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Taylor Williams Isn’t Not Austin Adams

And Austin Adams isn’t not Taylor Williams.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Before last season, Austin Adams wasn’t a name that jumped off the page. For starters, his name is Austin Adams. Not exactly the type of name that’ll make you do a double take. Another reason is that he’d only pitched six innings thorough 2018, and he’d walked 11 hitters over that span. He looked like a player destined for a career in Triple-A, until he wasn’t. Well, Taylor Williams’ name is similarly ordinary, but it looks like he’s tracking Adams’ career progression pretty closely.

First, a comparison, by K-BB%:

Adams, 2019: 28.5%

Williams, 2020: 25.0%

While Adams’ strikeout percentage bests Williams’ 40.8% to 34.1%, Williams edges Adams with a 9.1% walk percentage to Adams’ 12.3%. They should probably be more similar by strikeout percentage moving forward, though, considering Adams’ 16.6% swinging-strike percentage is less than one percent higher than Williams’ 15.7%. The similarities don’t end there, though.

Let’s compare their pitches:

Adams and Williams Pitch Profiles, Since 2018

xwOBAcon SwStr% CSW
xwOBAcon SwStr% CSW
Adams, FF 0.465 6.4 23.5
Williams, FF 0.357 5.6 26.7
Adams, SL 0.367 20.2 37.4
Williams, SL 0.384 25.3 41.8

The similarities are pretty clear. Their fastballs get hit hard and don’t draw many whiffs, while their sliders are obviously elite offerings. Overall, the blemish that they share is that when they do actually allow a ball into play, it’s usually hit relatively hard. Williams’ numbers might not necessarily reflect this right now, but that’s the nature of early-season statistics. In any case, that’s something that can probably be ameliorated — at least for Williams — but that’s something we’ll get to briefly.

In the meantime, here’s Williams’ slider in action:

Notice that this slider is right at the bottom of the zone, and yet Chris Owings swings right through it. Since 2018, Williams has all but proven that his slider can play — even in the zone. Up until this year, he’s posted a 24.3% swinging-strike percentage and 39.8% CSW on his slider. That’s all despite a 40.6% zone percentage, but he’s only thrown it in the zone more often since then. He’s raised his zone percentage to 51.0% thus far in 2020, which is even higher than his fastball’s 47.5%. It’s a great offering, and one that he’s started to throw a lot more.

Here he is again, throwing a mesmerizing slider to Rougned Odor in a 3-2 count:

If you’re Odor, that’s Williams’ heavy four-seam fastball all the way, and it’s about to run out over the plate. It looks delectable. But instead of spilling out over the plate, it continues to move slowly through space, and Odor swings through it, well ahead of the pitch. That’s the beauty of a slider with a wide differential in velocity and vertical movement from his fastball, and the fact that he doesn’t go to his fastball in this count speaks to his confidence, but also the efficacy of his slider.

So, for Adams, all it took to transition from a undistinguished reliever to a pitcher bordering elite is a simple change in pitch mix. He threw 60% fastballs and 40% breaking pitches, and then he flipped it to a more 65% breaking pitches, 35% fastballs split. His fastball is forgettable, but he throws it hard and has a plus slider to pair it with. You could say the same things about Williams.

Williams’ pitch usage, by month:

Williams has flirted with heavy slider usage before, but this is the first time that he’s sustained it over the span of two months. He’s featuring his slider as his main offering, which isn’t super unexpected nowadays, but it sure is making him a dangerous reliever, and probably one he should have been all along.

The funny thing about all of this is that Williams has kind of a do-nothing slider. I’ll show you what I mean.

Williams’ slider, by horizontal movement:

The run of his slider has been decreasing over the years, to the point where it’s getting just half an inch of horizontal movement. It gets true 12-6 movement.

And then by vertical movement:

Now, you saw that it doesn’t get much horizontal movement above, but it also doesn’t get much vertical movement either. Other than the forces of gravity exacting its will upon it, his slider basically does nothing. Hence, a do-nothing slider.

As is, Williams has the makings of a strong reliever, but I’m not sure Williams’ work here is done. Right now, his fastball is serving the purpose of keeping hitters honest. So long as he’s using his fastball occasionally, hitters can’t sit on his slider. But Williams could stand to try and weaponize his fastball more, considering that, right now, it’s main function is that it’s not a slider. That doesn’t speak to a good pitch.

Here’s the thing, though. Here’s Williams’ percentage whiffs on his fastball since 2017:

This fastball plot? It doesn’t look like the plot of a pitcher with a bad fastball. Even though he throws a heavy fastball with a lot of tail, it can play when he’s locating it well. If he’s elevating his fastball (or at least keeping it to his glove-side), he prospers. For now, his issue is he isn’t really doing this at all.

Here’s where Williams is locating this year:

And here’s where it’s gotten hit hard over his career, by slugging percentage per pitch:

Right now, Williams is pitching almost exactly to where he’s getting lit up, and he’s shying away from the areas where he actually gets swings and misses. For a guy that throws out of a low arm slot, this isn’t especially surprising. From a young age, players are taught to throw downhill to the bottom of the zone, and these pitching tenets can be difficult to unlearn.

His slider? It’s gravy. And so, obviously, I think the next step for Williams is to optimize his fastball location. He’s getting what I would describe as superfluous arm-side movement on it this year, but so long as he’s I’m not convinced it’ll hurt him (whereas otherwise, I think it would).

As is, Williams is plenty good. He doesn’t need to make any changes. It’s just that, if he wishes to, he could probably take another step forward. The command is passable, and he’s not hurting for velocity. There’s not much more you could ask for. The Mariners certainly didn’t have an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen. But now, they might have two premier options in the back end. And there’s still room for improvement.