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What is wrong with Marcus Walden?

It’s been a terrible start to his season.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

It is obviously no secret that the Red Sox not only have a bad pitching staff, but a historically terrible one. They are in the midst of the worst nine-game pitching stretch in the history of the franchise, and could very well end this season with the worst ERA in team history as well. It is not what you want. In a way, it is unfair to single out any one pitcher because essentially all of them have performed below their already-low expectations. In fact, it would be much, much easier to find guy who have come somewhat close to expectations than those who have failed to reach them. But today I want to focus on Marcus Walden, who has been one of the more disappointing arms on the roster so far this year.

Coming into the season, I had relatively high hopes for Walden. He was certainly not one of the marquee names on the roster, but I had him as my predicted unsung hero of the season after a very solid 2019. He had shown before that he can be a versatile reliever, coming in with runners on base, pitching in a traditional setup role or tossing multiple innings, and doing it all effectively. It’s the kind of Swiss Army knife that can be very valuable, particularly with this kind of pitching staff.

Unfortunately, things just haven’t worked out that way in 2020, as Walden has been nothing short of a disaster pretty much every time out. In all, he has tossed nine innings over nine appearances, pitching to a 12.00 ERA with an 8.59 FIP that indicates some bad luck but still very, very poor underlying numbers. After allowing three runs in Tuesday’s loss to the Phillies, Walden has now allowed at least one run in five of his nine appearances, and has just two outings that didn’t see a baserunner. One of those outings was just one batter long, too. So, what’s the issue with the righty?

As you can imagine, it’s basically everything, but if you had to boil it down to two words it really comes down to his command and his deception. Walden’s numbers are down across the board, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but his walk rate jumping up to 17 percent — which is higher than his strikeout rate — is extremely concerning. According to Baseball Savant, he’s hitting the zone just 40 percent of the time this season, down five percentage points from last year. On top of that, when he does hit the zone the opponents are all over it, swinging at 72 percent of those pitches compared to 67 percent last year. Combine that with a chase rate that has fallen by nine percentage points, and you see the issue clearly. They aren’t swinging at balls, leading to lots of walks, and they are swinging at strikes, leading to hard contact that in turn lead to the three homers he’s already allowed and the 44 percent hard-hit rate, the latter of which puts him in the bottom seven percent of the league.

It’s not simply that he’s not commanding his pitches, though, because he’s made a couple of changes that have seemingly hurt him. The biggest one is with respect to his pitch usage. In 2019, when he was roughly 20 percent better than league average by both ERA and FIP, he leaned most heavily on his slider, throwing the pitch 37 percent of the time. It was his most effective offering by wOBA, expected wOBA and whiff rate, so he leaned on it. Makes sense! Well, this year it is once again his most effective pitch by those metrics — and the only pitch with respectable small sample numbers in those metrics — and yet he’s throwing it just 26 percent of the time. Instead of it dominating his repertoire, it’s not his third most-used pitch out of four.

Additionally, he’s flipped which fastball he relies on. After throwing his four-seam more often than the two-seam last season — a move that makes sense in today’s game with many more uppercut swings — he’s gone back to the sinker this year. That has been his most used pitch in 2020, and batters are averaging 98 mph exit velocity off the pitch with an expected wOBA of .384. Remember, wOBA is on the same scale as OBP. It is also worth mentioning that Walden’s velocity is also down about a mile and a half per hour in both of his fastballs from 94 last year to 92.5 in 2020.

On top of all of this, Walden is setting up differently as he gets into the stretch. I’m not knowledgeable enough on mechanics to know whether this is affecting his command, his velocity, neither or both, but I did notice that he is keeping his hands closer to his body than last season. As you’ll see below, in 2019 he came to his set with his hands away from his body, but this year the hands are right in on the belt.

2019; Courtesy of Baseball Savant
2020; Courtesy of Baseball Savant

On the one hand, we are still only talking about nine innings of baseball from Walden, and generally speaking that shouldn’t be enough to wipe out all of what he did last year. On the other hand, everything is going wrong for Walden. Perhaps simple fixes such as getting his hand position back to where they were last year and going back to a slider-oriented approach can get him back to consistent production, but at this point he has to be relegated to mop up duty until he proves he’s made the proper adjustments.