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Taylor Walls is going to be very good

An analytical breakdown on the young Rays infielder

May 21, 2021 is a day that many Rays fans will remember. On that date, Tampa Bay traded away their beloved shortstop of the past three years in Willy Adames. While numerous factors played into that decision, it certainly spoke to how highly the organization thought of Taylor Walls, who was inserted into the starting lineup at shortstop the very next day.

The switch-hitting shortstop was drafted out of Florida State University in the third round of the 2017 draft. Walls has steadily climbed the Rays minor league ladder after posting strong performances at every stop along the way. At the beginning of last offseason, Walls was added to the 40-man roster.

In 2021, Walls played in 54 games with the Rays and hit .211/.314/.296 with 1 HR and 15 RBI. Those numbers don’t raise any eyebrows at first glance. However, after a deeper dive into his profile I believe there is reason to believe that Walls can not only be a big leaguer but a very good one at that. Let’s dig in.

Plate Discipline

The best tool that Walls possesses as a hitter is his strong eye at the plate. According to FanGraphs, Walls only swung at 22.4% of the pitches he saw that were outside of the zone in 2021. That mark ranked in the top 30 amongst all MLB hitters who amassed 150 plate appearances. Because Walls is so good at laying off of pitches out of the zone, he was able to run a 13.1% walk rate in 2021 in the majors, which is a well above-average figure. Simply put, he is a very disciplined hitter.

There’s also more evidence of this skill of his from his minor league days. Walls has a career 13.0% walk rate in the minors which is one of the best marks of all Rays minor league hitters over that span, and an 18% walk rate at Triple-A in 2021.

Below is a chart that displays the location of every pitch that Walls swung at in 2021. You can see just how tight that cluster is, and how he very rarely reaches far out of the zone to chase a pitch:

2021 Taylor Walls Swings

This strong skill is why Walls was able to post a .314 OBP in 2021 despite just a .211 batting average. If he can improve upon the rest of his hitting profile, he has a chance to post very strong OBPs in future big league seasons.

Batted Ball Angle Quality

The Statcast metric called Sweet Spot% takes the number of balls hit on the ‘Sweet Spot’ and divides it by the total number of balls in play for a hitter. Statcast classifies a batted ball as being hit on the ‘Sweet Spot’ if it has a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. The angle of the batted ball is the only parameter for this metric, no exit velocity, distance, or any other characteristic.

You may be wondering, why 8 and 32 degrees? Well, in this great piece by Ben Clemens at FanGraphs, we find out exactly why. The chart below is from this article and is very intuitive:

We can see that wOBA is the highest on batted balls in the 8 to 32 degree range. It also shows that neither hitting a ton of groundballs (low angles) nor a ton of pop-ups (high angles) is going to very productive for a hitter. Therefore, a metric like Sweet Spot% can tell us a lot about which batters hit balls at good angles most often.

Spoiler alert: Taylor Walls is one of those hitters.

In 2021, Walls posted a 38.5% Sweet Spot% which ranked right around the 90th percentile of all hitters with at least 100 batted balls. In fact, the only other Rays hitter to top this mark last season was Ji-Man Choi, and he only did so by 0.1%. Here’s a good visual of Walls spraying base hits at quality angles during his debut series:

Hitting the ball at better angles will allow for more balls to become base hits. The amount of balls in play that turn into to hits is what BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) measures. And while BABIP can be quite noisy at times, there has been recent research that suggests hitters have more control over their BABIP’s than we once thought.

Alex Chamberlain wrote an excellent article on RotoGraphs which touches on a lot of different topics relating to BABIP and launch angle. One of his findings was that BABIP peaks on batted balls with launch angles between 12 and 13 degrees. Well would you look at that, Taylor Walls’ average launch angle in 2021 was 12.2 degrees. Walls owned a strong .328 BABIP over his minor league career and its reasonable to expect above average figures during his major league career as well.

These are promising signs regarding Walls’ batted ball quality, but it is important to note that he doesn’t have a perfect profile. A lack of power specifically was noticeable in his debut season, but that is also fixable.

Improving Power Output

Taylor Walls did not show much major league power in 2021, as his .296 slugging percentage was one of the lowest marks in baseball. His 106.4 Max exit velocity and 33.7% hard-hit rate weren’t very impressive figures either. Many fans may be assuming that Walls won’t ever hit for much power in the big leagues, but I am here to tell you to pump those breaks!

Below is a chart that shows Walls’ rolling 75 game extra-base-hit rate (XBH divided by plate appearances) over his minor league career. Keep in mind, this does not include his MLB at-bats. This data was pulled from the game log tab of Taylor Walls’ FanGraphs page.

Walls 75 Game Rolling XBH% (Minor League Career)

The trend is fairly obvious, Walls has been hitting for much more power lately in minor league ball. In fact, he is hitting extra-base-hits at almost double the rate that he was when he first got to pro ball. Unfortunately for Taylor this power surge did not translate to big league games, but the fact that he’s showing it in the upper minors is encouraging nonetheless.

Here’s a clip of a AAA homerun from Walls that he knew was going out as soon as he hit it. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in St. Pete in 2022:

The last point I want to make about Walls’ power is that he seems to be a bit of a different hitter depending on the handedness of the pitcher that is throwing.

Since his sample of MLB at-bats is so small, his minor league career splits stats can help illustrate this point. The table below breaks down his performances versus both lefties and righties. This data was pulled from the splits tab on Walls’ Baseball Savant Page:

Taylor Walls Career Minor League Splits

Handedness PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS
Handedness PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS
Vs. LHP 364 11.00% 22.30% 0.295 0.376 0.498 0.875
Vs. RHP 1018 13.80% 18.60% 0.264 0.364 0.389 0.753

The first thing that stands out is that Walls has been better against left-handed pitching. The power in particular is noticeable as his SLG is over 100 points higher from that side. However, you’ll notice that his strikeouts are actually up and his walks are down against lefties. This makes me think he is a bit more aggressive as a right-handed batter which has led to more whiffs but also much more power. His approach as a left-handed hitter seems to be more passive, leading to more walks and singles.

Overall, he has performed better as a right-handed batter, but its important to remember that we’re still dealing with fairly small sample sizes here. It will be interesting to see how the Rays deploy him in 2022, and if they prefer one side of his bat to the other.

Contact Ability

The last ingredient to Walls hitting profile that I want to touch on is his contact skill. As a prospect Walls was never one to strikeout very much. However, he ran a K-rate of 27.8% in the MLB this season which is a below league average figure. What gives?

Although Walls struck out a fair amount, he wasn’t actually swinging and missing as much as you would expect for someone with that strikeout rate. The graph below plots two different metrics:

Strikeout Rate = Strikeouts / Plate Appearances

Swinging Strike Rate = Whiffs / Total Pitches Seen

Each point on the graph represents a different hitter from the 2021 season, minimum 170 plate appearances.

Walls actually posted an above-average swinging strike rate in his debut season. Given the fact that the two metrics are so closely correlated, it is surprising that Walls had a strikeout-rate as high as he did. By looking at the best-fit line, we can see that other hitters with similar swinging strike rates often see their strikeout rates fall in the 20% range which is better than league average.

This information is encouraging because it shows that making contact is not actually a weakness of his. I believe one of the main reasons that Walls’ strikeout rate is higher than expected (based on the plot) is actually because he takes his fair share of called strikes.

Walls ran a 20% called-strike rate in 2021, which is high but nothing insurmountable. This is largely because of his very disciplined approach which I touched on earlier. As Walls grows as a hitter I will be watching to see if his approach ever becomes more aggressive in an attempt to reduce his called strikes while attacking more pitches early in the count.

On top of all of this, Walls owned a career 18% strikeout rate in the minors coming into this year. While his strikeouts did tick up in 2021, the aforementioned reasons do give me hope that he can improve upon his strikeout rate in the future.

For what its worth, Steamer projects Walls to strikeout at a 25.4% clip next year which is more than 2 percentage points lower than his rate from this season.

Defense

We’re going to end this breakdown with Walls’ biggest strength, his defense.

As a prospect Walls was always regarded as a quality defender. Both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs pegged him as a 60 defender while playing in the minor leagues. Walls has also won the Rays minor league defensive player of the year award in 3 straight seasons. The guy is a great defender at one of the toughest positions on the diamond.

Walls only played 378 innings at shortstop in 2021 and was able to rack up 10 defensive runs saved. That mark was tied for 3rd best among shortstops in baseball despite the few innings he played.

Here’s a look at just one of many excellent plays he made this season:

Walls also saw time at both 2B and 3B in MLB and AAA in 2021, further adding to his defensive value. It remains to be seen how exactly the Rays will utilize Walls in 2022 as there is now a 185 million dollar man in the Tampa Bay infield, but his great defensive skills alone should give him plenty of big league reps next year.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully this paints a good picture on why I am excited about the future of the young shortstop. While Walls’ bat is still a work-in-progress, I believe there are a number of intriguing ingredients to his hitting profile which provide optimism. His great plate discipline, quality batted ball trajectories, improving power production, and above-average contact skill is a very attractive combination of hitting tools to have for such a young player.

There is still certainly plenty of risk in Walls as a player, as there is with most players of his age. What if the power never shows up in the big leagues? What if his defense isn’t as good as advertised? These are reasonable questions to have, but I am bullish on his future outlook because of the reasons above. Just for fun, my unofficial Taylor Walls 2022 projection looks something like this:

  • 100 games played, 400 plate appearances
  • .245/.335/.410, 9 HRs, 8 SBs
  • 2.5 - 3.0 WAR
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