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Walker's Struggles Demand Patience

Taijuan Walker, despite a very strong spring, has struggled mightily so far this season. His ERA sits above 8.00 as I write this post.

Like any pitcher with such a woeful ERA, Walker is the "victim" of "bad luck." In other words, there are rates in his stats that should be unsustainable. For instance, Walker has only stranded 58.3% of baserunners (unsustainably low), yielded a .386 BABIP (unsustainably high), and sports a 15.3% HR/FB rate (extremely high, and unlikely to stay so high).

That's lazy analysis though. Just assuming that Taijuan Walker will get better through the magic of regressing to the mean is dangerous. The idea of regressing to mean presupposes that Walker should act like the majority of the MLB starting pitching population. Let me explain further with an absurd thought experiment. What if I told you that I had an unsustainably high HR/FB rate in the major leagues? You'd double over laughing, or at least I'd hope you would. I would be a glorified batting practice pitcher against MLB competition, and I bet batters could muster an "unsustainable" home run rate against me.

Why can't a similar argument hold for Taijuan Walker? If he had one peripheral stat that looked way out of line, I might buy the argument that he will regress to the mean with time. However, everything is out of line. There is something deeper going on.

I went into this post with a theory: Taijuan Walker is more of a thrower instead of a pitcher. In other words, he throws his fair share of strikes but often extremely hittable ones. I watched this happen in several Tacoma starts last year and he was too good to get touched up too often against AAA competition. Eventually it was bound to catch up to him in the majors.

Below are some color-coded tables. All of them are matrices that represent counts.

The left-hand ones show wOBA by count. The old adage that the best pitch is strike 1 is extremely true, and shows up in data. Hitters typically perform much worse when they are behind in the count and much better when they are ahead. The left-hand tables make a heat map of sorts to show what counts a pitcher is well above average in (those show up green) and well below average in (those show up red). A typical pitcher would have green zones in the bottom left corner, where counts they are way ahead in live, while exhibiting red zones in the top right corner, where hitters counts live.

The right-hand ones show how often Taijuan Walker faces a batter in each count. A typical pitcher will have a dark orange color in the top left corner that dissipates across the diagonal towards the bottom-right corner. This is because most pitchers throw a few more strikes than balls, and the average at-bat lasts 3 or 4 pitches. The extremes in the far reaches of the table require lots of pitches. The two tables together give a feel for what counts Walker typically works a batter to in an at-bat, and how batters fare in those counts:


Taijuan Walker, interesting enough, is NOT getting hit harder across the board in 2015. He got tattooed when he was behind the count in 2014, though like most effective pitchers he limited the opportunities that batters had to swing away ahead in the count. Overall, early in the season, Walker is roughly as ineffective when behind in the count.

It is worth noting that Walker's control has been shaky so far this season, which is born out in an elevated walk rate. It also shows up in the right-hand tables, which show darker colors in 2 and 3 ball counts this season. This starts to explain Walker's struggles. Batters are getting Walker in more advantageous hitting situations.

However, the real difference is when Walker gets ahead in the count. Last season he was quite stingy and flashed an ability to put away batters. This is what should happen when a pitcher has electric stuff. Once a batter is forced to expand the zone and chase, as with what happens when a pitcher gets ahead in the count, all that nasty swing-and-miss stuff translates to strikeouts and bad contact.

This year, at least so far, Walker is getting drilled when he is ahead in the count. In fact, one of the least effective counts for him so far is 0-2, which is insane. It would be easy to chalk this up to bad luck if only one specific count looked out of whack, but Walker is getting hit hard across the board.

The most likely culprit is Taijuan Walker's cutter. He is using it twice as often this season and has moved away from his curve ball. Cutters, even when they are super good, tend to generate weak contact instead of swings and misses. Walker is still pretty new to the cutter though, and if the results are any indication, his cutter is inconsistent at best. At worst it is a pitch that spins across the plate in the high 80s or low 90s, which is glorified batting practice for an MLB hitter.

Taijuan Walker is still a 22-year-old pitcher trying to find his identity in the major leagues. It's easy to forget that, given his tastes of success at the end of 2013 and 2014, plus his dominating performance in spring training. There are lots of predictable reasons that Walker is likely struggling right now though. For starters he is actively redefining his repertoire with his newfound emphasis on his cutter. This has a good chance to pay off down the road because it should theoretically be an easier pitch for him to command than his curve. Walker is also starting to face batters who have faced him in the past, and scouts have gotten several good looks at him against MLB competition. He has never in his past faced batters as prepared to face him.

The answer, long term, is not for Walker to go back to AAA. MLB hitters are illuminating holes in Walker's game that I am not convinced AAA batters would find. This isn't about something as simple as throwing strikes, and his stuff is good enough to overwhelm a number of AAA batters without really paying attention to command.

Taijuan Walker, despite being a top prospect on a team that expects to contend, is still developing and the Mariners would be wise to stick with him through the growing pains. He is not that far from being the kind of pitcher the M's can depend on for a run deep into October, and his odds of becoming that pitcher in the next few months are better if MLB-caliber hitters are pushing him to refine his craft.

Minor Leaguers of Note, April

The Mariners graduated quite a bit of talent to the major leagues the last few seasons, which means there are few "household" prospect names down on the farm. This makes it a bit of a fun time to tune in and see what happens because the names and numbers feel more fresh and unknown.

Obviously, the season is only a month old. Supposedly the Mariners are much better than they have shown, particularly in Houston so far, so supposedly all of the following minor leaguers could be much better or worse than they have been so far. However, a month is a month, and perhaps some of these great starts are a harbinger of bigger things to come. Here are 14 players of note from the first month of the minor league seasons. Each team name is linked to stats for all players on that roster:

Tacoma Rainiers (AAA)

  • Chris Taylor, SS - Taylor seems to have recovered from his broken wrist in spring training. He is hitting with some authority in AAA and has sprinkled in 6 steals. He is also playing some second base thanks to the presence of Ketel Marte, which shows off his versatility. It is only a matter of time until Taylor gets called up to Seattle.
  • Patrick Kivlehan, LF - Kivlehan has done well his first month in AAA, slugging five home runs and stealing five bases.
  • Justin Germano, RHP - Germano is a journeyman, but his eye-popping start to the season should be noted. 20 innings, 7 hits, 4 walks, 17 strikeouts. He is unlikely to maintain such amazing success, but a tip of the cap to an unheralded minor league signing in the offseason.
  • Mark Lowe, RHP - Lowe isn't recovering his triple-digit velocity from many years ago, but the results are great so far: 8 innings, 7 hits, 0 walks, 11 strikeouts. The lack of walks is particularly promising.
  • Dario Pizzano, LF - Pizzano has flown underneath the radar but hit well in the lower minors in previous years. He has continued to hit in Jackson, to the tune of a .410 batting average to date. He hasn't shown much power, and such a high average is unsustainable, but eventually his hitting might get some more recognition.
  • Stephen Landazuri, RHP - I thought Landazuri might get more of a look in spring training, but he looked solid in his limited opportunities and is off to a nice start in Jackson. He remains on the Brandon Maurer track to success as a late-round high school pick that the Mariners have developed. 
  • Misael Siverio, LHP - Siverio is old for the league at age 25, but this is his first year playing baseball outside of Cuba. So far AA hitters have struggled to make contact against him in his 3 starts. It will be interesting to see how he fares as he settles in and sees some teams multiple times.
  • Tyler Marlette, C - Marlette has been an under-the-radar darling for a few years, and I was a bit disappointed to see him open up in the Cal League instead of in AA with Jackson. He has come out of the gate swinging and seems to be in line for a promotion at some point this season.
  • Edwin Diaz, RHP - There's an argument to be made that Diaz is the M's best starting pitching prospect in the minors at this point, particularly with the tragic and untimely passing of Victor Sanchez this spring. Diaz is straight-up dealing in the Cal League, to the tune of a 1.44 ERA on the strength of a 0.76 WHIP with 27 strikeouts in 25 innings. This could be Diaz's breakout campaign.
  • Trey Cochran-Gill, RHP - Some believe Trey profiles as a reliever who will quickly work his way through the minor leagues. His first month in Bakersfield only strengthens that view of him. 14.2 IP, 5 hits, 2 walks, 14 strikeouts. That will do. I doubt Cochran-Gill finishes the year in Bakersfield.
  • Joe DeCarlo, 3B - DeCarlo is raw but has flashed above average power from the hot corner so far in pitching friendly Clinton. He is worth watching as the season unfolds. Can he cut down his strikeouts and get his errors on defense under control?
  • Gianfranco Wawoe, 2B - Besides rocking the best name in all the M's organization, Wawoe has hit very well in his first taste of full-season pro ball. Here's hoping he keeps it up so that there are more excuses to say his name.
  • Daniel Missaki, RHP - If you want a comp for Missaki, think Erasmo Ramirez. Missaki isn't huge but largely depends on command to be effective. He has 4 walks and 30 strikeouts in 29.1 innings so far in his first full season of pro ball, and he will become a better known name as he works his way through the minor league system. He might also garner extra attention as a Brazilian, given the novelty of a baseball player hailing from Brazil.
  • Pat Peterson, LHP - While Peterson is a bit old for the league at 23 his phenomenal start can't be denied. It also helps that Peterson is left-handed. I would consider him a strong candidate for an in-season promotion to the California League based on his age and strong start.
Lastly, another reminder of how little spring training stats matter. Remember all the excitement over Alex Jackson's bombs? He remains the M's best hitting prospect, but so far in Clinton he has batted .132 with no home runs. He has some work to do. Gabby Guerrero also has a sub-.600 OPS in Jackson so far. These starts also double as a reminder of how little a month may or may not tell us about a player's true talent.

One for April

...Because April (and May, for that fact) are rather punishing months for getting anything done outside of teaching with the teaching schedule. I won't let April slide away without any sort of post though. Some musings on the April that has been for the 2015 Mariners:

  • I am sold on the cream Sunday alternates. Make those, along with the royal blue and gold, the Mariners primary look.
  • King Felix is still awesome.
  • The bullpen has clearly taken a step back this year despite the emergence of an unhittable Carson Smith (at least so far). I think the bullpen will rebound some, but the reality is that this regression was inevitable. Everybody had career years in the 'pen last season. The group is still good, maybe even very good, but I wonder if Lloyd will stick with starters a bit longer this season as he adjusts to life with more mortal arms in relief.
  • Nelson Cruz won't keep up his torrid April pace, but man is it fun to watch. The Mariners haven't had a power presence like him in a long time. I would argue Russell Branyan was that kind of presence in 2009, though he didn't come with Cruz's reputation. Perhaps we have to go all the way back to a guy like Bret Boone, or maybe even Jay Buhner, for a comparable boomstick?
  • Even though Cruz won't stay as hot as he has, Robinson Cano is likely to get some more hits moving forward. There are reasons to believe the M's offense can maintain what it has shown so far. In fact, even more runs should come when the Mariners learn how to stop making so many outs on baserunning blunders.
  • I thought the Mariners would be a bit better than 10-11 at this point in the season, but they are ahead of everyone but the Astros in the AL West standings. All things considered, I'll take the position the Mariners find themselves in. The whole American League is filled with teams who have noticeable shortcomings. The Mariners could be in better shape right now, but they have not dug themselves a hole like they did in April, and the Astros don't figure to run away with the division like the Angels were able to do last year. Regression to the mean should work in the M's favor in the standings.
  • Weekday Safeco crowds have been sparse, but weekend games show what could happen as the season unfolds. I was at the King Felix bobblehead game, which just about sold out. It's fun to see a packed Safeco field and sense how close the city is to believing in this team's pennant chase.
The preseason hype got a little too intense around the Mariners, so I think the tepid start they are off to might actually be good in the long run. This team is good but not great and started to get publicity like they were something special. They aren't there yet, but after a month I remain convinced that this will be an entertaining summer.