Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Marcus Walden.
The Question: Could Marcus Walden be the best swingman for the Red Sox in 2019?
In my second roster projection of the spring, published on Sunday, the only change compared to my projection from before spring games began was Marcus Walden being added to the bullpen. He took a spot I had previously assigned to Colten Brewer. Now, it’s far from a sure thing Walden takes that roster spot. There is a lot of competition fighting for the last couple roster spots, and none of them really stand out above the others, albeit for different reasons. It does make it easier for Walden and everyone else now that an extra pitcher slot is opened up with Dustin Pedroia heading to the injured list to begin the season. Even so, Walden’s name doesn’t really jump off the page if he does indeed make the Opening Day roster. The issue is that Walden doesn’t solve the problem many foresee in the Red Sox bullpen.
One area of depth for Boston in terms of their pitching is in the swingman/long man department. It goes without saying that it is not the sexiest role on the roster, nor is it the most important. Still, having guys who can throw multiple innings in relief and also start here and there when needed is a valuable asset. With Walden, Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez, plus minor-league signees Ryan Weber and Erasmo Ramirez along with prospect Mike Shawaryn, Boston has options here. None of them have huge upsides, of course, or else they’d be starters. But they are fine. As for Walden specifically, it’s fair to wonder where the 30-year-old fits among that group.
I think there is at least a chance he is in the conversation for the best of the bunch, which sounds crazy given the major-league experience for some of the others. Walden had never pitched in the majors prior to last season, when he surprisingly grabbed an Opening Day roster spot. The righty didn’t get a chance to make much of a mark at the level, but he was good in his small sample. Over eight outings and 14 2⁄3 innings he allowed six earned runs (3.68 ERA) with 14 strikeouts and three walks. Obviously that sample size isn’t very telling, but it’s all we have at the highest level. His plate discipline numbers showed off solid stuff, too. He’s had success in the minors, too, pitching to a 3.92 ERA, 3.33 FIP and 4.14 DRA in Pawtucket in 2019. On top of that, he’s had a strong showing this spring with a 1.69 ERA in 10 2⁄3 innings with 10 strikeouts and four walks. It should be noted that, by Baseball-Reference’s opponent quality measure, he has faced the equivalent of Double-A hitters on average.
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention last year’s time in the minors, though. Walden didn’t get a ton of time down on the farm, missing the majority of the year with injury. He tossed 32 2⁄3 innings with Pawtucket, and he wasn’t great in that time. The righty pitched to a 4.96 ERA, a 4.40 FIP and a 4.36 DRA. It should be noted that he was better by ERA post-injury, pitching to a 3.38 ERA in 18 2⁄3 innings over the last month-plus of the year.
As we look ahead to what Walden could be at his best, the most puzzling part of his game is the lack of strikeouts. He has missed some bats this spring and he nearly set down a batter per inning in his short stint in the majors last year. However, through his career in the minors he’s generally sat around six-to-seven strikeouts per nine innings, and he was even lower than that earlier in his career. This is a bit puzzling, because again his swing-and-miss stuff was above-average in his short major-league stint last year.
Even ignoring the small-sample numbers, Walden throws a mid-to-high-90s fastball with a cutter and a slider. You’d think that repertoire would get more whiffs. On the other hand, that repertoire is clearly lacking something offspeed. Walden doesn’t really throw anything slower the mid-to-high-80s, and major-league batters are too good to try and sneak that pay. Combine that with the fact that neither the cutter nor the slider is anything better than average at best, and you see the issues. Velocity is not everything, particularly in today’s version of the game.
Without the strikeouts, Walden does have some skills that can keep him in the majors. He generally won’t allow a ton of damage on single swings, as he does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. According to Baseball Prospectus, he has consistently kept his ground ball rate at 55 percent or higher throughout his professional career. Walden has struggled to limit hits on balls in play, but it’s hard to say how much of that has to do with subpar minor-league defenses. At the very least, more creative major-league shifts should only help his results.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see Walden surpassing Brian Johnson in this role. The lefty has a more established track record in the majors, is younger and has a much better pedigree. Johnson hasn’t been great in the majors, of course, but he has the confidence of the team. If Walden wants to make a leap over him on the depth chart, the strikeout stuff is what’s going to put the righty over the top. Chances are he won’t be able to make that kind of leap, as it’s very rare for a pitcher to improve so much off their minor-league track record. That being said, Walden has spent the last few years making strong impressions on the Red Sox, and after the issues we brought up with Hector Velázquez yesterday we know there is reason to at least give Walden a chance to show what he can do in the majors.