Player spotlight: Taijuan Walker

Seattle Mariners LogoTaijuan Walker came into the league in 2015 with some excitement around a potential breakout. He throws an above average speed fastball, an extremely hard splitter, a below average speed curveball, and had gaudy strikeout numbers in the minor leagues. As is the case with so many young prospects he struggled with command, and in 2015 gave up too many longballs. Fantasy owners want to know, will he break out in 2016?

Walker throws four pitches with regularity: a fastball, cutter, splitter, and curveball:

Season Fastball Cutter Splitter Curve
2013 65.7 % 18.5 %   9.9 %
2014 66.5 % 5.6 % 11.1 % 13.5 %
2015 63.9 % 8.2 % 17.9 % 7.8 %
Total 64.5 % 8.4 % 15.5 % 8.9 %

Looking at the league, we can see that he has above average velocity:

  Fastball Cutter Splitter Curve
Walker 94.1 89.6 88.7 74.3
League Avg 92.4 88 84.3 77.8

Most striking is his splitter, over 4 mph higher than league average. He throws the hardest splitter of any starter, and is third in velocity amongst pitchers with more than 50 innings pitched.

There are some interesting findings when we look at how batters fared against his different pitches. Batters hit .239 against his fastball, while walking 5.3% of the time, and striking out 20.2% of the time. Against his cutter, they batted .231, walked 14.1% of the time, and struck out 17.2% of the time. His splitter allows an average of .302, with a 3.2% walk rate, and a 28.7% K rate. Finally his curve, it allows a .243 average, 2.5% walks, and 25% strikeouts. The two things that stand out here to me is a .302 average on his splitter, and the 14.1% walk rate and 17.2% strikeout rate on his cutter.

He actually throws the splitter in the zone the least amount out of his pitches, and it gets swung on at the highest percentage of his pitches.

  Fastball Cutter Splitter Curve
Swing % 48.2 43.7 54.5 30.9
Contact % 82.2 85.1 69.5 66.7

This is the reason the pitch has an excellent 28.7% strikeout rate. The pitch also induces a very high percentage of ground balls (57.7%), yet it has an absurdly high .407 BABIP. This is the main culprit in the in the .302 average against Walker’s splitter. His cutter has a high contact, and low swing rate; this would explain his low strikeout percentage on the pitch. I would expect him to use the splitter more and the average against to come down in the upcoming season.

The next important thing to understand is what kind of contact hitters are getting against him. Overall Walker allows a nearly 2% lower soft contact rate, and about 1.5% higher hard contact rate. This hard contact turns into home runs 30% more than the average pitcher in the majors. The good side is that the batting average against is just below the league average at .248, and his walk rate is 5.7%, 2% below the league.

His lower than average walk rate is promising, as control was always an issue in the minor leagues. Prior to 2015, at any level he had thrown more than 10 innings, he had never walked fewer than 7.9% of the batters he had faced. He improved this to 5.7% in 2015, putting him in the top 25 for percent of batters walked, just below Dallas Keuchel (5.6%) and right in line with Jon Lester (5.7%).

Walker’s splits from the first and second half of the season show someone who improved in most areas of his game:

  ERA WHIP FIP xFIP K% BB% HR/9
First half 4.84 1.28 4.18 3.91 22.9 6.2 1.41
Second half 4.14 1.07 3.89 3.69 21.1 4.8 1.2

The only thing that did not improve was his strikeout percentage. His ERA and HR/9 were the only two numbers that were below league average. Everything else shows a basically league average pitcher in the second half, yet the differences between the two halves hit that he’s turned the corner.

For 2016 I see the potential for a breakout. Mixing in the sinker a bit more in place of the cutter should yield better strikeout numbers. Judging by the absurdly high .407 BABIP on the sinker, there should be some room for positive regression in WHIP, which should carry over to some ERA help. Continuing to limit walks, which would also be helped by a higher mix of sinkers than cutters, will also help to drive the WHIP and ERA lower. The most important thing that Walker can do is to limit his mistakes and the HR’s off of those mistakes. A 22-23% strikeout rate combined with continued success at limiting walks, and even a slight improvement in limiting home runs should net a great season. A normal increase in workload should get Walker to nearly 200 innings.
I project a 200 inning, 190 K, season with a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

 

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Scott Rowland

Scott Rowland

Scott is a graduate from Indiana University (go Hoosiers) and works as a project manager for HERE – They make software that powers GPS and real-time traffic so feel free to blame him when you get lost. He lives in Chicago, just north of Wrigley Field, with his wife, daughter, dog and cat, and loves to spend an afternoon catching a Cubs game.