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The Potential Starter No One Is Talking About: Brandon Walter Is Going To Matter

Does the rest of the rotation know that the season starts soon?

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Boston Red Sox Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One of the most difficult parts of the game of baseball is predicting injury risk with pitchers. My least favorite part of following this sport is getting attached to a young, up-and-coming arm who is reportedly going to see Dr. James Andrews, knowing full well what that will soon mean. Hell, not just a young arm, any great arm. Chris Sale Day was my favorite day of the week for two years in 2017 and 2018, and we haven’t seen THAT Chris Sale since he was introduced to Dr. Andrews. There is inherent risk every time that you take a baseball and throw it as hard as you can, over and over, at least 100 times in a given night. No pitching staff truly goes into a baseball season feeling “safe”.

That being said, the staff that the Red Sox chose to enter 2023 with seemed as risky as any in the league, and it’s only gotten worse since spring training started. As Eno Sarris said, with Chad Jennings in The Athletic last month, “Projections do have the Red Sox leading the league in one thing right now. They have the most players in baseball with a wide gap between their best-case and worst-case outcomes.” Worst-case, of course, means that the players are not on the field at all.

Who can we count on? Sale has made 11 starts since 2019, had Tommy John Surgery and is one of the riskiest players in all of baseball. James Paxton has made six starts since 2019, had Tommy John Surgery, is one of the riskiest players in baseball, and is already out with a grade-1 hamstring strain. Brayan Bello left his first workout of the spring with forearm tightness, has not been cleared to throw breaking balls in his subsequent bullpens, and still has not faced live hitters. Garrett Whitlock is returning from offseason hip surgery, isn’t participating in pitchers’ fielding practice, and has yet to face live hitters. Nick Pivetta had a long bout with Covid and needed to withdraw from the WBC (he did pitch for Boston on Saturday).

Does this sound to you like a team that is ready to play regular season games three weeks from now? There should be panic in the streets, but the rhetoric in the local Daily Notes columns sound like it’s still Truck Day on the calendar. Fortunately, the two models of health: 2022 closer Tanner Houck (back surgery last September) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Corey Kluber (missed a combined 311 days to injury from ‘19-21) are rotation locks!

The Red Sox are going to need a whole lot of arms this season, especially early, as these rotation pieces crawl back from injury. We may need to look beyond the familiar names from 2022 like Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski, which is where Brandon Walter comes into play. Or maybe Brandon Walter just throws enough strikes to leapfrog both of them and start the season in the rotation.

A 26th round pick in 2019, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in college, Walter entered the 2021 season in the bullpen at Low-A Salem, so the fact that we’re talking about him potentially breaking camp in 2023 is a shockingly meteoric rise in the organization’s prospect rankings. In the next two minor league seasons, Walter threw 31 innings at Low-A, 58 innings at High-A, and 50 innings at Double-A. Here were his Fangraphs Advanced numbers, highlighting his Strikeout and Walks numbers at each of those levels. I’ve highlighted a few numbers that are particularly preposterous.

Brandon Walter | Fangraphs
Brandon Walter | Fangraphs

At each of these levels, Walter struck out batters out at a high rate, walked very few batters, and allowed a low opponents’ batting average. All of this is good practice. Walter’s BB:K ratio in 50 Double-A innings last year was 3-to-68! K-BB% is a stat that correlates extremely well with effective pitchers and identifying potential breakouts. I won’t pretend that Brandon Walter’s Double-A K-BB% would translate to the major leagues but 33.2% is an eye-popping number, so humor me for a moment. The highest K-BB% for a qualified pitcher in MLB was Shohei Ohtani at 26.5%. Even if you brought the innings minimum down to 70, the highest K-BB% in the MLB was Spencer Strider at 29.7%. K-BB percentages of over 30% are reserved for elite closers and Jacob deGrom.

Unfortunately, both of Walter’s Triple-A outings upon promotion in June went poorly due to a bulging disk in his upper back, which ended his season. Those dud outings brought his season-long K-BB% to 29.2% but, nonetheless, here is a look at the company he joined in the minor leagues last year.

Fangraphs | Minor League Leaders
Fangraphs | Minor League Leaders

Painter, Tiedemann, Harrison, Hence … elite company to be around.

However, that “25” under the Age gives people some pause as he “should be” pitching well in the minor leagues at that age. Jordan Rosenblum is a prospect guru who has spent years building a pitching model which includes aging curves and major league equivalencies to capture minor league performance. He outlined this at Prospects Live this offseason, which led to his work being featured alongside Eno Sarris in his Pitching+ projections for all Major League pitchers in 2023 (known as ppERA). Walter has always popped in this model, thanks to his ability to get weak ground ball contact, as well as his impressive strikeout and walk totals. This results in the following projection from Rosenblum for 2023: 22.8 K%, 6.6 BB%, 3.71 ERA, with a better-than-average 27.6% fly ball rate.

Walter throws from the left side with a three-quarter deceptive delivery, and featured a Sinker, Changeup, and Slider (Sweeper). He has pitched twice in spring training and impressed both times, allowing just one hit, with no walks, and five strikeouts in three total innings. Ian Cundall noted that his velocity was up and that all three of his pitches looked sharp.

To me, he’s simply continuing to do what he did the last two seasons. Throw strikes and get batters out, often via the strikeout. While it’s more likely that Walter would be used out of the bullpen if he did make his debut in 2023, I believe he has better odds of making starts in Boston this year than both Bryan Mata and Chris Murphy. It would be great to see him get some longer outings as the preseason goes on. A strike-throwing machine like Brandon Walter in the era of the Pitch Clock is a beautiful thing.

In the meantime, it would be nice to hear that the top seven starters (on paper) are all facing live hitters this week. There are games that count in the standings happening three weeks from now.