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2017 Player Profiles: Taijuan Walker

The new Diamondbacks flamethrower had an inconsistent year in 2016. Can he put it together in his new home in 2017?

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

If you want to catch up on all the previous 2017 player profiles, check out my archive here.

Today I turn my focus to one member of the biggest trade of the MLB offseason to date. He’s a 6’4” right-handed starter from Shreveport, Louisiana with a 95-mph fastball...ladies and gentlemen, Taijuan Walker!

He now heads to the desert of Arizona after not living up to the hype in Seattle. He was once considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game, but has back-to-back seasons of ERAs over 4 on his résumé. He looked great, results-wise, in a short 38-inning sample in 2014, but that was mostly a mirage.

Here’s the thing about this guy: you can find a decent number of stats that make him look good, despite all the bad results. His K%-BB% has been well above average the last two seasons. His Hard% allowed has been below average, meaning he has been limiting hard contact. His SwStr% has held at exactly 10% for two years, just above league average of 9.5%. He averages 94 mph with his fastball, has four pitches (four seam, splitter, cutter, and two seam) with above average swinging strike rates, and his splitter is great at generating ground balls.

Those are all things that he is better than league average at, much better in some cases. Just looking at those numbers you would think he would have an ERA around 3.5, especially when you factor in playing in a pitcher-friendly home park. However, you don’t have to look hard to figure out why his results have been so much worse than his raw stuff would indicate. You see, baseball has this weird rule (possibly invented just to mess with Walker) that if you hit the ball past the fences they have set up just beyond the outfield you get four bases. Just like that! Everyone on base in front of you gets to score too! I think they are called taters, or something.

Anyway, Walker has had homer-itis for two seasons now. His HR/9: 1.33, 1.81. His HR/FB%: 13%, 17.6%. League average HR/9 is 1.29 and for HR/FB it’s 13.3% in 2016. That makes his 2015 numbers look better, but the league averages were 1.06 and 11.6% that year, so he’s really been this bad both years compared to everyone else. So what’s going on here? Why all the homers?

Let’s start with his Pull%. Pulled balls are more likely to be hit for home runs than any other direction a hitter can hit. Just ask Brian Dozier. Here’s how Walker has done on pulled balls:

You see him hanging out, a couple % above league average (ignore that random 2013 blip, that was only 15 innings)? He clearly has an issue here. Diving even deeper, he allowed right-handed batters to pull a ridiculous 43% of balls in play in 2016. He actually wasn’t hurt by lefties this year and his wOBA allowed to them was just 0.305, compared to 0.345 against righties. He was actually lucky against LHB this year. His average exit velocity was a little worse than league average for a starter, but his barrels (squared-up contact) per plate appearance of 8.4% puts him at 25th highest in MLB.

Back to the pull issue, maybe he pitches in such a way as to invite this kind of thing.

This chart is just for him against righties, but one thing that jumps out to me is just how often he stays in the zone. He is clearly favoring away from the batter and low, but he almost never works outside the strike zone or even just on the edges. Compare that to another pitcher with similar velocity, Michael Fulmer.

Look at all that red just off the outside edge and buried low and away far from the zone. Walker is living far too much in the zone and hitters are able to make solid contact and pull the ball, even with his good velocity. If you want a visual for why Walker at least tries to throw away from right-handers, try this:

That’s the ISO (slugging - average) per pitch. Look at how much damage hitters do (relative to other areas) on inside pitches against him. It looks like hitters are just waiting for him to throw inside and then pouncing on it. He tries to throw away, but he’s staying in the zone too much and that means a small location miss can turn into a meatball. If Michael Fulmer throws a slider breaking low and away from a RHB that stays 6 inches from the zone, even a miss in location will still be in a tough spot for the hitter to turn on. Walker doesn’t have that margin for error the way he is throwing.

To make all of this much worse, Walker is moving from Seattle (98 HR factor) to Arizona (102 HR factor) and he gets to pitch in Coors (113) a few times in 2017. He is going to have to find a way to force hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone more and throw fewer hittable pitches if he is going to survive in Phoenix. He still has that tantalizing talent, raw stuff, and velocity, but until he stops allowing hitters to pull the ball at an alarming rate and throws fewer pitches in the zone, he just won’t achieve his potential.

Adjusting for his new home and division and assuming for now that he won’t suddenly fix his glaring issue, it’s time for my...

2017 Projection

3.9 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 (this includes a slight bump for throwing to the pitcher’s spot)

2017 Projection if you believe he can fix all that stuff I described above:

3.6 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9.

That’s all I’ve got today. Tschus!