Blue Jays Add Taijuan Walker for Depth

When the league announced an expanded playoff format on the eve of the season, the Blue Jays were clear beneficiaries. In the old, five-team format, we gave them just a 9.7% chance of reaching the postseason; the cream of the AL crop had a stranglehold on those spots. With eight spots and only six teams in the top tier (New York, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Cleveland, Houston, and Oakland), however, there was more space for interlopers. The Jays’ playoff odds in the new format opened the season at 29.8%.

With roughly half the season in the books, their odds have only increased. After Wednesday’s games, the Jays looked like a clear favorite for the final spot in the playoffs:

AL Playoff Odds
Team Record Playoff Odds
Athletics 22-10 99.9%
Rays 21-11 99.7%
Twins 20-12 99.3%
Indians 19-12 98.6%
White Sox 19-12 98.4%
Yankees 16-11 98.3%
Astros 17-14 97.4%
Blue Jays 15-14 65.7%
Tigers 13-16 11.0%
Orioles 14-16 10.5%

Still, as evidenced by the fact that their odds still hover at only 65%, they don’t have anything sewn up. Their pitching, in particular, has been a weak point. Hyun Jin Ryu has been as good as advertised holding down the rotation, but you can’t make a rotation out of one pitcher. Nate Pearson has struggled in his first taste of the big leagues and is currently on the Injured List, Matt Shoemaker has a lat strain, and Trent Thornton has hardly pitched this year due to injury. Piecing together the 31 remaining games of the season looked like a challenge.

To that end, the Blue Jays brought in reinforcements today, acquiring Taijuan Walker from the Mariners. In return, they’re sending a player to be named later. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic confirmed that the player will be outside the 60-man player pool of players eligible to be traded in-season this year, which means we won’t officially know who it is until the offseason, but the Jays have no shortage of interesting prospects.

For now, however, all we can do is analyze Toronto’s side of the trade. Walker is an ideal starting pitcher rental for this strange year. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract to return to Seattle this offseason after spending three injury-hampered years in Arizona. That means the Jays will owe him roughly $370,000 the remainder of the season, which could buy you a nice house in Buffalo or a broom closet in Toronto. In a year of financial uncertainty, that’s a key sweetener for the Jays.

More importantly, Walker has shown flashes of rediscovering his earlier promise. In 27 innings this year, he’s striking out a career-high 22.3% of opposing batters while walking only 7.1%. His 4.94 FIP isn’t disastrous, and his ERA, xFIP, and SIERA are all lower than that. As a fifth starter, he’s a great fit for the Jays, who more than anything need bulk innings out of their rotation.

A change in pitching approach has fueled Walker’s return to relevance. In his first stint with Seattle and his subsequent time in Arizona, he led with his fastball, throwing it roughly 60% of the time. He paired it with a splitter and a smattering of breaking pitches; sometimes a curve in the mid-70s, sometimes an upper-80s slider that frequently topped 90 mph.

This year, Walker has dramatically changed his approach. He’s throwing his four-seam fastball only 33% of the time, and while he’s added a two-seamer that he throws 13% of the time, that’s still less than half fastballs. To make up the difference, he’s using both breaking pitches more — he throws the slider 22% of the time and the curveball 11% of the time while still using his splitter 20% of the time. Less fastballs and more secondaries doesn’t make sense for everyone, but it’s a good way to compensate for declining fastball velocity, and Walker is more 92-94 with the heater now, a meaningful drop from his 94-96 heyday.

That’s not to say there aren’t warning signs. Walker throws his splitter a lot, but he hasn’t been particularly successful with it over the course of his career. His biggest problem with the pitch? While he got batters to chase it at an average rate, it didn’t move enough to induce whiffs. For his career, batters have whiffed on only 37.9% of their swings at splitters outside of the strike zone. The major league average is above 50%. Too many foul balls, and too many takes, robbed the splitter of its effectiveness.

This year, Walker is trying something new. If batters are too good at waiting out your offspeed pitch, why not simply throw it in the strike zone?

Splitter Zone% & Z-Swing%
Year Zone% Zone Swing%
2014 17.1% 68.4%
2015 32.7% 78.6%
2016 38.0% 78.4%
2017 39.7% 72.0%
2020 57.8% 65.4%

A career-high zone rate and career-low swing rate on those in-zone splitters has carried him this year, even as his fastball doesn’t have the same velocity as before. He’s also throwing his breaking pitches in the zone more than ever, which has created a paradoxical situation: excluding his abbreviated 2018 season (13 innings pitched), he’s never had a lower fastball percentage or higher zone rate. In that sense, 2020 Taijuan Walker is sort of Masahiro Tanaka-lite, a secondary specialist who isn’t afraid to play in the zone.

That’s a fine line to tread. Walker’s four-seam fastball, despite its velocity decline, might still be his best pitch. He throws it with plenty of spin and gets excellent ride; his rise through the prospect ranks wasn’t because of overpowering velocity but rather excellent movement. His two fastballs, in fact, are his only pitches that miss more bats than league average:

Walker and MLB Whiff/Swing%
Pitch Type Walker Whiff/Swing League Whiff/Swing
4-Seam 23.3% 21.9%
2-Seam 18.2% 15.9%
Slider/Cutter 24.4% 34.0%
Curve 7.1% 33.0%
Splitter 16.3% 33.5%

If I’m painting a confusing picture, that’s because Walker’s 2020 has been confusing. I’m not exactly sure that his current plan of attack can keep working; featuring secondaries is a tried-and-true plan for pitchers with busted fastballs, but Walker’s fastballs might still be his best pitches. He has, thus far, induced weak contact with both his slider and his splitter, but that hasn’t been the case for his career as a whole, and throwing them in the strike zone more often while missing fewer bats doesn’t exactly scream soft contact.

Whatever his plan, however, he’ll be an immediate upgrade for the Blue Jays. Behind Ryu, they’re phenomenally thin at starter given their recent spate of injuries. Tanner Roark has been his usual cromulent self, but beyond that, it’s Chase Anderson, Julian Merryweather, and Thomas Hatch, hardly an inspiring trio. Merryweather’s future is in relief — using him as a starter isn’t much different than going with an opener — and Hatch has worked almost exclusively in relief this year.

When their injured starters return, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Walker work more out of the ‘pen. His retooled slider looks promising, and we already know his fastball can miss bats with a little more velocity, which would be easier to find in relief. Some of his peripheral numbers are terrifying this year — his 7.4% swinging strike rate is 10th-worst in baseball among pitchers with 20 innings pitched — and simplifying his arsenal might be a way to fight that. Even if he ends up in the ‘pen in three weeks and all three injured starters return, that’s four starts of respectable pitcher replacing four starts of bullpen game, which is exactly what Toronto was looking for in
this trade.

For a team in Toronto’s position, I think this trade makes perfect sense. It would be irresponsible not to shore up the rotation; the team has overcome the lack of a home stadium and injury woes to climb above .500, and a reasonably-priced acquisition that increases their chances of securing the 8th playoff spot is a great reward for the players. At the same time, it’s probably early in their competitive window to trade a treasure trove of prospects for a rental player. Adding Walker threads the needle admirably.

For any other teams looking to add a starter, the market looks thin. There will be sellers around at the deadline — nine teams have less than 15% odds of reaching the playoffs — but they aren’t exactly drowning in starting pitching they’re looking to trade. Matthew Boyd will likely be available, and the Orioles will be looking to deal Tommy Milone for anything they can get, but it’s thin beyond that. Martín Pérez is Walker-esque, at least, and the Red Sox would surely be happy to deal him, but short of the Rangers shopping Lance Lynn, it’ll be slim pickings.

Without seeing the return, it’s too early to judge the Blue Jays’ decision-making. I suspect, though, that they’ll be happy with the deal. Toronto is the one AL team with uncertain postseason prospects. By adding Walker, they’ve added insurance against the biggest question mark remaining; whether their pitching will give them enough innings to keep things afloat. Anything beyond that is pure upside.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

The best baseball deals for a team are the ones where you don’t give up anything relevant. This is probably close to that, which means zero risk for Toronto, which is exactly how Atkins/Shapiro operate.

2 years ago
Reply to  radivel

It’s something relevant. Just not a top prospect. But likely someone on the teams list who Seattle likes. Walker had too much interest. Good value for Seattle on a flier. Not crazy cost to upgrade for Toronto.

2 years ago
Reply to  radivel

How can you say that when we don’t know who the player is? Of course there’s some risk.

Reports are suggesting the return is a top-30 position player prospect. Perhaps the return will be conditional based on Tai’s performance, but nobody should assume the player will be insignificant.

2 years ago
Reply to  radivel

Funny, I was thinking your first sentence is a lot more relevant to the Mariners than Toronto. Especially since we literally don’t know what the Blue Jays gave up.

2 years ago
Reply to  radivel

The more I think about this, the worse this statement sees. The best and worst baseball deals are almost always ones where both teams give up something substantial. These deals are are almost always footnotes, a swap of mediocrities.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Someone probably said that about the James Shields to the White Sox deal….