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Should the Astros pursue Taijuan Walker?

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The other day it was announced that Taijuan Walker was non-tendered which some considered a surprise, especially with keeping Jake Lamb. An interesting name no doubt, and I’m sure like many of us I was intrigued if the Astros should pursue him and maybe he could be the next CFM for us – that lightning in a bottle at a low price tag. So I decided to dig into him to see if there was a fit.


Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Who is Taijuan Walker?

With the prototypical pitchers body the 6’4, 235 righty hailing from Shreveport, LA was able to impress enough to gain a 1st round, 43rd overall draft pick. He did nothing to disappoint in the minors especially with how aggressively he was promoted. He had his first taste (15 IP) in the majors in 2013 where he more than held his own. Here was MinorLeagueBall’s notes on him going into 2014 where he beat out James Paxton for the #1 spot:

1) Taijuan Walker, RHP, Grade A: Athletic, throws hard, throws strikes, good makeup, statistically successful, good major league debut last fall. Complete package for success here assuming he stays healthy.”

Unfortunately those last 4 words were not not what happened. In Spring Training of 2014, Taijuan was shut down due to shoulder impingement, causing him to reset through the minors and only make it through 38 IP at the major league level. Even still, he shined in his short 2014 season, posting a 2.61 ERA. This only reinforced the notion of him being a top young pitcher in baseball.

In 2015, Taijuan had his first essentially full season in the MLB. The numbers were not where people had hoped at 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA leading to just a 1.8 WAR season in 169.2 IP. 2016 did nothing to dispel the wonder if Taijuan was a flopped prospect with an 8-11, 4.22 ERA across 134 IP due to being sent down twice (once due to a minor foot injury). Ultimately being a part of the reason the Mariners traded him to the Diamondbacks in the off-season. Here was what Minorleagueball had to say about him at the time:

Taijuan Walker, RHP: I’ve seen commentary from Mariners fans along “good riddance” lines; some folks are unhappy that Walker hasn’t turned into Bob Gibson or Roger Clemens yet. But from my point of view, we’re looking at a very talented 24-year-old with two seasons under his belt who has been an average pitcher so far but continues to flash dominance. There’s nothing wrong with trading him if you get something good in return, but he should not be dismissed as a disappointment yet.”

With a new team, Taijuan seemed to have a resurgance putting together his best statistical season in his career. His 3.49 ERA in 157.1 IP brought back the flicker of hope remembering him as a one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Had the Diamondbacks struck gold and helped him move towards becoming the ace many believed he could be? Unfortunately injuries de-railed him again limiting him to 13 IP in 2018 and 1.0 IP in 2019. He was shut down in April of 2018 with right arm inflammation and ultimately needing Tommy John Surgery – he was brought back at the end of 2018 only to be shut down essentially for a second whole season for recovery from Tommy John.


Statcast / BaseballSavant.com

Arsenal:

With his last 2-seasons being very limited, I wasn’t sure how reliable the statcast data would be so I looked at all of his data over the past few years.

Taijuan utilizes a 4-pitch arsenal consisting of 3 fastballs (4-Seam, Cutter, Sinker) and a Curveball. When he broke into the league, Taijuan was averaging over a 95 mph on his 4-seamer. And while his last 2-seasons the velocity is understandably down, Taijuan actually lost some velocity each of the 4 years before that, but still was holding to the high 93’s.

Taijuan does not fit the “Strom Magic Method” as his spin rates are some of the worst in the league even when he was at his best. None of his pitches stand out as elite with the lowest of any in his career coming in at .273 xwOBA, and unfortunately none show as dragging him down for an easy “abandon this pitch” type of improvement (with all pitches averaging a bit over the .300 mark xwOBA wise).

Conclusion

The Astros face a gap left by Gerrit Cole’s likely departure, and Taijuan’s name is one of the few affordable ones that people can envision pitching as an ace. Unfortunately, I just can’t agree. Even in his good seasons all of the advanced stats screamed for regression. His best xFIP of his career is 3.82. And while he technically made it back to the majors last year, I think this quote is particularly telling:

“The Arizona org has more information than the rest of us regarding the status of Walker’s right arm. He was stricken of late by a torn ulnar collateral ligament and then a shoulder injury. Though the talented hurler made it back to the majors — if only barely — the Diamondbacks front office obviously saw reason to doubt whether Walker could return to anything approaching his former performance level.” – MLBTR

Their decision was to save roughly $5 Million in payroll or release Taijuan with no return. This is the same team that has lost it’s two aces over the past 2 seasons (Greinke and Corbin).

I’m a believer that Strom can work his magic on any pitcher, but his greatest successes have come with pitchers with high spin rates, which Taijuan ranks at the bottom of the league.

But maybe you see something I don’t see. I mean we’re talking about a small dollar value, maybe $5 Mil. Well I have an alternative candidate for you. We’ll put Taijuan as Player A and mystery player as Player B.

Last 6 Years:

Player A – 30-31, 513.1 IP, 3.96 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 105 ERA+

Player B – 58-35, 753.1 IP, 3.63 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 8.9 L/9, 2.6 BB/9, 110 ERA+

I will use the most recent 3 years for Player B but I’ll skip the past 2 years for Taijuan since he was unable to pitch with injuries.

Last 3 Years:

Player A – 28-28, 461.1 IP, 4.10 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 102 ERA+

Player B – 15-9, 210.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 126 ERA+

Player B is Collin McHugh.

With the injury history, his arsenal, cost, and knowledge that his arbitration salary was denied despite his team losing 2 aces all point to this being one that we may be better off avoiding.

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Author:

Brian Cohn

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