2023 stats: 5-3, 61.1 IP, 3.23 ERA/3.68 FIP, 1.39 WHIP, 78-24 K-BB, 81.8% LOB, 0.6 fWAR
It was a big year for Ryan Walker. He became a father and he became one of the steadiest arms in a fairly dominant San Francisco Giants bullpen in 2023. Among my favorite notes about his season is that he opened enough games (13) to throw off FanGraphs’ starter/reliever measure, a situation that befell John Brebbia in 2022 when we all agreed that he was the next-best reliever in the pen after Camilo Doval.
That’s not quite the case with Ryan Walker after making his debut in his age-27 season, but it does reflect just how far in his career’s journey he traveled in just six months. Along with those 13 starts/openings came an 11.45 K/9, which was ranked 21st in MLB and 12th in the National League against all pitchers. Kevin Gausman, Alexis Diaz, Ryan Walker.
He is the latest in a rare run of developmental success for the long-developmentally challenged Giants, flexing a power sinker that makes many a blogger like me sit up and say aloud in an empty room, “Hey now!”
He is the very model of a modern major leaguer — at least, where the Giants’ pitching lab is concerned. I know I’ve talked about it before and you’re all much smarter than me and have no doubt internalized this, but a 2500 rpm slider + a 95+ mph sinker guy is exactly what the Giants want and that’s exactly who Ryan Walker is.
Statcast-wise, that 94.8 mph average sinker was worth +4 Run Value while his 2,545 rpm slider was a -3 in Run Value. A quick reminder on this value:
Run Value Definition: the run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count.
Walker actually threw his slider 7 more times than his sinker in 2023, and so as you can see, the Giants like — perhaps love — the pitch and think it’s worth throwing in any situation, which leaves him susceptible to damage because, hey, we all know what happens to bad sliders:
7 of the 8 home runs allowed by Walker came on that slider and 6 of those 7 were hit away from Oracle Park. The one that was hit in Oracle:
And the non-slider homer came on a 95 mph sinker against Juan Soto in Oracle Park.
Between Triple-A and the majors he pitched a combined 81.2 innings, a career high by a substantial amount. Previously: 53 in 2022, 49.1 in 2021, 59 in 2019, and 32.1 innings in his pro debut year of 2018. He earned it but boy oh boy did he wear it. For all of Gabe Kapler and the design team’s plans, the Giants’ bullpen was gassed by the end of the season as evidenced by Walker’s September line:
11.1 IP (11 games, 2 starts)
7.94 ERA (6.08 FIP)
2.03 WHIP (14 H)
10 R (all earned)
Looking at the rest of his season and you have to marvel at the rollercoaster. He had a reverse split, for one thing (.286/.358/.422 vs. RHH, .221/.292/.419 vs. LHH) and thanks to that sinker-slider combo and the Giants’ variable defense, his season BAbip of .351 is a whole lotta “hmm” that’s reflected in this WHIP by month:
Then you look at that 81.8% left on base rate (12th in the NL) and you can’t help but think, “Yeah, this guy was good.” Except, really, he was solid. Very solid. A great find. By all accounts, this was the season he fulfilled the organization’s ultimate goal with him.
When John Brebbia came over, the main switch the team made was making sure he threw his slider way more often than his fastball, which bucked the traditional trend of “using the fastball to setup the secondary pitches.” Making the breaking and offspeed pitches the primary pitches is the 21st century innovation, and backing that up with a power fastball (sinker, specifically) is how the game is now played. We’ll see if the new coaching staff, which largely represents a previous generation’s thinking, will maintain some degree of continuity to backstop Walker’s struggles or if they have something else in mind.
Relievers are fungible by nature and they’re prone to volatility year over year so who knows what’s in store for him and his sinker and the Giants in 2024, but he has the numbers that make computer happy and he demonstrated a knack for excelling in whatever role the Giants handed him. Although he seemed to struggle at first as John Brebbia’s replacement in the opener role, his final season line in those 13 openings looks good:
6 R (5 ER)
When you think of the Giants and, especially, when you think of how they’re going to rebuild themselves back to respectability, it all comes down to pitching. We’ve never worried about the team finding arms that can help in some capacity, but Walker is a player they’ve developed internally for once instead of found through minor league free agency or as an NRI and he’s a deserved feather in the cap of the Bannister-Bailey regime. I mean, just look at the red!
To take the next step, all he needs to do is figure out how to train that slider to tease the zone better against both lefties and righties. Easier said than done, of course, but as Walker showed in 2023, he’s an achiever.