Game 135, Mariners at Astros
Joe Saunders vs. Dallas Keuchel, 4:10pm
So, a game featuring Joe Saunders and Dallas Keuchel, going up against the first Saturday of College Football season, with a Sounders game kicking off around the bottom of the 1st/top of the 2nd inning. This one may not grab a big ratings share.
Dallas Keuchel is a lefty with an 89mph sinker, a change, a curve, a slider and a cutter. He generates plenty of grounders, but the lack of an outpitch to righties and some HR issues mean…OK, no. I understand you want to read about Dallas Keuchel as much as I want to preview a late-August game between these two clubs. The M’s are going for a sweep, but we’ve got more important things to talk about; namely, Taijuan Walker.
There’s only so much you can read into a single start, but we certainly know a bit more about Walker’s repertoire and how he uses it. In a couple of spring training games in Peoria, he threw a 95mph four seamer with fairly normal armside horizontal movement and an above-average amount of “rise” or vertical movement. His curve came in at 76-77 with solid but unspectacular break on both planes. We knew he’s been working on different grips and speeds with his curveball, with his “spike” curve in the spring coming in faster than the one he showed in the minors this year. But it’s pretty stunning to see how much he’d changed through the pitch fx lens. His fastball averaged 95 again, but with much less horizontal movement. It’s very straight, with a lot of rise – meaning that the pitch *should* have lower platoon splits, as Max Marchi’s work found “rising” fastballs had the lowest platoon splits of any type of fastball. Was this a deliberate change in arm slot/grip, or just a case of the notoriously weird Peoria pitch fx system giving us a flawed view of his baseline? Not sure, but it’s telling that the curve ball looks quite different as well. As we thought, Walker’s 9 curves last night came in around 72-73, consistent with his AAA velocity. He didn’t get any whiffs with it, but batters beat it into the ground. Most impressively, the pitch moved nearly a foot more toward gloveside than his fastball, while dropping ~19″ vertically below the heater. That’s an astonishing amount of horizontal break. This is where I’d love to see the trackman data on its spin; part of the horizontal break may come from the angle he throws it at, but I’m guessing he’s got a well above-average amount of spin on it.
Ultimately, the rising fastball and big slow curve probably help ameliorate any platoon splits, because the change-up didn’t look like a finished product, and he had very little command of his cutter. Still, the amount of horizontal break he generated without slowing it down to slider speed was very impressive. Eventually, he’s going to have to command it, but again, many evaluators have seen him on nights when he HAS, and they speak of this pitch in reverent tones. His cutter came in at 90-91mph with over 6″ more gloveside movement than his fastball. David Price’s gets about 5-6, while Phil Hughes and James Shields get 6-7″. This kind of break is nice, but by itself doesn’t guarantee success. Hughes cutter couldn’t induce whiffs, and it was homer-prone, a combination that led him to ditch it this season. Still, for a pitch that’s essentially coming up on its first birthday, there’s a lot to like about the way Walker throws it.
So who does he look like overall? That’s tough, as Brooks Baseball’s similarity scores have been taken down. To me, there are a few pitchers that look similar. Zach Greinke comes to mind, as he combines a very similar fastball with a big, slow curveball. Greinke’s doesn’t move quite like Walker’s, though Greinke’s has a track record of generating whiffs, of course. Greinke’s gets plenty of ground balls, so that’s something to watch going forward. Greinke has a similar cutter as well. It’s not a perfect match, as Greinke has a change that gets far more armside run than Walker’s. Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez throws a touch harder than Walker, and doesn’t have many similarities, but he *does* generate an incredible amount of horizontal break on his curve as well (though it’s thrown about 10mph harder). Clayton Kershaw had a very similar four-seam fastball a few years ago (well, except for the whole left-handed thing), but his curve is much more 12-6, and his slider isn’t comparable to Walker’s cutter. Chris Tillman has a similar fastball (albeit slower) and cutter, though his curve looks very different. James Shields looks somewhat similar, just shifted a few inches towards the armside. He’s got a similar cutter, though his curve is nothing like Walker’s, and of course he’s got a great change while Walker…doesn’t, at least not yet. Greinke’s probably closest overall, though that’s perhaps not saying a whole lot.
If you think this is way too much to read into a handful of pitches in someone’s adrenaline-fueled MLB debut, well, you’re probably right. It’ll be fun to refine this as we see more of him, though we probably won’t see too much more in 2013. It’s just nice to talk about a real M’s success story. With Wlad Balentien killing it in Japan, with Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak’s path to stardom taking Mike-Morse-in-LF routes, and with Danny Hultzen suffering a lost season, the M’s player development system comes in for some criticism. Some of this is reactionary and poorly informed, and I say that who’s lobbed some reactionary/ill-informed criticism their way. But Walker (and to a much lesser extent, Brad Miller) represents an absolute coup by the player development group, and given how much flak we throw at the FO, it’s only fair to give them a standing ovation in this case. How much of it was the staff and how much was Walker the perfect combo of talent, teachability and heart? I don’t know, but Walker was a risk that seems to have really paid off.
OK, Joe Saunders and Dallas Keuchel. Right.
1: Miller, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Ibanez, DH
6: Franklin, 2B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Almonte, LF
9: Quintero, C
Smoak gets a day off, while Almonte moves from RF to LF. This isn’t the best possible defensive OF the M’s could run out there, but it’s not bad.
The Rainiers are in their final series of the year, with Blake Beavan on the hill tonight against Sacramento. Head on out to a game this weekend. After tonight’s 7pm game, Sunday and Monday’s games will be 1:35 starts…and that’s it for the year. Anthony Fernandez starts for Jackson, while prospect Edwin Diaz starts for Pulaski today.