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Arizona Diamondbacks – Taijuan Walker’s groundball and strikeout rates are building blocks

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Taijuan Walker Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Taijuan Walker Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
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To turn hype into results, Mike Butcher, pitching coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will work with 24-year-old right-hander

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, Mike Hazen made his first significant transaction as general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In a five-player trade with the Seattle Mariners, the Diamondbacks acquired Taijuan Walker and 23-year old shortstop Ketel Marte. Jerry Dipoto, general manager of the Mariners, received second basemen Jean Segura, outfielder Mitch Haniger and reliever Zac Curtis.

Say what you want about the talent of Segura and Haniger, but Hazen wanted to acquire starting pitching.

“Obviously, Jean is a great fit for them and was for us, but in order for us to get a starting pitcher the caliber of Taijuan, we felt like this was the opportunity we had to take, given the market,” Hazen said. “It takes a lot of starting pitching to get through the season. Depth in your rotation and talent in your rotation is critical to being successful.”

Walker, ranked as the fourth best prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com in 2013, comes to Arizona with four years of club control and ace potential written all over him.

With 62 big league starts (357 innings) under his belt, Walker can build upon his groundball and strikeout rates, but his tendency to give up home runs in bunches has to improve.

Going forward, the native of Shreveport, Louisiana needs consistency to match his talent. That will determine Walker’s future at the big-league level.

Groundball Machine

It is no secret that groundballs work at Chase Field, where Walker will make at least half of his starts.

Last season, Walker’s new home ballpark surrendered 2.73 HR/per game, the second highest rate in all of baseball. Only Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (2.81) gave up more. Coors Field in Colorado, considered the most hitter friendly park, finished third.

Walker comes a park, Safeco Field, that gave up 2.89 HR/per game, the most in the American League. Only Coors Field sits at a higher elevation than Chase Field. As a result, routine fly balls at most ballparks turn into home runs.

Keeping the ball down and on the ground is an absolute must. After all, Brad Ziegler and his all-time franchise low 2.49 ERA proves that point.

Walker’s 44.1 groundball percentage and career low 18.1 line drive percentage suggests he generally keeps the ball down and in the gloves of his infielders.

In addition, Walker has generally controlled his pitches.  His above average SO/BB ratio (3.25) and WHIP (1.21) provide evidence.

Related Story: Segura dealt to Mariners for right-hander Walker

Initial Concerns

During the month of April, Walker displayed how dominant he can be. The righty kept the ball in the yard and complied a 1.44 ERA (4 ER/25.0 IP)

Before the all-star break, Walker posted a 3.66 ERA. Consistent command of his split-gripped changeup in the lower third of the zone strengthened his rising fastball.

The second half was a different story. He complied a 5.21 ERA in 9 starts with a 39/19 K/BB ratio. A foot injury had a lot to do with it and he lost his command.

Despite Walker’s groundball tendencies, he surrendered 27 home runs in 2016. That cant continue.

Furthermore, Walker struggled pitching from the stretch. Opposing batters hit .237 with the bases empty, .264 with men on and .280 with RISP. A lack of command with runners on combined with Walker’s issues with the long ball will raise plenty of eyebrows.

Finally, Walker’s drastic lefty/righty splits are concerning. Last season, left-handed batters hit .206, but righties batted .285 with an .809 OPS.

Taijuan Walker Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Taijuan Walker Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Blueprint against right-handed hitters

Walker hasn’t established consistent command and control of a breaking pitch. Whether its the curveball or slider, the right-hander needs a third pitch to keep righties off balance.

In the past, Walker featured a cutter, but he had trouble commanding that pitch. Coming out of a righties arm, the cutter moves inside to right-handed hitters. He needs a breaking ball that works away from a righty.

Last spring, Walker scrapped his cutter in favor of a slider. He had mixed results, but when executed, it can be devastating.

That pitch, in that location complements a rising fourseamer and a split-fingered changeup against righties.

Walker’s curveball could develop into a fourth offering, but it is hard to have a “get me over” curve when its not finding the zone. He seemed to have success with a spike-gripped curveball but once again, a lack of consistency is the issue.

If Walker is going to develop into a long term, top of the rotation arm for the Diamondbacks, the development of an effective slider running away to righties is imperative.

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