Editor’s Note: We begrudgingly have friends and guests in from time to time to offer their unsolicited advice on numerous topics. Today, our pal Garret joins us to look at Taijuan Walker, who pitches for a team called the Mariners on something called the West Coast. You can find his typically Carolina sport ball oriented takes on line, @paggawoot.
Oh, man. I believe I speak for a lot of baseball fans when I say I felt like I’d been hoodwinked. Taijuan Walker, stud pitching prospect for the Mariners, was supposed to be special. He was supposed to be Prince Taijuan, heir to King Felix’s throne over Seattle. We’d been hearing he was special, and we knew the M’s wouldn’t give him up (as a Braves fan, I wanted to get him for Justin Upton. That didn’t happen, obviously.).
He had a taste of the bigs in 2013 and 2014, and the 2.89 ERA he posted in 11 appearances was very promising. But his 22 walks were concerning, so he was relegated back to the minors each of those years. He was just 22 years old in 2014, so that was not very unexpected.
But this year, oooh boy, was it different. He lit up Spring Training. He put up some of the best stats in all of baseball; his scintillating 0.67 Spring ERA earned him the fourth spot in the rotation and seemed to prove the hype was for real.
So imagine, for a moment, my dismay when the Oakland Athletics lit up Walker for nine runs, chasing him from the game in the fourth inning. Surely this was an anomaly? Walker was supposed to be good this year! In his next start, the Dodgers did the same to him.
His next seven games ping-ponged between flashes of promise and abject failure. Rumors circulated that the only reason he hadn’t been optioned down to AAA was because the Mariners didn’t have anyone to replace him. Through his first nine starts, he owned a disappointing stat line: 43 IP / 7.33 ERA / 5.43 FIP / 1.84 WHIP / 11.1 BB%
The only business this Taijuan Walker has in King Felix’s court is the role of jester.
And then May 29 rolled around. Pitching at home against Cleveland, Walker fired eight spectacular innings of two-hit baseball. He struck out eight and walked none. This. This was the Walker we had heard about. This was the bill of goods we had been sold, that I had so eagerly bought, realistic expectations be damned.
It was around this time that I read an interesting stat about Walker’s home and away splits: in short, Walker’s numbers were remarkably good at home and uniquely terrible on the road. I got curious so I investigated, and sure enough, that was the case. Here’s the numbers from his first 11 starts:
A few things to note here: at Safeco, Walker has much better command, sporting an excellent 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Also, his home OPS allowed is nearly HALF his road OPS. On the road he allows twice as many base runners and overall allowed 23 more runs despite pitching only 2.1 more innings.
Something changed for Walker on that May 29th start. He turned the corner in June, posting a remarkable 2.36 ERA (3.22 FIP) and a downright stupid 12.0 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. He threw in 28.1 consecutive innings without a walk (that’s over four starts without one). Oh, and three of his last four starts have been road games. Since that awesome May 29th game, he has shaved three full runs off his ERA.
So what changed? How did Walker shift from so ridiculously bad to… well, not ridiculously bad?
For starters, Walker seems to have gained control of the strike zone. His 2.2% walk rate in June should regress some, but with his stuff, it shouldn’t be by much. From May 29-July 12 (9 starts), Walker has only allowed four walks. That’s a remarkable improvement: in his first nine games this season, he walked 23 batters, good for an 11.6% walk rate in April and an 8.8% rate in May. Heck, he had four games with at least four walks out of those first nine games!
He also has seen a jump in induced swinging-strike percentage, from 8.7% up to 11.3%. And he’s attacking the plate more, as his first-pitch strike rate went from 57.5% up to 68.3%. In other words, Walker is getting ahead in the count faster, and he’s doing a better job of missing the bat.
The drop in walks lowered his WHIP by 42 points (1.44 in May, 1.02 in June) and his FIP by a silly two runs (5.35 in May, 3.22 in June). This paired with a bump in strikeouts (20% through May, 26% in June) suggests that he’s starting to understand how to navigate big-league lineups. His BABIP was actually slightly higher in June than May (.294 vs .289), so there’s no reason to think his June success was merely the beneficiary of some lucky defense.
The one red flag I found was his 93% strand rate in June. His April saw a brutal 60% strand rate, and May wasn’t much better (68%). Is the 93% sustainable?
Left-On-Base percentage isn’t exactly an often used stat, so I decided to do some research. If you’re unfamiliar, LOB% (or “strand rate”) is the percentage of time a pitcher leaves runners on base (i.e: a base runner didn’t score). A very high percentage—like Walker’s 93% in June—usually means the pitcher: A. Pitched out of jams really well, B. Got a little lucky, or C. Both of the above.
It looks like an average LOB% is about 73%. The elite—or very lucky—top out around 89% (Zack Greinke) while the poor settle in around 63% (Kyle Lohse). Using that as perspective: his June number of 93% was very good; April’s 60% is downright unfortunate.
Walker’s stats suggest we can expect him to maintain a high strand rate. By not walking batters, he’s allowing fewer base runners; by striking out batters, Walker can escape jams without the ball being put in play. Undeniably, a big reason for Walker’s 93% LOB rate was his .265 OBP against: down 135 points from his April .400 OBP. It’s a lot easier to strand runners when you only allow every fourth batter to reach base.
Allow me a brief pause to temper expectations: this is Walker’s first full season. His first two months were very bad, and his June was very good. The laws of regression suggest he’ll balance out somewhere in-between, with a modest improvement in the second half as he continues to develop his game. He’ll have very good games and very bad games. That’s baseball.
Do yourself a favor and watch him pitch some. Yes, it can be hard to stay up for west-coast games, but if you appreciate good pitching, you’ll find it’s worth it. Many of the faults we’ve seen with Walker early on—such as untimely walks, inability to get critical outs and and overall inconsistency—are very reminiscent of another pitcher who took his lumps on the Safeco mound 10 years prior. That one turned into a Cy Young winner; I believe Tai could too.
Taijaun is not going to make you giggle at hitters like Kershaw’s curve or Darvish’s slider; he’s not going to drop your jaw like Chapman’s 102 MPH fastballs. And his command isn’t yet as royal as Felix’s. Not yet. But the current trend suggests he’s on the right track. He’s fun to watch, and he’s going to have a really, really good career.
And this is good for baseball.
P.S. Here in the eleventh hour of writing this blog post, I realize this whole thing is about a guy named “Walker” who has stopped walking batters. I apologize for not fitting the appropriate number of puns in. I’ve failed you all.