Here I am, watching the Mariners pay tribute to Star Wars with explosives invented during the Han dynasty, preparing to write about Tai Walker. The clever puns and metaphors practically write themselves and then quickly stab themselves to death for having been so obvious. But I think about those fireworks. The night sky choreographed with explosions and beautiful colors that bloom and fizzle into a sulfuric cloud which descends upon Safeco like the death of a party. Our ears ring in the aftermath. Our closed eyelids painted with flecks of ghost light. The celebration fades upon neurons and synapses and yet the cloud remains until finally, it too is gone, shattered invisible upon the atmosphere by air currents and moisture and particle warfare.
What I’m trying to say is Taijuan Walker has been damn good over his last four turns. Whether tonight’s start is another brilliant canister in this epic firework show or the first sign of a lingering aftermath, we should pause to appreciate and understand what we have witnessed before the ominous cloud hovers alone. And maybe, just maybe, the cloud will never come. Help us Taijuan. You’re our only hope. *stab stab stab*
So here we go. Three signs that Taijuan Walker has burned that terrifying Daniel Cabrera suit he wore during his first nine starts of the 2015 season.
Sign #1 – The numbers.
While it is highly unusual for a pitcher to transform from Daniel Cabrera to Greg Maddux overnight, Taijuan Walker is not your average starting pitcher. An average starting pitcher is not capable of such dominance. He is also more like Maddux than you might have guessed:
This is more a note of curiosity than a surefire sign of something special. Since pitch type percentages first became accessible in 2002, Maddux is the only qualified starting pitcher to combine a Fastball% of >70% and Changeup% of >20% for an entire season. In this way, Taijuan Walker is looking to become the second coming of Greg Maddux. In every other way, that last sentence is hilarious. Maddux was Michelangelo, Renaissance groundball master. Walker is Michelangelo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Pitcher. But that one way they are alike makes Walker pretty fascinating. He is unlike any starting pitcher since Greg Maddux while simultaneously being completely unlike Greg Maddux. Walker is 100% unique. He is a unicorn. Unique assets can be difficult to value or even appreciate because we have nothing to compare them to. Appreciate the unicorn.
Sign #2 – Deception
Imagine you are a major league hitter. Your opponent tonight is Taijuan Walker. Preparing for Walker is not like preparing for any other starting pitcher in baseball. Preparing for Walker is exactly like preparing for most relief pitchers in baseball. This is because Walker does two things almost exclusively. Here is an illustration of those two things:
Walker has all but abandoned his cutter and curveball, leaving him with essentially two pitches he can locate in one of two area codes: four-seam fastballs (red) in the upper 2/3 of the zone and above, and split-fingered changeups (orange) in the bottom 2/3 and below. As we saw in the Maddux graphic, Walker has thrown those two pitches over 90% of the time. As a major league hitter preparing to face Walker, you know exactly what to expect. But as a major league hitter in the box against Walker, you may not know what you are seeing until it is too late:
In a fantastic article titled The Essence of Velocity written by Jason Turbow, the author says, “Research show(s) that a hitter must recognize a pitch’s type – fastball, slider, etc. – within 20 feet of its release point if he is to have sufficient time to react.” That green line in the graphic above depicts the moment when Walker’s 89-mph split-change (blue) visually separates itself from his 95-mph fastball (red) on its way to home plate. That green line is more than 20 feet from Walker’s release point. Walker’s high fastball / low splitter combo, when released on the same plane, is disguised by “tunneling.” For more on tunneling and effective velocity, I highly recommend you check out Turbow’s piece, which is loaded with information that might help you understand some of the finer points of pitching techniques and how a pitcher like Walker can thrive with just two pitches.
Sign #3 – Command
Eno Sarris touched upon Walker’s command on Friday and it’s worth checking out. Sarris ties Walker’s spike in first-pitch strike percentage and lowered walk rate to throwing more four-seamers and fewer cutters. Still, there is another clue to his improved command.
Walker is throwing more fastballs for strikes in the bottom third of the zone. Not just a higher percentage. Literally more. Over his last four starts, Walker has dotted the bottom of the zone with 45 fastballs for strikes compared to just 41 over his first 9 starts. Walker is also burying more splitters in the bottom of the zone versus left-handed batters. Here is a visual:
Green is good when it’s low in the zone. Red is also good when it’s located in the heart of the plate or way the hell in the upper left-hand corner where even the Astros won’t swing at it. Just about everything here is good. Circling back to tunneling and how it helps disguise the splitter, commanding the fastball in the bottom third of the zone has helped Walker get more whiffs on his splitter low in the zone and below, from 10% in his first nine starts to a whopping 24% over this last four starts.
Is Walker going to do this forever? Like everything in life and fireworks and baseball, nothing lasts forever. However, Walker is doing this and he is doing it right now. Enjoy the show. Go Ms.