Ryan Walker Is Elite and Unknown

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

There are just too many players in baseball these days. I don’t mean that in a “contract the league” way – I think that there should be expansion, in fact. I’ll get back to that, for the record. The problem, instead, is with me. As teams have increasingly realized that the best way to get the most out of players is by giving them frequent rest, more people are playing relevant roles every year. Take the Giants, for example: The 2010 World Series team featured 19 pitchers, from Matt Cain’s 223 1/3 innings all the way down to Waldis Joaquin’s 4 2/3. This year’s Giants have already used 24 pitchers, and we haven’t even hit the All-Star break.

Back in those days, it was easy to know most of your team’s bullpen, as well as the regular starters. It was just fewer names to keep track of, fewer different styles and deliveries and permutations of facial hair. The present-day Giants have an honest-to-goodness pair of identical twins and a closer with his own light show. They have the tallest player in baseball. It’s a wildly eclectic bullpen. And I haven’t even mentioned their best pitcher yet, which is kind of my point. Ryan Walker is having a season for the ages, and he’s doing it in anonymity.

One “problem” with Walker – note: not actually a problem – is that he’s an archetype of pitchers we’ve seen before. He throws a sinker, and he throws a slider. He hides the ball well and throws hard. He misses bats, and always has: Starting in 2019, his first full season, he compiled a 28% strikeout rate in the minors. There’s nothing particularly novel or unprecedented about Walker’s game – it’s just effective.

Last year, as a rookie, he was an effective member of a Giants bullpen that just felt downright weird. He opened 13 games, largely in support of Sean Manaea, and racked up a 77 ERA- and 88 FIP-. Those are good numbers, but they’re also the kind of numbers that get you sucked into the anonymous middle reliever vortex. There are just so many innings to eat, and so many people filling them. If you’re not one of the chosen few high-leverage arms, you’re just part of the bulk arm brigade.

Coming into 2024, that seemed like the most likely outcome for Walker. Bob Melvin used him as a combination mop-up arm and righty specialist. But by the end of April, that clearly wasn’t a prominent enough role. By that point, Walker was running a 2.81 ERA and 2.35 FIP, and he was striking out nearly a third of the hitters he faced. The Giants noticed – since then, Walker has been their go-to setup man, second on the team in terms of the average leverage of the situation when he enters the game, behind closer Camilo Doval.

That first month of play was no mirage. Walker has actually increased his strikeout rate since then. He’s striking out 33.5% of opposing hitters and walking only 5%. Those are almost exactly Paul Skenes’s numbers in the majors. Don’t take this as me saying that Walker is Skenes-as-reliever, but in terms of results, he’s been just that in 2024.

Could this be a flash in the pan? Sure. Relievers put up good seasons all the time – the small sample sizes make them more prone to wild swings in performance. It’s always good to be skeptical of any long-term declarations of greatness based on half a season of one-inning stints. But the raw building blocks are absolutely here. You can’t strike out a third of your opponents without a nasty pitch, and Walker has two.

First, there’s his slider. You’ve seen this pitch before. It’s sorta slow. It sweeps sharply toward the lefty batter’s box. It doesn’t dive so much as float, thanks to all its movement being horizontal. If you’re looking for comparisons, think Adam Ottavino or Austin Adams. It’s the kind of pitch that, and when commanded well, it makes batters look like fools:

Walker’s slider command has been quite good this year. This is the kind of heatmap you’re looking for with a sweeping breaking ball:

You no doubt noticed something else while watching that video of Walker: His delivery can best be described as “funky.” He starts on the extreme first base side of the rubber, strides all the way to third, then releases sidearm and crossfire. All that window dressing makes picking the ball up out of his hand a nightmare. It’s not just a nightmare for righties, either; lefties are swinging and missing at his slider just as frequently as their right-handed counterparts. The angle is just weird.

His sinker builds off of that delivery as much as it builds off the slider. It’s heavy, and it mirrors the slider spin and movement almost perfectly, but it’s not a standout pitch on its own merits. Pretty much every pitch model agrees – both of ours think it’s a hair below average, and Baseball Prospectus concurs. But it gets great results, because hitters are picking it up too late to do anything about it.

Opposing hitters can’t solve Walker’s sinker. They’re hitting tons of grounders and popups against it. They’re almost never squaring the ball up. (He has the 24th-lowest squared-up rate out of 270 pitchers who have thrown 150 or more fastballs.) In other words, not all contact is created equal, and Walker is inducing some truly weak batted balls.

His delivery and the wide spread between his fastball and slider mean that Walker draws some absolutely atrocious swings. He’s thrown 74 pitches in what Baseball Savant deems the “waste” zone this year – basically pitches that are so far from the plate that no one swings at them. Opposing hitters have swung at 12 of them, and that 16.2% swing rate is the highest in the majors. Seriously, these are not pitches that you’d expect to result in positive outcomes for a pitcher:

That ball hit Bryan Reynolds after he took a full cut at it. That’s the kind of ridiculous swing you only get if the batter is purely guessing. And that’s Walker in a nutshell: He throws a decent sinker and a nasty slider from a unique arm slot. He’s maybe the fifth-most-famous reliever on the Giants. And he’s more or less completely unhittable at the moment.

People ask why expansion makes sense if no team can ever seem to find enough pitching. The reason that expansion makes sense is basically Ryan Walker, though. If there were just a few more teams where relievers could go, Walker would be elevated to a more prominent role. Maybe he’d be a closer, or a dominant setup man. Maybe he’d have his own entrance music. Or maybe his beard would spawn a T-shirt craze in Portland.

To keep offense suppressed and strikeouts high, teams are tearing through pitchers like you wouldn’t believe. They’re drafting and developing with all their might and asking everyone to leave it all on the line every night. That works! There’s enough pitching that the 10th reliever in most teams’ systems is still throwing mind-bending breaking balls and touching 98 with ease. Meanwhile, hitters wait their turn until they can secure their own starting role. Have you ever heard of a pitcher being “blocked” in the minors? It’s unheard of. Teams will always find a use for them.

Expansion would unblock a lot of those hitters and spread the pitching talent more thinly across baseball. Maybe a bullpen-centric approach wouldn’t be as attractive if teams weren’t churning out excellent relievers so reliably. Maybe starters capable of going deeper into games would be more in demand if teams didn’t have such deep stables behind them. The problem isn’t too many Ryan Walkers – it’s not enough high-leverage roles in which to use them.

Or maybe I’m making way too much out of this one overlooked reliever turning into a stud. That’s definitely possible. But next time you watch Walker pitch, remember this: Just because you’re a middle reliever doesn’t mean you aren’t devastatingly effective.

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

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14 days ago

I enjoyed the article but hated the byline. With every team playing every team these days, I’m pretty sure all of us who watch enough baseball to regularly browse Fangraphs are familiar with Ryan Walker at this point.

14 days ago
Reply to  kbpms

I wasn’t, and I live in the Bay Area and have been to two Giants games (though I am not a Giants fan, so I do not “follow” them).

13 days ago
Reply to  kbpms

This is reading waaay too much into a pretty common rhetorical device but I gotta admit, it kinda gets on my nerves too!