The last time he made double-digit appearances in a single season was the same year Donald Trump was inaugurated — 2017, when Walker pitched to a 3.49 ERA over 28 strong starts with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The following April, something grabbed in his forearm. Then they found the ligament tear in his elbow. More than a year later, as he attempted a comeback from Tommy John surgery, his shoulder gave out.
He finally made it back to a major-league mound on the final day of the 2019 season, throwing a single clean inning that was more about Walker proving something to himself than anyone else.
“It was definitely very emotional. Right before I walked out to the mound, I was choking up a little bit,” Walker says. “It meant a lot to me. And it felt good just being back on the mound again.”
Ultimately, Walker made only four big-league appearances over the span of 33 months between his last full season and this one, in which he’s made five. So far, he’s put up a 106 ERA+ with 8.3 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. Those results are certainly encouraging. But perhaps more meaningful is the simple feat of taking regular turns in a rotation and finally feeling like himself again. Or at least his new self.
With all that downtime, Walker dove into the weeds of his repertoire and approach. He added a pitch, scrapped another, and rediscovered one he’d seldom been throwing. He watched the game from a distance, looking at what was effective for others — and what could be effective for himself.
“I got a chance to take a step back from baseball,” he says. “Got a chance to spend a lot of time with my family. I’ve got a young son. I got to spend time with him and really reflect on how I want my career to go moving forward — what kind of player I want to be and what kind of person I want to be in the game.
“And I think that’s changed my mentality, having that time off. I got to watch some of the best pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer and all those guys — and watch how they attacked and how they went about their business on the mound. I was able to learn a lot from them.”
Perhaps the biggest change is he’s overhauled his cutter into a hard slider, which has become a valuable put-away pitch for him this season. Once an offering that barely moved horizontally, Walker’s slider now breaks about five inches on average, giving him the ability to throw it in the zone to get weak contact or out of the zone to get swing-and-miss.
Earlier in his career, when he was featuring more velocity, Walker would mostly play his split-changeup off his mid-90’s fastball. He used his cutter and curveball sparingly — essentially to show hitters he had them. But this season, with his fastball averaging 93 mph, that cutter-turned-slider has become a go-to weapon, particularly in two-strike counts.
It’s not difficult to see why. Here’s Chris Taylor — during Walker’s final outing with the Mariners last week against the Los Angeles Dodgers — going down chasing one that started well on the plate:
And here’s Justin Turner later in the night practically giving up on his swing as the pitch falls right off the table:
Still, Walker probably wants to be getting more of that swing-and-miss with the pitch than he has, as its 24.4 per cent whiff rate falls well below the league average of 34 per cent on similar pitches. But weak contact is the next best thing — and so far, Walker’s been able to generate it.
He’s allowed opposition hitters to bat just .107 with a .214 slugging percentage against his slider this season, despite throwing it more than any pitch other than his fastball. And the expected stats running peripheral to those numbers — a .166 batting average and .258 slugging percentage, based on the quality of contact he’s allowed — don’t trigger alarm bells.
Walker’s made serious strides with his curveball, too, adding nearly five inches of drop to the pitch this season as compared to 2017. Walker won’t use it often, but when he does it can be a surprise for hitters geared up for his fastball who suddenly have to react to a breaking pitch coming at them nearly 20 mph slower.
Walker will often use it to steal a first-pitch strike:
But he’s also liable to ambush hitters with it when he falls behind:
Walker’s seldom used it as an out pitch this season, which speaks both to his desire to locate his curveball in the strike zone and the effectiveness of his slider and splitter with two strikes. While his overhauled slider is an obvious weapon against right-handers, Walker’s splitter is a useful tool against lefties, starting in the zone before running away from their bats.
Within one plate appearance during that outing against the Dodgers, Walker got Corey Seager to swing through the pitch both on the plate…
…and off of it:
All these new toys play off of Walker’s fastball, of course, which he has to be throwing for strikes in order to make it all work. But fortunately for him, that’s seldom been an issue. Walker boasts a 2.8 career BB/9, and has issued only eight free passes over his 27 innings this season. And he’s actually been living in the zone more often in 2020, throwing 54.5 per cent of his pitches on the plate, compared to the 50-52 per cent he ranged between earlier in his career.
“For me, it’s just going out there and making them put the ball in play,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t try to throw the ball down the middle. But the thought is, if I just throw the ball anywhere on the plate, I have a greater chance of getting them out than they have of getting a hit.
“It really comes down to mixing pitches and being aggressive the whole time, the whole game — whether there’s people on base or not.”
So, that’s what Walker will bring when he makes his Blue Jays debut Saturday night against the Baltimore Orioles. Thanks to a combination of Seattle’s schedule and the trade, it’ll be his first time on a game mound in 10 days. But in the context of his last three years, that’s not long to wait at all.
“It’s just baseball as normal, honestly. When I go out there on the field, I have a job to do. And I take my job very seriously,” he says. “I’ll be ready to go out there and compete.”