Taijuan Walker - Frontline Ace

Taijuan Walker has become one of baseball's Top-5 pitching prospects. His ability to throw heat, mixed with a plus curveball made him the Seattle Mariners 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Although his 2012 season was rocky at times, he is on track to become a front line starter in the Major Leagues.

The 2010 Major League First-Year Player Draft, headed by 2012 National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, is regarded as one of the most talented classes of the past two decades. This sentiment is echoed loudly down the board and out of the first round with a number of selections netting notable success in professional baseball.

Long after Chris Sale, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Yasmani Grandal and Harper received their Major League call-ups, the top prospect from this class remains Seattle Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker, selected 43rd overall and 19th among prep athletes.

Baseball America offered the following pre-draft analysis, "Scouts agree that Walker is a long-range project as a pitcher, but his combination of sparkling athletic ability, raw stuff and imposing build may make Walker a gamble worth taking."

Buried among the 18 teenage selections before him and the bevy of top rated talent Walker threw seven innings of baseball for Seattle in 2010, not reaching Baseball America's Pre-2011 Top-100 Major League prospects. The young right-hander would pitch in the Futures Game and Midwest All-Star Game on his way to being named the Seattle Mariners Pitcher of the Year for 2011. His fastball, rated ‘#1 in the Mariners system' following the 2011 season by Baseball America netted him a Top-20 Minor League K/9 ratio (10.52), striking out 29.4% of batters faced.

Walker would jump to #20 in Baseball America's Pre-2012 Top-100, ranked as the 8th top right handed prospect in baseball. Accompanying his ranking on this list remains a note that reads, "Legitimate comparisons to Dwight Gooden." If there was a quote that describes the ceiling Walker possesses, there it is. As it turns out, his 2012 season wasn't what many analysts had planned for it to be.

Pitching in Double-A Jackson, as part of the ‘Big Three', may have been a larger bite of baseball than the young right hander was prepared to tackle. At 19-years of age the young flamethrower was the second youngest player in Double-A ball, nearly a full year younger than the next pitcher to throw in the Southern League (Zach Lee, 20). His 2012 season earned him a bump to 2nd overall Seattle Mariners prospect. This had as much to do with the play of fellow farm-hand Mike Zunino, ranked 1st overall, as it did with his up and down season off the mound.

Walker's season is seen as erratic at best by some and undeserving of the praise he netted in 2011. I see progression, let me explain.

Years from now the only statistic from this season that will be remembered of Walker is his 4.69 ERA against – or 525th among qualified minor league pitchers. Despite his inflated version of baseballs outdated, iron-clad measuring tool (ERA) of pitchers, his ceiling still touches fellow right-handers Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy.

It can be too easy to forget the age and experience of a player after the type of season Walker posted in 2011. Coupled with his size (6'4", 210) and ability to flash 97mph on the radar gun, he looks more like a 23-year old than a prospect who spent the majority of 2012 as a teenager. But that is exactly the case. Walker would match and exceed his total professional innings pitched (103.2) prior to this season by throwing 126.2 in 2012. Take a look at how he got through them:

April 9, 2012 – May 27, 2012

Date(s) Games Innings Pitched ERA Hits Walks Strikeouts K/BB
April 9 - May 27 9 44.1 2.24 38 14 44 3.14

Even if you had predicted that Mike Zunino would storm the Northwest League and eventually finish the season in Double-A, you would've been crazy to name Walker the 2nd overall prospect in Seattle following his first nine starts. Mixing his plus curveball and fastball with a developing change-up, Walker allowed just 56 base runners in 44.1 innings pitched while posting an impressive 3.14 K/BB ratio.

Upon watching Walker pitch in May Mike Newman of Fangraphs wrote, "Walker's curve fell off the table like a paper weight". Following a legitimate comparison to Los Angeles Dodgers starter Josh Beckett the article closes with, "Walker needs more seasoning at the minor league level than his numbers would indicate, but the ceiling is arguably the best I've seen in person."

Surprised? You shouldn't be. His curveball, fastball combination early in the season made him one of the early season favorites for a September call-up.

Player (Mar/Apr) ERA FIP GB% BABIP K% KS% (Swinging Ks) HR/9
Tyler Skaggs 4.24 3.16 33.3% .370 34.3% 23.2% 1.54
Trevor Bauer 1.26 3.06 40.3% .283 31.4% 26.3% 0.31
Taijuan Walker 1.64 2.38 43.4% .288 30.2% 22.1% 0.41

Coming into the season Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer, both Arizona Diamondbacks prospects, were arguably the top two non-Seattle pitchers in the Southern League on Opening Day. Walker, younger than both, kept pace and bettered both in a number of categories early in the season.

June 2, 2012 – July 14, 2012

Date(s) Games Innings Pitched ERA Hits Walks Strikeouts K/BB
June 2 - July 14 7 31.2 8.07 33 32 33 1.43

Walker would struggle with his pitch placement and control as the Jackson Generals began play in June. His numbers (0-3, 9.15 ERA) in five starts confirmed the feeling Newman stated above, indicating his overall game needed more refinement than his numbers alluded. His June K/BB ratio dipped to a professional low 1.43 as the young right-hander allowed over two base-runners per inning pitched. His alarmingly high BB/9 (6.97) in June coupled with his 10.02 K/9, sixth in the Southern League, left many with the feeling that Walker just wasn't gripping his secondary pitches effectively, relying heavily on his fastball.

The greatest indicator of Walker's future presented itself in an interview prior to the Futures Game. He let us into his world saying of his struggles, "Physically I feel fine. Everything feels the same, I just hit a bump," Walker said. "Lately I've been a one-pitch pitcher. I need to show my curveball. Hitters in Double-A can hit a fastball. I need to be able to show I can throw a curveball for strikes."

He would address his secondary pitches saying, ""The curveball is a hard pitch. But if you keep throwing it, it will come and it will eventually become natural."

His poise and mindset through his trying month of June went above his years and July would present the new beginning Walker hinted at above. There are few things more important to Major League clubs than the ‘make-up' of their young players. Walker was able to identify his struggles, confront them, and eventually move past them. He didn't lose his passion or his fire, he stayed calm and stuck to the game of baseball he knew.

July 20, 2012 – August 28, 2012

Date(s) Games Innings Pitched ERA Hits Walks Strikeouts K/BB
July 20 - August 28 8 46.1 3.90 48 12 34 2.83

Walker regained control of his secondary pitches after the Futures Game, logging a 3.90 ERA in his final eight starts. Though he was not the flamethrower of 2011 he doubled his K/BB ratio (2.83) compared to his previous seven starts (1.43), a giant step from the concerns over his control in June.

Of his late season success Walker would say, ""You just have to trust yourself," he said. "Everyone's going to have struggles at some point when they're a pro. You just have to work to get yourself out. I think I'm there now."

He posted four of his six quality starts on the season during this time and capped off his season with two successful outings.

Line: 12.2 IP (0-1), 10 H, 1 ER, 0 HR, 4 BB (1.147 WHIP), 13 K (10.65 K/9)

MLB.com ranked Walker as the 4th overall prospect in baseball following the conclusion of the 2012 Minor League system. Citing that once his change-up catches up with his fastball, curveball combination he is a future frontline starter for the Mariners. The only pitcher regarded as having a higher ceiling relative to Major League baseball is Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy, ranked 2nd overall by MLB.com. For a kid that had never thrown a curveball before being drafted, that is some of the best company a pitcher can keep. Ranked 5th and 9th overall on this list are the two Southern League aces mentioned above, Bauer and Skaggs

Although his 4.69 ERA alludes to a season of struggles, the framework for a successful minor league season was there throughout. His athleticism and ability from the mound makes him one of the most exciting young players in baseball. If this season was an indication of the toughness Walker offers mentally, Mariners fans should be very excited to see what he offers in 2013.

If you shucked off his season after seeing his ERA, like many have done, you never would have seen his true progression. Digging past Walker's surface numbers certainly add a shine to his season and shed a light on what he should become in the Major Leagues.

NOTE: Before the season began Taijuan Walker faced a number of big league hitters at the Seattle Mariners complex in Peoria, AZ. His outing was described by two fellow team-mates, Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan.

Dustin Ackley on Walker, "You see that kind of stuff in the big leagues right now. I don't know how far along he is in game-like situations, but just seeing him on the back fields, he looks like he has the stuff, and he's only going to get better. It's pretty scary to think about."

Brendan Ryan on Walker, ""Very fluid, very easy - effortless. The ball comes out hot. He's got some good tilt on the breaking ball, and I like the changeup. It's hard to distinguish. It comes out the same slot as the fastball, and it just kind of bleeds down a little bit. "He's pretty far ahead of the game. The talent's there, obviously. It's just fine-tuning it and making sure the control is there, maybe learn a cutter or something. If the control's there, I'm sure he could compete (in the major leagues) right now. You could tell he's an athlete, too. Sky's the limit, it looks like."

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