The Question Walker Sheller Must Answer in the AFL

Walker Sheller was selected by the Royals in the 9th round of the 2016 MLB Draft.  The college reliever from Stetson immediately took that role on within the Royals farm system.  Sheller is a right-handed pitcher who has a pitcher’s build.  He is 6’3″ with long arms and listed at 195 pounds.  Sheller is high-waisted which is something scouts look at as well.

Sheller was a 2018 Texas League All Star this year just two years out of college.  Sheller had a 3.53 ERA in 35 games for the Naturals.  Sheller had two outings in which he just got shelled.  If you take those 10 ER in 2.0 innings out, his season ERA is 1.83 allowing just 13 BBs in 49.0 innings.  Those are really good numbers.

walker sheller

Walker Sheller delivers a pitch for the Naturals. Picture from milb.com.

The one number that really stands out is his 4.95 K/9 at NWA this year.  In the previous 3 levels, his K/9 was anywhere from 7.5 to 9.77.  In 2017, Sheller struck out nearly 1 in 4 batters with a 24.7% of plate appearances ending in a strikeout.  In 2018, it was 1 in 8 hitters with a 12.7% of plate appearances ending in a strikeout.

Where have all the K’s gone?  For some reason, when Sheller got to Springdale, his strikeout numbers dropped drastically.  Maybe the Royals were asking him to pitch to more contact or Texas League hitters did a better job adjusting to his stuff or he dealt with an injury which made his off speed pitches less effective.  I don’t know the reason but it is very important to his future that the Royals and he identify this and take remedies to fix it.

What is interesting is that Sheller’s swinging strike percentage has not changed much in his movement through the minors.  At Lexington last year it was 11%, at Wilmington last year and this it was 13%, and at NWA this year it was 11%.  The number that changed the most was his strike looking percentage.  That was 17% at Lexington, 13% at Wilmington, and 11% at NWA.

Sheller has a fastball that ranges from 91-96.  He was usually right around 93 when I saw him throw this summer.  Sheller throws a slider and a change as well.  The slider has decent movement but it isn’t always a large break.  It is tight but can roll at times.  Sheller did have some issues with the pitch starting it too far off the plate or in a spot where hitters recognized it was never a strike.  The pitch has 11-5 movement from the catcher’s perspective.  This could be a reason his strikeouts dropped as well.  Sheller also throws an okay change.  It has some arm side movement and a little bit of sink.

Sheller’s delivery is a little like that of former Royal Louis Coleman.  It is not nearly as extreme as Coleman’s, but there is some crossfire there.  What I mean is that Sheller steps toward the hitter more than his catcher.  This makes it look like he is going to throw the ball at the batter instead of the catcher.  It can be deceiving for hitters.

Sheller’s FIP and xFIP will be slightly higher because of his lack of strikeouts.  The numbers suggest that he out pitched his abilities this season because of his FIP being nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the ERA.  I don’t necessarily think this is the case.  If Sheller can get those K’s back, the FIP will most definitely drop back down below his ERA.  I know this is a negative indicator, but he has had success in the minors and has had a higher strikeout rate his entire career.  Sheller gives up less than a hit per 9 and walks less than 2.5 per 9 as well.  This should limit the base runners and when he gets those K’s back, it should lead to a much lower  number as well.

Putting all this together, my answer to where the strikeouts have gone is not concrete.  With a drop in strikes being taken, Sheller is not ahead in the count as much.  He is therefore throwing more pitches in hitters counts and not getting as many defensive swings.  The ball is being put in play more as a result.  Hitters are also recognizing his slider quicker and laying off the tough ones resulting in hitter’s counts.  I don’t think this is the full answer, but it explains a portion of the drop in Ks.

The Royals have moved Sheller quickly.  They see something in him they like.  With Dayton Moore being the master of building bullpens, Sheller probably has a chance to be a bullpen guy in 2020.  The Royals will send Sheller to the Arizona Fall League this year to allow him the opportunity to prove himself against some of the better prospects in all of minor league baseball.  Sheller must prove that he can strike hitters out and limit the base runners.  Sheller needs to prove that he didn’t out pitch his abilities this season and that the low K/9 was a blip on the radar.

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2 thoughts on “The Question Walker Sheller Must Answer in the AFL

  1. One reason for lower Ks might be development of secondaries, trying to finish hitters with a weaker pitch to build it up. AA is a good place to do that. That’s what the minors are for.

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    • Jim – I watched video from last year over multiple appearances and I didn’t notice Sheller doing anything different in counts. The slider looked the same, maybe a bit sharper last year. Fastball seemed to be more on a downhill plane last year than this year. It could be as simple as that. Plus better hitters.

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