Weeks after Tyler Wagner was disappeared off waivers by the Rangers, former GM Dave Stewart’s signature acquisition, Jean Segura, was parceled off to Seattle. With Segura went Mitch Haniger, half of the return former GM Kevin Towers extracted from Milwaukee in the last throes of his reign. In exchange? Taijuan Walker, the pitcher that Towers didn’t get for Justin Upton oh so long ago. A pitcher with possible top-of-the-rotation upside and 3+ years of control, and it didn’t even cost a #1 overall pick to do it.
As a signal that things will be different under GM Mike Hazen, this trade is a little on the nose, yeah? Add in the waiver claims of Gabby Guerrero, Dominic Leone and Wagner, and Stew’s thumbprint is already fading noticeably. Jeff has broken down this deal from a value perspective, with a lot of contextual perspective; Ketel Marte is no Segura at the plate, and while Mitch Haniger was poised to make a real contribution with a profile that fit the D-backs, that profile is hardly unique. Zac Curtis was already buried behind not only Andrew Chafin, but Steve Hathaway, and is little more than a footnote. Consider you can only have 40 men on the 40-man — Curtis was unlikely to make it through an offseason of near-certain change.
How would you remake the roster this offseason? In Arizona, the offense tends to take care of itself to the point of masking mediocre talent. Pitching has been the puzzle, and as Hazen took the reins, he had to note that this offseason’s pitching market was thin. Jeremy Hellickson, prize of the pitching market? Nah… there aren’t a lot of good things that have happened in the last two seasons, but we did get a ton of information about what does and doesn’t work in Phoenix, and Hellickson is a lesson already learned. It’s just a short list of pitching attributes that translates for Arizona, and with high strikeout rates both expensive and unavailable, there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver.
Putting aside Josh Collmenter, the list has 1) extreme ground ball types, a la Brad Ziegler and Brandon Webb and Byung-Hyun Kim, and 2) riser/splitter types, like Dan Haren and J.J. Putz and Jose Valverde (and Curt Schilling). Lefties have done pretty well, Patrick Corbin defying some conventions in 2013 and Robbie Ray breaking through more recently. High heat with at much horizontal movement as vertical has tended to get torched. Ground ball pitchers who aren’t extreme have been almost comically awful, despite the relative success some have enjoyed elsewhere…and taking middle-of-the-road batted ball pitchers and having them lean toward sinkers/two-seamers has worked out so terribly it might as well become a law of physics.
The big news: the new D-backs front office has taken that inventory. That’s what it already looks like, anyway. Wagner, Leone? Not grounder-leaning enough to count on, perhaps. And Walker? He wasn’t just one of the better pitchers reasonably available this offseason. Of all the pitchers Hazen & Co. may have been able to acquire this winter, Walker happens to have a profile that seems particularly likely to translate in Arizona. If the list of available pitchers seems short, consider that just 12 starters threw more than 250 splitters last year, and only 6 threw more than the 445 that Walker deployed. Just a few extreme ground ball pitchers in the majors, and only a handful of splitter pitchers with rising fastballs… and the D-backs already snagged one. Planning and execution: reunited. And it feels so good.
I don’t mean to imply that Walker is a sure thing or an absolutely perfect fit; poor command works in no environments. In terms of what has worked to date, Walker is a four-seam, cutter, splitter, curveball pitcher. It’s a pitch mix that looks like it would devastate lefties, with the fourseam, cutter and splitter a nicely spaced triangle of movement, no pitches with serious horizontal movement, and a curveball with real depth. No surprise that Walker has had success against left-handed hitters in his career; he held lefties to an okay .305 wOBA last season, and has held them to a .307 wOBA in his career (righties have a .317 career wOBA). The reverse career split is mainly a function of 2016, but the relative success against lefties looks completely legitimate, given Walker’s pitch mix and movement. That’s a good sign — lefties tend to have more fun in the NL West, particularly considering the left-leaning Rockies. It’ll be harder for smart/expensive teams to stack the deck against Walker the way we saw the Dodgers eat Rubby De La Rosa alive.
Walker is still having trouble getting traction against right-handed hitters, which is not great in that most hitters are right handed. Struggles last year were all about righties (.345 wOBA), who had even more success than they’d had in previous seasons (.297 wOBA against RHH from 2013-2015). Walker toyed with a slider at the outset of 2016 at the suggestion of old friend Mel Stottlemyre, Jr., but there’s no proof it can be a helpful weapon against righties, and in terms of movement, it’s just a slightly slower version of his cutter. We’d want some glove-side movement to buy in more. Walker is a riser/splitter guy, but his splitter has more horizontal movement than most, and it’s the lack of horizontal movement that has been a common thread in changeup effectiveness for Arizona. At about 10 vertical inches to 5 horizontal inches, Walker’s fourseam is also not as “tall” as some others. The riser/splitter champions of Arizona’s past have tended to have plus command, not iffy command. Walker doesn’t have a great option to get righties off his fastball right now, and it’s hard to forecast better success against righties if Walker has to kitchen sink his way through those at bats with an array of hittable secondary pitches.
Still, rather than bet on the same things that haven’t worked time and time again, the Red Backs are trying one of the few things out there that seems worth trying. The Walker deal would have been a good proposition for most teams, but Walker’s profile makes it great. This could all be coincidence, but that seems unlikely. We have a strong signal that this front office is prepared to approach pitching in a vastly more intelligent way. So what’s next?
Struggles to get third strikes and to avoid fourth balls does not make for a good look on anybody, but Robbie Ray made it work last year. He was particularly effective when told he had an obscenely high pitch count limit — when he could focus on pitching to his strengths, instead of getting through quick innings. Trading for Walker signals a preference for quality over quantity, a willingness to live through long innings if it means fewer hits. For a combination of reasons, the D-backs have faced a Hobson’s choice in the last few seasons: ask pitchers without plus control to pitch to contact, or ask for way too many innings from the last few pitchers on the staff (or on the Reno shuttle). Finally, it looks like there’s a D-backs front office poised to reject that choice, and to create a third option.
Expect Hazen & Co. to stop trying to change the laws of physics, and to find a way to steer into the inevitable pitching skids — expect them to embrace the fact that the bullpen will pitch a lot of innings as part of a successful pitching staff, with 2-3 pitchers throwing 2-3 innings every 2-3 days as a matter of intent, rather than necessity. Expect Ray to be treated as a blunt instrument and allowed to pitch away from contact, even if it means shortish starts. Expect the team’s approach with Walker to be fairly similar. Expect pitching results more positive than the last three seasons.
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