As Seth Stohs chronicled so well last week, Duran is one of the top prospects in the Twins’ system, and (arguably) the team’s highest-upside hurler. He’s not an easy player to project or evaluate, though, because there remains a strange air of mystery around his arsenal. Famously, he throws a pitch the team has taken to calling a “splinker,” combining the power of a hard sinker with the plummeting, tumbling action of a splitter. Few pitchers in baseball throw such a thing, no matter what one calls it, and it’s just one thing about Duran’s repertoire that remains a bit unknown.
To figure out what kind of pitcher he might become, as he draws closer to the big leagues, consider Taijuan Walker. The newly minted Mets right-handed starter, who signed a two-year deal worth $20 million (plus a player option for 2023) earlier this month, is almost exactly the same size as Duran (6-foot-5, 230 pounds). He throws from a similar high three-quarters arm slot, with a similarly tall delivery. He came up quite young, so by the time he was 23 (as Duran is now), he’d already been in the big leagues for parts of three seasons. That lets us look back at the type of pitcher he was then with some confidence; some recent insights he shared with FanGraphs allow us to assess the way his evolution and his pitch usage might inform a projection of Duran’s career.
When he came up, Walker relied heavily on his fastball, which sat comfortably in the mid-90s and occasionally touched 100 miles per hour. He had two usable breaking balls, but his primary offspeed offering was a splitter—kind of. As he said in the recent interview, he really took his usual sinker (or two-seam fastball) grip and merely spread his fingers a bit, so he threw the pitch harder and got more of a sinkerish movement than most splitters. “I put my fingers just outside that two-seam grip, so I’m not splitting it like an actual splitter,” he said.
Walker made only very sparing use of his true sinker, which hummed in at the same speed as his fastball, but that splitter often tumbled in at speeds north of 90 miles per hour, with significantly reduced spin. The effect was something very much like what Duran’s (even harder) splinker does. Early in his career, batters whiffed at that splitter on roughly 30 percent of their swings.
As he’s aged and worked through some injuries, however, Walker’s splitter has morphed a bit. He still throws it much the same way—as hard as ever, with the same movement—but his fastball has lost velocity, so the two pitches fit in a much closer velocity band. Batters have whiffed on it much less, but it’s become an excellent source of ground balls for him. That’s what a sinker usually does.
“That’s what I tell people,” Walker told interviewer David Laurila. “It could be a sinker, honestly… especially if my fastball velo is down that day. If I’m 92, and my change is 90… yeah, it’s a sinker.”
That basically solves the mystery of the splinker. For now, Duran should probably hone the pitch as a slightly-modified splitter. That’s how it will garner the most possible swings and misses. However, as he matures, he can turn it into more of a variant on his fastball.
Then again, Duran might be well-served to throw a sinker, anyway, and learn to keep the two pitches distinct from one another. As I wrote last week, the Twins like their pitchers to throw multiple flavors of fastball, especially because it tends to allow them to comfortably pitch to one side of the plate with each. That’s an adjustment Walker only made in 2020, but it unlocked some things for him.
“Yes, I added [a two-seamer] last year,” Walker said in the interview. “I added it so I can get in to righties without risking pulling a four-seam over the middle. I didn’t want it to be a sinker; I wanted it to be more of a running fastball, arm side.”
The Twins are likely to help Duran reach that realization much sooner, and he might benefit considerably from that mental distinction Walker draws: the two-seam fastball as something other than a sinker, and the splitter/splinker as a pitch with more vertical depth.
In the interview, Walker also talks about finding he could get more riding action on his four-seam fastball by working at the top of the zone, and about honing his slider to have more depth than the cutter he previously favored, with the so-called dot on the front of the ball, rather than the side. In each of these regards, too, Duran already has a leg up, thanks to the team’s development work and his own aptitude.
Held back though he was by health problems, Walker has had a successful career already. After getting smarter in his approach and crafting his pitches better, he seems poised to get even better in 2021. If Duran follows that blueprint, with more intense stuff and an earlier introduction to these key principles, he could have an immediate and intense impact on the Twins’ pitching staff as soon as this summer.
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