Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Marcus Walden.
2020 in one sentence
Marcus Walden came into the year with a chance to solidify his standing as a reliable member of this bullpen and comes out of it without a certainty he’ll be on the roster when camp breaks in the spring.
I don’t say this to be mean or to be funny or to do anything but present a simple fact: There was virtually nothing I could find for this section. Usually I can at least fake a couple of resonable positives, but Walden had such a brutal season I really couldn’t find anything. That the season was shortened certainly didn’t help matters either. If I really wanted to push it I could point to Walden actually being pretty solid on the road, pitching to a 3.00 ERA while allowing a wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) of only .299. Of course, that also took place over the course of just six innings. I could also point to his slider inducing whiffs on a third of swings, though when it was hit it was often hit hard.
That’s really all I’ve got.
Simple logic leads us to the conclusion that, if it is very hard to find positives, it should be impossibly easy to find negatives. And for Walden, it was unfortunately a year full of them. In total, the righty had his season interrupted by a demotion off the active roster at one point and he ended up throwing only 13 1⁄3 innings. In those frames, he pitched to a 9.45 ERA with an 8.59 FIP that was concerningly close to that inflated ERA. As you can probably guess from those numbers, it was not just one thing but rather a little bit of everything.
I think we have to start with how hard Walden was hit, though. Even in the previous couple of seasons where he looked like a solid major leaguer, Walden wasn’t any sort of dominant strikeout arm, nor did he always have elite-level control. His biggest strength was inducing some weak contact. This past season, though, he was crushed, and it showed all over the place. Average exit velocity? That jumped from 89 mph to 93. Barrel rate? That jumped from under three percent, which put him in the top two percent of baseball, to nearly 10 percent. Hard-hit rate? Up to a whopping 50 percent from 35 percent.
Every one of his four offerings induced an average exit velocity of at least 90 mph — last season only his two least-used pitches did — while his sinker, which he throws the second most of all his pitches, came off the bat at an almost unfathomable 100 mph on average. All of this led to a .383 batting average on balls in play that never felt fluky along with five home runs in those 13 1⁄3 innings. Prior to 2020 he had allowed a total of six homers over the course of 92 1⁄3 innings. Unsurprisingly given the homers, he also allowed way more balls in the air, with his ground ball rate falling from 50 percent to 40 percent.
So, yeah. Walden was absolutely crushed on a regular basis this past summer, but it wasn’t just the quality of contact. I mentioned that the righty is not the kind of elite strikeout pitcher you see so often in modern bullpens, but he did miss some bats. In his previous two seasons his strikeout rate was a shade above league-average. In 2020, it fell nine percentage points to 14 percent, with almost all of the additional contact coming in the zone.
I look at contact rate in the zone as a good measure of stuff, as the best pitchers in the game generally get the most whiffs on strikes. That Walden saw this number get so markedly worse — the contact rate jumped from 84 percent to 94 percent — is an indication that his stuff got worse. That he saw a nearly 2 mph drop on all of his pitches backs up the theory.
So, Walden gave up a ton of hard contact, and also just a lot of contact in general. Now we can top off the trifecta by mentioning that he also managed to walk way more batters than usual, with a walk rate up to 12 percent. There were 490 pitchers who tossed at least 10 innings this past season. Only 16 of them had a lower K% - BB%, which is the best measure of how well a pitcher is controlling the zone. Walden ended up walking more batters on a rate basis than 2019 despite throwing more strikes largely because batters just stopped chasing. As you can see below, most of that difference comes on pitches below the zone and/or to Walden’s glove side. As a pitcher who leans heavily on both a cutter and a slider, that is a crucial area for him to get swings, and preferably whiffs.
The Big Question
Are we underselling Marcus Walden’s potential impact?
Yeah, uh, so you can likely tell I was pretty high on Walden coming into the year. Just gonna give myself a big fat yikes on this one and move along.
Looking ahead to 2021
Walden suddenly finds himself in a precarious position not even a year removed from being one of the top options in the bullpen heading into last season. On the one hand, between the weirdness of 2020 and the small sample of his season in particular it’s not too hard to see a situation where you largely just throw away this season. On the other hand, the 40-man is full and there are plenty of additions that need to be made, so some tough decisions will need to be made at some point here. Ultimately I think the fact that Walden still has an option left, combined with what is still largely a solid track record, will get him through the winter on the roster. That said, he’ll need to earn his way back on the roster, and the leash will not be very long in 2021.