By now, the most prolific pitchers of the spring have put in the equivalent of three major-league starts, some close to four with how short the average start has become. And as much as we talk about the inconsistent talent level in the spring, these starters have mostly faced major-league-quality hitters because the first four to five innings of spring baseball is a decent approximation of regular-season ball. It’s not entirely irresponsible to make certain observations about a pitcher two weeks into the season, so we might as well do it now, too. So let’s talk about Taijuan Walker. Again.
The smaller the sample, the more I’d like to focus on simple things. The simplest number we’ve got for a pitcher — other than velocity, perhaps — is strikeouts minus walks. Calculating strikeout percentage for spring ball would require unnecessary work, so this is the less precise strikeouts per nine and walks per nine. That’s okay! Here are your top-10 spring improvers in strikeouts minus walks per nine.
|Name||ERA||IP||K/9||BB/9||K-BB Spring||K-BB 16||K-BB Diff|
First on the list is Bryan Mitchell, but he had a 25-inning sample in 2016, and we already gave him a long look when we sussed out the back end of the Yankees rotation. Rafael Montero learned that he made the Opening Day roster for the Mets, as a reliever. Nate Karns looks like he might be healthy again, and though he hasn’t gotten the rise back on his four-seamer, his changeup has had great drop this spring.
But let’s return to Walker. He’s had a very impressive 28 strikeouts against two walks in just over 22 innings this spring, and that alone is enough to get a little excited. Then there’s the offseason foot surgery. It was, uh, gross, and possibly relevant to our discussion:
— Alex Ahn (@alexahnod) December 1, 2016
Ten bone spurs probably change the way your entire delivery works. That’s at the nexus of two of the three parts of command: athleticism, repeatability, and confidence. Walker isn’t lacking in the third, but all those bone spurs could have taken a toll on his command by altering things on a minute level every time he started his delivery.
Maybe your spider sense is perking up. You feel like we’ve been at this rodeo before, that we’ve had this exact same conversation about this exact same player.
Well, not exactly, but pretty close. That 28-to-2 ratio that Walker has put up in these 20 innings? Last season, Walker started off with 29 strikeouts and three walks in his first 32 innings. Huh. Back then, I credited a new pitch:
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.
Walker’s use of the curveball waxed and waned over the course of the season and didn’t seem to actually unlock his command like he’d like to. See, we’ve been talking about strikeouts minus walks, and that gets at command, but it’s not everything. Walker didn’t walk many guys last year, but he did give up home runs because his command in the zone wasn’t amazing. This spring, he’s given up four homers, good for a 1.63 home runs per nine rate, compared to his 1.81 from last year.
Maybe he hasn’t solved everything. He told Nick Piecoro this spring that it’s not just the ankle this spring: “My ankle is healthy and I think it’s just confidence with that, being confident in my new mechanics and working on my slider.” That slider was slow and lacked drop, two things important to the pitch, and this spring he’s added an inch and a half of drop and over a mile per hour of velocity.
That’s hope! And even if we’ve had hope before with Walker, the talent is there. His riding, high-velocity fastball will mesh with the team’s (possibly) new philosophy of pitching. The splitter has always been there for him in terms of movement and results. The curve can at least steal strikes, and now maybe the slider will be improved. Add in the healthy ankle, and it looks like the D-backs have themselves an exciting young pitcher on the verge of a breakout.
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.