Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Marcus Walden.
2019 in One Sentence
Marcus Walden was a nice representation of the Red Sox bullpen as a whole, not quite overwhelming with success but performing better than expected.
It can be kind of easy to forget about Marcus Walden, because he’s right on the line of being an interesting piece in the bullpen without ever really getting there for me. That’s not to say he is not useful or not a legitimate major leaguer by any stretch, but rather that he’s not a guy you build around. Part of the reason for that is the thing that makes him most effective when he’s at his best doesn’t really factor into peripherals. In 2019, for example, he finished with a 3.81 ERA, a 3.79 FIP and a 3.83 DRA. Those are all solid in a year where run environment is so wacky, but they aren’t really eye-opening.
When Walden is doing his Walden things, his strikeout rate is solid and his walk rate is good enough, but it’s the contact that really stood out this past year. For one thing, he keeps the ball on the ground at a very high clip. Per Baseball Prospectus, 56 percent of all batted balls were hit on the ground. It goes without saying that this is particularly valuable in a year where balls in the air were flying out of the park at an absurd rate and the league as a whole is shifting their swings to create more balls in the air. He wasn’t just getting the ball in the air, either, but also avoiding hard contact. According to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, of the 436 pitchers who allowed at least 100 balls in play this year, only three allowed barreled balls at a lower rate. Looking at overall hard contact (any ball hit at least 95 mph, per Statcast), Walden was in the top 35 percent of the league. Weak contact hit on the ground seems like a good strategy to me.
Walden was at his best early on in the season. He didn’t even make the roster out of camp, but he ended up being a key over the first couple months of the year. Obviously the start to the season for the Red Sox was a disaster, and a lot of that had to do with poor starting pitching. That, in turn, put a huge strain on the bullpen, who seemingly had to cover five-plus innings each and every night. Walden was a big reason they made it through. The righty made 17 appearances over the team’s first 49 games with nine of those covering at least two innings. In total he had thrown 28 1⁄3 innings to that point in the year, putting him on pace for 93 2⁄3 innings over a full season. Only one reliever (Sam Giviglio) in baseball exceeded that inning total in 2019. Obviously Walden’s pace would slow down a bit (more on that a little later), but that he was able to eat up some innings when the team desperately needed it was huge.
It wasn’t just that he was throwing the innings, either. He was pitching quite well in those innings as well. Over his first 19 appearances (stretching through May 26), opponents hit just .160/.219/.264 for a .208 wOBA while he pitched to a 1.48 ERA. Up to this point in the year, only four pitchers with at least 20 innings (of which there were 289) allowed a lower wOBA while 14 had pitched to a lower ERA. Obviously, the failures of the roster as a whole overshadowed how well he was pitching, but he was legitimately dominant.
More than anything else, it was the development of his slider that made things tick for Walden this year. This wasn’t really a new pitch for the righty in 2019, but it was a re-emphasized one. In 2018 he only threw this breaking ball 13.6 percent of the time (per Baseball Savant), but that jumped all the way up to 37.2 percent in 2019, making it his most-used pitch on the year. The results showed he was right to throw it so often, too, as he got whiffs on a whopping 44 percent of swings while allowing an expected wOBA of .228 and an actual mark of .252. It was, in short, one of the best pitches on the entire staff, never mind the one that made Walden’s whole repertoire work.
When things weren’t going so well for Walden, it was largely because he walked too many batters. In 2018, he was surprisingly successful in his small amount of time in the majors because he was able to limit free baserunners with a walk rate under two per nine innings. This past year, that rate shot up to almost four per nine and just about ten percent of all batters he faced. Now, that’s not a back-breaking rate or anything, but for a guy whose strikeout stuff is average at best (and probably below average for a reliever in today’s game), you’d like to see a little more control. The issue was that he simply wasn’t hitting the zone.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Walden hit the strike zone just 41 percent of the time last year, the 17th lowest rate among the 267 pitchers who threw at least 1000 pitches. He did rank 21st in O_Swing rate (the rate at which opponents swung at pitches out of the zone), which is why the walk rate ultimately wasn’t catastrophic. Still, it’s easy to see batters adjusting to this and simply swinging less, leading to more walks. In fact, that’s basically what happened (as you can see in the graph below), and his walk rate in the second half jumped up to 13 percent after sitting at seven percent in the first half.
Beyond the walks, the foir-seam fastball was a disappointment for Walden as well. In 2018, this was not even a part of his repertoire as (according to Baseball Savant) he threw only two in his short time in the majors. This year, he threw it more than his sinker, which was his most-used pitch the year before. I don’t know if this was to try and cut his walk rate or maybe get more strikeouts, but whatever the reason it was ill-advised. The four-seamer induced whiffs on only 17.5 percent of swings while allowing an expected wOBA of .416 and an actual wOBA of .360. Walden is going to have to figure out how to throw strikes with his other pitches, because the four-seamer just wasn’t the answer in 2019.
The Big Question
Like I said, Walden didn’t make the Opening Day roster this year, instead ending up as one of the final cuts in spring training. It seemed logical that he would be long relief/swingman depth if/when he did make it up to the majors. As I detailed above, he was exactly that when he was first called up. The only issue was that he pitched so well he earned himself single-inning stints in important spots. So, no, he wasn’t the best swingman for the Red Sox in 2019, but that’s only because he pitched well enough that he was out of that role entirely.
I’m not really sure how to describe where I view Walden at this point. I think he’s a viable major leaguer and he should probably have a spot in the Red Sox bullpen next year. I also think his general lack of stuff and control problems limit his ceiling enough that if he is anything more than your fourth or fifth best reliever then you have some issues. And once you get to the fifth spot in the bullpen, is that really a slam dunk major leaguer for most teams? Anyway, I think that’s what Walden ultimately is. He’s a guy who will pitch well enough to get a string of high-leverage chances at one point or another but will settle in at a spot better than Heath Hembree but worse than Josh Taylor. Which is more than usable.