Let’s rewind to spring training of 2015. It was one in which the hype became deafening for Taijuan Walker. He pitched 27 innings, allowing just two runs, for a microscopic 0.67 ERA. His underlying peripherals (ya know, the spring stats that might actually matter) were strong too, but it was most certainly that tiny ERA that took Walker from sleeper and breakout candidate into that risky territory in which he has to break out just to break even for his fantasy owners. So how were his new owners rewarded? With a luscious 4.56 ERA. Oops. His skills were excellent though and he managed to post a more respectable 3.69 SIERA. So is this the breakout year?
Walker recorded 169.2 innings last year, after pitching just 129.1 in 2014. I’m projecting a gradual increase, as he’ll have to improve upon his mediocre 5.8 innings pitched per start. I’m forecasting 31 starts at nearly 6.0 innings pitched per start. Better results will be the key to increasing that rate.
Walker posted an xK% a bit lower than his actual K% mark, so the initial expectation is that of some slight regression this year. But he does possess a good fastball that generates whiffs and his splitter is an excellent swing and miss pitch as well. Both his cutter and curve ball were below average at inducing whiffs last year, so without improvement, he could potentially throw his splitter more frequently and increase his strikeout that way. But overall, his underlying pitch type peripherals don’t scream a strikeout rate surge is imminent. You just have to blindly hope that as a young pitcher, he simply uses his pitches more effectively in a way that results in more strikeouts.
Walker displayed significantly better control last year than he typically had in the minors. As I mentioned in yesterday’s Carlos Rodon Steamer and I article, young pitchers do often sharpen their control dramatically overnight. This very well may have been the case for Walker. But as any seasoned projectionist knows, we can’t just assume those improvements set a new true talent level. So, the call is for regression. But remember, a 7.1% walk rate is still better than he had posted at any minor league level he spent any sort of meaningful time in.
GB%/LD%/FB%: 40% / 21% / 39%
This is an expectation that a bunch of his previous line drives will turn into ground balls. Line drive rate allowed for pitcher is far more flaky than for hitters, so there’s little to worry about his currently inflated line drive rate.
After the park changes were made, Safeco Field has become much closer to neutral with regards to home runs. Although the league average HR/FB rate has fluctuated over the last couple of seasons, I typically assume a 10% mark is the average and assign that mark to pitchers under that assumption. So that means I’m expecting a worse than league average mark for Walker. The only reason here is due to his career HR/FB rate of 11.4%. While I always advise heavy regression in HR/FB rate, there needs to remain at least a bit of what the pitcher has actually done to capture the possibility that it’s not all luck. He posted a 13% mark last year, so this represents a fair amount of improvement.
The Mariners figure to have about an average defense, so the fielding unit should have minimal effect on Walker’s BABIP. However, he is projected for a higher than league average fly ball rate and IFFB%, so that should push down his BABIP and allow him to maintain a better than average mark.
Below is my final projected pitching line, along with the other systems for comparison:
No. Idea. What. ZiPS. Is. Thinking. Only 26 starts? ONE RELIEF APPEARANCE?! A 4.33 ERA? A .306 BABIP? Another highly inflated HR/9?
So aside from ZiPS mysterious projection, the other three are surprisingly close. Though it’s odd to see the Fans at such a low WHIP, but nearly the same ERA. Probably a side effect of the way the Fans submit projections, using ranges rather than exact figures.
Walker is currently the 45th pitcher off the board according to NFBC ADP, which I think is a pretty good value. I ranked him 42nd among starters in our latest rankings update, so I don’t believe he’s a bargain, but a relatively low innings total has a lot to do with that unexciting ranking. In a shallow league where it’s easy to find innings and pick up pitchers from free agency, good ratios with lower innings totals are more attractive than more innings with worse ratios. So Walker might actually be worth more to one’s team than his pure projected stat line would calculate out to.
What do you project for Taijuan Walker in 2016?
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.