When Taijuan Walker took the mound for the first time in 2020, no one knew what to expect. After pitching just one inning in 2019, having missed most of that year and 2018 recovering from Tommy John Surgery, there was a real concern that he would never be the same. Cue a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts in 2020 and suddenly Walker’s future looks a bit brighter. Such a performance is almost emblematic of Walker’s whole career, in that no matter what the analytics say, he seemingly always defies the expectations. Now on a two-year $20 million contract with the New York Mets, Walker’s next challenge will be to defy expectations again and sustain that success over a full season.
Advanced Stats (Sometimes) Love Him
The most important thing to know about Walker is that he has the uncanny ability to contradict everything the advanced stats say about him. No matter what his peripherals may be, he somehow always manages to overperform or underperform them. Common sense dictates that at some point Walker has to regress to his mean, and yet that simply hasn’t happened.
More often then not, people say Walker always outperforms his advanced metrics and while usually true, there are some exceptions. Take for instance Walker’s 2015 season. On paper, his 4.56 ERA and 84 ERA+ are the worst marks of his career. A closer look at his stats, however, shows that 2015 should have been the best season of his career. Out of his four seasons with double digit starts, his 4.07 FIP and 1.196 WHIP in 2015 are each the second best by a long shot. Likewise, he posted a career-low 2.1 BB/9 and a career-high 3.93 strikeout to walk ratio. Digging even deeper shows that Walker also posted career bests in numerous predicative metrics, such as xFIP (3.82), xERA (4.19) and SIERA (3.69). With the exception of a somewhat low 67.8% left on base percentage, the rest of his stats mostly fell in line with his career averages.
Advanced Stats Hate Him
On the other hand, Walker’s best seasons by ERA and ERA+ just so happen to be his worst statistically. In 2017, he posted a 3.49 ERA and 135 ERA+. Meanwhile, his FIP was over half a point higher at 4.04, technically the best out of all his “full” seasons but still a large jump from his ERA. Furthermore, his WHIP ballooned to 1.328, mostly due to a massive 3.5 BB/9. As for his predictive stats, a 4.34 xFIP, 4.12 xERA and 4.42 SIERA show a severe overperformance on Walker’s part. The only three metrics that were significantly better than in 2015 are a much higher groundball percentage (48.9% vs. 38.6%), a lower homerun rate (1.0 vs. 1.3) and a lower barrel rate (5.1% vs. 7.6%). Everything else is pretty similar across the board.
The same goes for Walker’s 2020 season. His 2.70 ERA and 161 ERA+ are career bests, as was his 78.5 LOB%. However, his 4.56 FIP, 1.4 HR/9 and 3.2 BB/9 are certainly alarming. Had it not been for an uptick in strikeouts, his 1.163 WHIP that year would be much higher. Just like in 2017, his predictive metrics were also among the worst, if not the worst, of his career (4.82 xFIP, 4.87 xERA and 4.60 SIERA). In 2015, it could be argued that his relatively low groundball rate and high barrel and homerun rates are what tanked his ERA. Yet in 2020, Walker’s marks in all three were roughly the same, if not slightly worse than in 2015.
So what does all of this mean for Walker’s 2021 output? Well for starters it means that more so than with most pitchers, every projection should be taken with a massive grain of salt. The man is simply an enigma when it comes to advanced stats.
With that said, the ZiPS and Steamer projections for him in 2021 don’t look too promising.
ZiPS: 20 starts, 100 innings, 4.41 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.37 WHIP, 7.74 K/9, 3.24 BB/9
Steamer: 26 starts, 141 innings, 4.79 ERA, 4.91 FIP, 1.38 WHIP, 8.07 K/9, 3.33 BB/9
Even by his usual career standards these numbers are bad. The low amount of starts in each also hints at potential durability concerns in Walker’s first full season back.
Could this mean 2021 will be the year Walker’s ERA and advanced metrics finally sync up like the projections say? Maybe. Or could Walker continue to defy all logic and produce wildly inconsistent numbers again? Also maybe. Either way, this season is make or break for Walker to prove he can still be an effective starter in Major League Baseball.
Featured Image Courtesy of Abbie Parr/Getty Images
‘From our Haus to yours’