Here Comes Taijuan Walker by Jeff Sullivan April 29, 2016 You’ve read articles like this before. That’s because Taijuan Walker has been a somebody for years, and we’ve all been waiting for him to kick it up. When you know a player is already hyped, you’re predisposed to think the most of any encouraging performances. It’s a bias, is what it is, leading observers to get ahead of themselves. I think, in the past, it’s been easy to get too excited about Walker. He needed to show more. But that’s why this is a post now. He’s showing more. Taijuan Walker is showing signs that he might be almost complete. You remember that something seemed to click for Walker toward the end of last May. Through nine starts, he had 23 walks and 39 strikeouts. Through the remaining 20 starts, he had 17 walks and 118 strikeouts. That got people excited, and rightfully so, because those are tremendous indicators of improvement. But something was missing. Something was just a little bit off — over those 20 starts, Walker ran a near-average ERA. He had the strikes, and he had the whiffs, but he didn’t have the contact management. He was tantalizing, but unfinished. I’m not declaring that Walker now is finished. That’ll take more proof. But Walker, this year, has carried over the walks and the strikeouts. In that sense, he looks exactly the same. Yet he’s allowed just one home run. He’s giving up far less solid contact, having dramatically increased his rate of grounders. Coming in, Walker was missing one thing. It seems he could be finding it. Numbers! Numbers? Numbers! This year, Walker’s at 25% strikeouts. Over the last four months last year, he was at 24%. This year, he’s at 3% walks. Last year, 3%. That stuff’s the same. The repertoire is mostly the same. The velocity is mostly the same. The arm slot is mostly the same. Here are the huge differences. Hard-hit rate 2015 run: 29% 2016: 23% Ground-ball rate 2015 run: 39% 2016: 55% It’s not like this is necessarily Walker’s new level, but this hints at a new and better level. And as far as I can tell, Walker isn’t taking a step forward because of a mechanical tweak. He isn’t taking a step forward because of a new pitch, or better arm strength. Call it confidence or call it guile — it seems like Walker is just becoming a smarter pitcher. He has enough pitches, even if the slider could stand to be better, and he’s just mixing them up differently, and less predictably. That can be the scary thing about a guy with a big fastball. It makes hitters nervous when he doesn’t show the fastball as much. Time to borrow from Brooks Baseball. Walker, for the most part, throws a four-seamer, a changeup, a curveball, and a slider. Last year, the slider was more like a cutter. Anyway, you know about Walker’s fastball velocity. That’s been a calling card since he was drafted. But last year, Walker threw 64% four-seam fastballs. This year, he’s at 53%. That’s an overall rate, with Walker down 11 percentage points. But things can be broken down further. On first pitches, Walker’s four-seam rate is down 14 points. When the batter’s ahead, it’s down six points. When Walker’s ahead, it’s down 11 points. When the count’s even, it’s down 16 points. With two strikes, it’s down 12 points. Walker has heat, he knows he has heat, his catcher knows he has heat, and the opponent knows he has heat. There’s no getting around that, but Walker isn’t relying on it so much. He’s getting more out of his curve, he’s getting a little more out of his slider, and he’s especially getting more out of his change. The changeup isn’t the key to all this — Walker’s general control and approach is the key to all this. By using his changeup more aggressively and less predictably, though, Walker’s able to ascend. His own thought processes have made it a better pitch. The changeup is mostly where Walker is finding his new grounders. It’s become a roll-over pitch. Because of how it moves, and because of how he uses it, Walker’s fastball will forever lead to balls in the air. But again, he’s using the fastball less, and he’s using the changeup better. Let’s bust out some Statcast averages. When Walker’s change was hit into play last year, the ball was hit at an average angle of five degrees above horizontal. This year, so far, the average is nine degrees below horizontal. Opponents have beat the changeup into the ground. Changeups beat into the ground don’t often go for extra-base hits. Or any kinds of hits. You weren’t going to get out of this post without navigating through some video examples. I selected some changeups from Walker’s most recent outing, against the Astros. You can’t learn everything about a guy from a few hand-selected clips, but this is happening anyway. I chose some situations when Walker was in a bit of trouble. Here you see him against Luis Valbuena, with two on and a 1-and-0 count. That’s not a great changeup, but it’s a decent changeup, and it’s a changeup in a fastball count. So Walker battled back into the at-bat, and then he had to throw another tough pitch. Valbuena got the bat on the changeup, but he didn’t do anything, and so the count swung in Walker’s favor. And the changeup was fresh in Valbuena’s mind, which might have contributed to his swinging through a fastball over the plate on the next delivery. Moving on, here’s Carlos Gomez with two strikes and a runner in scoring position: This is just included as an example of a grounder. Also, this is a righty-on-righty changeup, which is relatively uncommon. Maybe Walker has learned a few lessons from Felix Hernandez. Now to close, a couple pitches to Carlos Correa with runners on second and third. A 1-and-1 delivery: That’s just an excellent pitch. Also, another righty-on-righty changeup. So Walker got ahead, and then Correa took the count to 2-and-2. Walker’s response: This nearly worked against Walker. It took a couple tough defensive plays, and Correa easily could’ve reached. But Correa hit this ball straight into the ground, and the ball left his bat at a paltry 75 miles per hour. More simply, Correa got out in front and rolled over on the pitch. I like this as an example of Walker catching a hitter off-guard. Maybe Correa just made a lousy guess, but Correa is an awfully talented hitter, and Walker threw him something he didn’t expect. With a sample of one, that might mean nothing. In a bigger sample, it would reflect clever pitching. That’s where I think we’ve gotten to. I don’t know if Taijuan Walker’s pitches have improved, individually. But now he seems to be becoming more than the sum of his parts. Walker has forever been physically gifted, which is what has made him so intriguing. Fold in a better understanding of what the hitters are looking to do? You don’t need to imagine what that would look like. I think it would look like the current Taijuan Walker.