- Date of birth: August 13th, 1992
- 2017 line: 28 GS, 157.1 IP, 9-9 W/L, 3.49 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 0.97 HR/9, 2.39 K/BB, 137 ERA+
- 2017 value: 2.5 fWAR, 3.2 bWAR
- 2017 salary: $2,250,000
- SnakePit rating: 6.70
First and foremost, congratulations to Taijuan Walker and his wife Heather on the birth of their first son Zayden Walker who was born earlier during the season. Tai was the “big” name return both literally and figuratively speaking in the Jean Segura trade with the Seattle Mariners. That is not intended to take away anything from his trade partner in that deal, Ketel Marte, who performed admirably during his time with the Diamondbacks. One season to review after that trade it appears to be a win for both teams and all players involved. Walker entered the season coming off ankle surgery in the offseason to remove bone spurs (if you have not seen the pictures I would not recommend searching for them).
The former 1st round draft pick was a key component of the formidable 2017 Diamondbacks rotation. Although he does not technically qualify among league leaders, his 137 ERA+ would have tied him for 13th in the league with Boston’s Drew Pomeranz. ERA+ adjusts a given pitcher’s ERA based on park factors and league average ERA. An ERA+ of 100 is league average, with a score higher than 100 being better than league average. To put that into perspective, Patrick Corbin had the lowest ERA+ of the Diamondbacks starting rotation at 119 which speaks to how truly dominant the starting five was. This is just one of the statistics helpful to use when considering a pitcher who plays home games at hitter friendly Chase Field.
Taijuan Walker struggled with home runs allowed earlier in his career, with a HR/9 of 1.81 in 2016 and 1.33 in 2015. Rumblings of a juiced ball in 2017 thankfully did not escalate that issue as he allowed 17 home runs, good enough for a 0.97 HR/9. His struggle this season was control and not allowing batters to reach via the walk as he allowed a career high 61. His previous high was 40 walks in 169.2 innings pitched in 2015. Not nearly as extreme as Robbie Ray, but Taijuan is not benefiting from the same volume of strikeouts as Ray.
Walker pitched substantially better on the road than at home which is not uncommon for a starting pitcher in Arizona. Over 16 starts on the road he finished with a 2.92 ERA and a 6-5 record, whereas he had a 4.18 ERA in 12 starts at home with a 3-4 record. 11 of his 17 home runs allowed came at Chase Field. Taijuan’s best start of the 2017 season came at the end of April at Chase Field against the San Diego Padres when he pitched 8 innings, struck out 11 batters with no walks, and allowed 2 earned runs. There was only one other occurrence in 2017 where he went at least 7 innings pitched.
Perhaps most intriguing was his regular season success against the Los Angeles Dodgers particularly in Dodger Stadium. That resulted in him being named the Game 1 starter against them in the National League Division Series after both Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray had been used in the Wild Card Game. After 16 2⁄3 innings against the Dodgers in the regular season, he had 2-0 record, 3.24 ERA, 17 strikeouts, and 5 walks. His success against the Dodgers came to a grinding halt in his first career Postseason appearance when he was chased after the 1st inning having given up 4 earned runs. That was arguably his worst start of the 2017 season at a time when the Diamondbacks needed him most. Did you need a silver lining? All 3 of his outs recorded were strikeouts in that game. Yay?
2017 was Taijuan Walker’s best full season in his career yet, and it appears that he is poised to harness the potential that made him a former first round draft pick as he continues to develop. He is entering his second year of arbitration, and MLB Trade Rumors estimates his 2018 salary at $5 million which would be an increase of $2.75 million. Excluding an offseason transaction or injury he will likely slot in the middle of the starting rotation come Opening Day.
In order to find further success, he is going to have to continue to limit the long ball and number of walks he allows. If he is able to do so, Arizona would have a rather dominant 1 through 3 at the top of rotation with Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and Walker all controllable together through 2020 (Greinke’s contract runs through 2021). Where I think Walker could see the greatest advancement is through increased usage of his curveball and slider to induce weak contact and additional whiffs. He began using the slider sparingly in 2016, but relied on the pitch significantly more in 2017. We saw how dominant Robbie Ray was with increased curveball usage, and I think Taijuan can find similar success with that strategy.