7) Jordan Walden, 11/16/87 - RHRP, AA
Ranking in a Nutshell: I wrote last year that "with just his fastball and his slider, Jordan could pitch near the back of the bullpen now...that's his downside." A disappointing '09 campaign, plagued by two separate trips to the DL for elbow and forearm troubles, has pushed him to the bullpen entering 2010, and my sense is he'll stay there. When he's on, he throws a tremendous fastball featuring plus velocity, sink and movement -- the pitch is notoriously hard to drive, attracting great analogies like "bowling ball" (Keith Law) or "brick" (Baseball America). The mechanics that make the velocity and sink possible, however, involve plenty of moving parts and effort, leading to consistency problems that make a return to the rotation unlikely. He should begin the year closing for Arkansas, but could move very quickly if his arm holds together. He has a shot at being the highest impact bullpen arm that the Angels have added since Francisco Rodriguez burst onto the scene in 2002.
Track Record: Inconsistent, but generally positive. He fell to the Halos in the 12th round of the 2006 draft because his fastball velocity dipped during his senior year of high school. After waiting for him to regain his pitching mojo at community college, the Angels signed him for $1 million just hours before the deadline, and Walden ended that '07 season hitting 100 mph in the Pioneer League championship games. He dominated A-Ball and leapt to High-A midway into the 2008 season, where he struggled initially but rallied to finish strong in August and September. He took a step backwards in '09, topping out in the low 90's and getting hit much harder than usual. He allowed over a hit per inning for the first time and floundered against lefties, who put up an .891 OPS against him. Walden had posted 62% and 52% ground ball rates in Cedar Rapids and Rancho Cucamonga respectively, but dropped all the way to 41.4% at AA. His K-rate hasn't shown quite the same downward trend, bouncing from 7.6 K/9 in the Midwest League to 9.2 K/9 and 8.6 K/9 in High A and AA. From 2006 to 2009, he has put up two strong seasons in amateur and pro ball, but lost parts of two others to injury and mechanics problems.
Win-the-Lottery-Ceiling: He'll feature Kevin Jepsen-like velocity and ground ball tendencies out of the bullpen, but with potentially more movement on the fastball. If his slider shows more consistent break in a relief role, he's a closer in the making.
Scouting Report: (beneath the jump)
Walden's mechanics allow him to do the impossible: hit triple digits while also imparting exceptional sink to his fastball. The pitch is so good, he's one of the game's few pitching prospects who can throw it almost exclusively and still succeed. Angels' Manager of Baseball Operations, Tori Hernandez, said in a recent interview with Jeff Biggs that Walden has "probably the highest ceiling in the organization as far as pure stuff goes... when he's healthy he can get up to 98 and 99." Unfortunately, elements of his delivery threaten his career for two reasons: first, the tiniest of mechanical missteps have and will disrupt the complicated string of motions necessary to deliver the ball in the mid to high 90's with command; second, his distinctive arm path may pose a significant risk to the long term health of his elbow. You can see footage of Walden pitching for the Quakes here.
Walden's push off from the mound is more leap than drive, propelling his torso forward in a slight arc towards home plate. The leap helps his upper body to accelerate past his hips well before he plants his front foot. Most pitchers - in fact, every one that I've seen in recent memory - lead more with their hips towards home, transferring momentum sequentially from hips, to torso, and finally to the arm. Because Walden launches his torso forward ahead of his hips, when he plants on his forward foot he has a high center of gravity, remaining "tall" at the point of release, but is already "falling" as his momentum rotates over the front leg and down into the ground. That's great for imparting downward plane on the ball, but the speed of the "leap" requires two things to happen: rapid, precise arm action and a consistent plant with his front foot under higher than usual impact. He has no time to adjust his motions mid-delivery, so the mechanics have to be perfect, every time, or velocity and command suffer.
His arm action is not only fast, but potentially hazardous. After breaking his hands he extends his arms, sweeping them up until they are parallel with the ground, then hooks his elbows behind and above his head while letting the glove and arm hands drop (take your pick - It's the zombie or the puppet look). The motion keeps his upper half balanced as he bends at the waist and pinches his shoulders, storing energy for the delivery. Many pitchers load in this way, but Walden's elbows are so high that they give a distinctive "M" shape to his upper body as he launches towards the plate. That's rare for someone with a three quarters arm slot because cocking to throw overhand from this position requires rotating the ball arm 180 degrees around the elbow very quickly. That produces a whip-like motion in the arm a moment before release, which perhaps adds movement and deception -- but it could also create catastrophic strain on the shoulder and elbow. Other overarm guys who load with their elbows nearly as high as Walden? Jon Bachanov, before Tommy John surgery, and Mason Tobin, also before Tommy John surgery. Walden doesn't rotate his ball hand all the way back, parallel to the ground, as he throws, which both of the other guys did pre-injury, but he did hit the DL twice this year with elbow and forearm issues, so there's reason to worry.
In addition to the fastball, Walden also throws a slider that rates as an occasional plus pitch, but is inconsistent in location, velocity, and break. Alex Eisenberg reports that he's added a softer curveball, which is news to me. Walden has the starter's obligatory change-up, but the pitch has never really worked for him. That mix will play just fine in the bullpen, where we can expect to find him for the foreseeable future.