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Taijuan Walker is a low-risk, average-reward free agent

On the free agent market, there’s Trevor Bauer, Jake Odorizzi, and everyone else. Walker is perhaps the best of everyone else.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In a market with very few options for reliable starting pitching, it’s a little easier to look past the dings and scratches on Taijuan Walker. The righty hasn’t thrown a full season of innings since 2017. He missed most of 2018 and 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the 2020 season was enough time for him to start 11 games. In those 11 games, he threw 53 1/3 innings to a shiny 2.70 ERA and 63 ERA-, but other metrics weren’t so kind. His 4.56 FIP and 4.85 DRA meant that he was much closer to league average than recapturing his 2017 success.

Still, with Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman taking qualifying offers and Trevor Bauer being rather mercurial as far as best-free-agent-starting-pitcher goes, league average is acceptable. Heck, it’s more than acceptable, it’s adequately satisfactory. The Blue Jays jumped at Robbie Ray for a one-year deal and they’d be over the moon with league average innings from him after a disastrous season.

Based on MLB Trade Rumors’ free agent rankings, Walker is the fourth-best starter on the market remaining behind Bauer, Jake Odorizzi, and James Paxton. In terms of performance and projections, however, there isn’t much separating him from Garrett Richards or even Anthony DeSclafani if you’re willing to believe his 2020 struggles were just small sample problems.

What sets Walker apart is his age. He’s entering his age-28 season, so teams don’t have to worry about decline for another few seasons. That alone should be enough to get him a second year or possibly a third on whatever deal he signs though it might not be in Walker’s best interest to sign away his age-30 season just quite yet. A return to form could easily be leveraged into more earnings.

That sort of bounceback isn’t entirely out of the question. Walker’s low BABIP and middling strikeout-to-walk ratio might not have been sustainable in 2020, but sometimes pitchers just need to make adjustments to take the next step.

Walker showed a willingness to change his approach in the truncated season. He relied on his four-seam fastball less often than in any other season. He threw the pitch less than 40 percent of the time down from his usual 60 percent. Instead, he threw more cutters* than ever before and primarily used them against right-handed batters.

*Baseball Savant calls them cutters, Pitch Info calls them sliders.

Walker faced only 131 right-handed batters this year, but he held them to a .178/.252/.263 slash line. The cutter wasn’t an elite swing-and-miss pitch for him, but it ranked 13th in whiff percentage among pitchers who faced at least 50 batters this season. Granted, if you classify it as a slider, the 24.6 percent whiff rate would rank 56th. More importantly, though, it paired well his sinker and four-seamer.

The key for Walker going forward isn’t continuing to make righties look like Jeff Francouer circa 2013; that kind of success isn’t something you can count on. Walker needs to find a pitch that can get lefties out. While righties flailed at Walker’s offerings, lefties treated him like batting practice, slashing .265/.351/.518. Walker primarily used his four-seamer and split finger, but lefties had no problems making contact.

His split finger only induced a 12.5 percent whiff rate against lefties, and his overall 15.6 mark was the worst in baseball by a decent margin. The next closest whiff rate was Yu Darvish at 22.6 percent. Of course, we’re looking at a small sample, so maybe this is just a blip. Walker hasn’t lost movement or velocity on the pitch since 2016 though it has always had less drop than comparable splitters.

Ultimately, Walker can deliver league average innings with hope for a little better. That may not be the most exciting promise, but there are only a handful of pitchers like that available without swinging a trade. He’s firmly in the middle tier, but he doesn’t have a lot of company, and there are lots of roster spots available.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.