked over the middle of the plate and was subsequently yanked out of the yard by Marc Krauss in his first at-bat as a Tiger. It was ultimately a splitter that Krauss clobbered but he was still at the plate because of Walker’s inability to control his fastball. Walker missed a 1-2 fastball up and 2-2 fastball inside to keep Krauss alive, avoiding the plate despite the fact that Krauss had swung through a heater right down the middle for the first strike.
A similar sequence played out in the fourth inning against J.D Martinez, who laid off a bad 1-2 offspeed pitch and a 2-2 fastball that was way too far off the plate inside. In a full count, Walker left a splitter center cut and Martinez laced a double off the wall. It is difficult to get major-league hitters out when they can wait on mistakes even when behind in the count.
Here is the location on these two splitters:
Too Many Flyballs
It’s hard to explain what was going on a Safeco last night, as the two teams combined for seven home runs, including three to dead center. The opposite field home run that Walker gave up to Avila looked like a fly ball off the bat but carried out. When you’re generating ground balls less than 40 percent of the time, these are the kinds of things that tend to happen. Recall that Walker’s poor Triple-A stint in 2014 was largely a product of the 13 home runs allowed in only 73 innings. His current 13.6 percent HR:FB rate should stabilize, but I’d sure like to see him use that cutter to generate more groundballs.
Narrow Velocity Band
This one is particularly concerning, as there are less than six miles per hour of difference in velocity between Walker’s splitter and his four-seam fastball. Further, Walker’s fastball velocity is backing up over the past couple starts. Where it has been north of 95 for most of his major-league career, it’s averaged 93.22 mph in two July starts. We’re dealing with a small sample size and I’m not yet overly concerned but I will be monitoring this going forward. The margin for error is small with 95 percent of Walker’s pitch mix bunched so closely together in velocity.
What To Do?
I remain fairly bullish on Walker in long-term formats because I like his clean mechanics, his ideal starter’s frame, and his natural talent. Keep in mind that it was only one year ago that Bret Sayre ranked him the eighth best dynasty prospect and said “there’s still no pitching prospect in baseball I’d rather have.” I agreed with him then and, save the passage of time without Walker performing consistently at the major league level, there isn’t much reason to believe he can’t still reach his ceiling. If you’re down on Walker’s long-term future, it’s worth reminding yourself that he’s still 22 years old and he only has 150 big-league innings on his résumé.
In re-draft leagues, I think your strategy is situation-dependent. I don’t want to put too much stock in one game but it does concern me that Walker is struggling with many of the same problems Doug identified in April. If you’re middle of the pack or above, I might be looking to capitalize on his recent hot streak and sell high, depending on what kind of return is available. cFIP likes him as a league-average starter right now but I’d take some underperformers cFIP likes less such as Gio Gonzalez or Garrett Richards if their owners are frustrated. On the other hand, if you need more risk/reward to pull yourself back into contention, I think Walker makes for a fine buy assuming the price factors in an appropriate amount of regression from his mid-May/early June tear. While I don’t expect him to rattle off another 50-inning stretch where he looks like a top-five pitcher, there’s plenty of room for him to improve upon his full-season line.
Thank you for reading
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