When you’ve got a problem with command, your options seem obvious. You can clean up your mechanics, which is easier said then done. You can focus on throwing strike one. You can move on the rubber in order to move your heat map to a better spot. You can tinker with your fastball selection in case you have better command or outcomes with one of them. You can limit throwing a secondary pitch you don’t command that well. You can throw in the zone more and risk home runs if you miss more middle-middle.
It looks like Seattle’s Taijuan Walker is fighting poor command with a new weapon: throwing a secondary pitch in the zone more often. The best part is that, if it’s the right secondary pitch, command of that pitch is not super important. Tai’s fighting with a new approach to his curveball.
When I spoke with recently, Walker confirmed that the hasn’t gone into the regular bag of tricks to improve his command outcomes. The 23-year-old right-hander didn’t report any major mechanical changes. His first-pitch strike rate is the worst of his career, so that’s not it either.
He hasn’t changed his spot on the rubber since mid 2014. And even if he admits that he has better command to his arm side, the move that he did make in 2014 was actually closer to third base, so it wasn’t about improving his command to the glove side.
Or maybe it was. Maybe that move in 2014 just took a bit to take hold, and is more important than the pitcher was willing to admit. Because he did say that he’s comfortable throwing inside, and that’s a bit of a development. “I feel like I pitch inside a lot,” he said. “Just to keep them from diving out, and to jam them up.” He did admit feeling more comfortable throwing inside to righties, and maybe that move on the rubber helped him throw more inside to lefties. Because he’s doing more of that this year, too.
Still, this isn’t the product of a recent change — and the pitcher is skeptical that altering his position on the rubber in 2014 would influence his approach now. He thought he was just getting more comfortable throwing inside to lefties because of “repetition, working in the bullpen, and being confident.” You can see why confidence would be important when it comes to throwing inches away from a human person who’s standing on the side of the plate that has traditionally posed a problem in terms of command.
So while pitching inside to lefties might help explain Walker’s career-best wOBA against lefties — and might have a lot to do with his improved home-run and walk rates against lefties this year compared to last year — it won’t help explain those things against righties.
Walker has been slowly ramping up his cutter usage, so it’s fair to wonder if that’s because he can command it better than his other fastballs — that’s in the playbook. But Walker pointed out that he’s “trying to make it into a slider,” and that the pitch has better movement in the bullpen than it does in games. The fact that he throws it most often when he’s ahead in the count points also to the fact that this slider is more of a swing-and-miss weapon than one that’d improve his called strike rate. He also said that he’s throwing it to “give them another look” more than anything else.
So how has Walker put up one of the best walk rates in baseball so far this year without changing his mechanics, his fastball mix, his spot on the rubber, or his first-pitch strike rate?
There is his mix of secondary pitches to check out. Over his career, Walker’s curve and cutter have had ball rates about 50% higher than his four-seamer. So it looks like maybe the Mariners’ righty has decided to fight his walk rate by throwing the curve and cutter… more?
It’s the when and how that make it work. “I’m throwing the curveballs more early in the game,” Walker explained. “They’re all geared up for the fastball, and can get away with throwing curveballs down the middle. If they do make contact, it’s usually a foul ball or a grounder.”
While the new in-zone, early-count curve usage means slightly fewer ground balls and slightly more swings — aggressive batters, in particular, are more likely to swing at his curve ball early in the count, before they have to go into protect mode — it has meant a big jump in foul balls and taken strikes.
We’re only talking about 77 curveballs — and therefore about nine extra strikes from the foul balls and two extra strikes from the swing rates — but that’s still 11 counts affected positively. Getting into those better counts 11 times more often makes up for a lagging first-strike rate, and allows Walker to throw in the zone more often without giving up homers — because he’s throwing in the zone with non-fastballs more often. And we’ve seen this before from other pitchers, actually, since Erasmo Ramirez told us last year that throwing his slider in fastball counts was a big step forward for him. Stolen strikes!
When Walker said he was “Trying to be aggressive and let them put the ball in play,” he was right, but he wasn’t talking about filling the zone up with fastballs. He’s being a little bit less predictable than that, since he’s throwing bendy pitches in straight-pitch counts. And though the curveball is his third-best pitch, the fact that it doesn’t traditionally get swings works in his favor here.
Called strike, foul ball, whatever — it’s still a strike. And therefore, more importantly to a pitcher that has struggled with walks and home runs due to poor command, it’s not a ball.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.