Normally, without any context, I would write off 20 innings of pitching as statistically insignificant. However in context, to put it politely, Taylor Widener’s stats have been trending in the absolutely wrong direction since his standout season for AA Jackson in 2018, and his 2020 season continued that alarming trend,
Looking back at his 2019 season in AAA Reno, Widener saw his ERA balloon from the impressive 2.75 the year prior to an awful 8.10, his FIP go from a solid 2.99 to an alarming 5.99, and his xFIP go from 3.05 to a 5.57. Meanwhile his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) fell from an outstanding 11.53 down to 9.81, his walks per nine (BB/9) jumped from a solid 2.82 to a not good 3.69, and finally his homeruns per nine inning (HR/9) increased from .79 to a 2.07. Taylor was unlucky though on his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2019, with it increasing from .275 to .381. Outside of ERA and K/9, all of Widener’s stats have continued that negative trend into 2020. His 4.50 ERA was an improvement over 2020, but his FIP increased from 5.99 to 6.49, xFIP increased slightly from 5.57 to 5.65, and his .196 BABIP shows that he was actually lucky in 2020. While his K/9 did improve slightly to a 9.90, his BB/9 jumped up from 3.69 to 5.40, and his HR/9 ticked up slightly from 2.07 to 2.05.
So how concerned should we be about Taylor Widener’s future? As I mentioned before 2020 is a super small sample, as he pitched in just 12 games, so we shouldn’t be too concerned, but the long term trend in his numbers since 2018 are cause for concern. In an email discussion with my Snakepit colleagues, Jack pointed out that if you look at his game log, you can see that he had three very bad games, two not so good games, and seven that were quite good. In those three very bad games, his ERA was 12.70, and for the rest of his starts with those three games excluded, his ERA was a much better 1.26. Out of his 12 walks issued, five of them came in those three games. His command and walk rate have been the biggest issue, and that’s something that can be worked on and hopefully can improve. As Jack also pointed out, his xERA over at Baseball Savant was 4.77. That’s still higher than his 4.50 ERA, but not nearly as bad as his FIP and xFIP make his 2020 season look.
Small sample size warning again, but it’s worth noting his platoon splits, as there is a major disparity versus LHB (.614 OPS) vs RHB (.977 OPS). In 2019 in AAA, he had a reverse split, but still with a significant disparity between LHB (.960 OPS) vs RHB (1.073 OPS), while in 2018 he had a normal platoon split, but still with a massive disparity between LHB (.707 OPS) vs RHB (.560 OPS).
Makakilo pointed out three things also worth noting; Widener really overuses his four-seam fastball, using it 64% of the time. He separated out his highest and lowest use games and found that on his highest use games on 8/15/20 and 9/20/20 (both with 77% usage of the four seam fastball) his batting averages against on the pitch were .500 and .667 against. In his lowest use games on 7/25/20 and 8/25/20 (with 55% and 33% usage, respectively) his batting averages against on that pitch were .000 and .000. That’s not to say his four seam fastball is a bad pitch. At 94.4 MPH on average, only three Diamondbacks pitchers in 2020 threw harder (Ginkel 95.5, Mella 95.5, and Rondon 95.6), and his Bauer number of 25.4 (Spin RPM over velocity MPH) was above the league average of 24.7.
I’m in agreement (and independently came to the same conclusion) with Jack’s suggestion that Widener should be switched to short relief immediately, and that he will need to address his first batter efficiency and approach. As Jack noted, he tended to come in, threw a fastball right in the middle of the zone to the first batters faced, and often that first pitch was swung at and just crushed. Widener doesn’t have bad stuff, he’s got some effective tools (a solid changeup and slider, and a great four seam when used sparingly), but right now those tools don’t seem to be used in an effective manner. Regardless, the team needs to design attack plans that maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It would also benefit his psyche to put him in a position in 2021 where he can immediately succeed, as his performances the last two seasons most likely haven’t helped his confidence. Widener still has three options left, so he could begin the season in the Minors once again, but sending him back to the awful pitching environment that is the PCL is probably the worst thing they could do.