Taijuan Walker gets the nod for the Rainiers tonight at home in his Triple-A debut. Promoted to Tacoma by Seattle on Friday, Walker is among the best pitching prospects in the minor leagues and has performed as such over his past several starts for Jackson. But while this promotion is a big accomplishment for the 20-year-old right-hander, Walker knows that his work isn't finished. "There's still one more goal ahead of me. I want to get up there, keep working and make the jump to the big leagues." If he continues on the path he's been on so far, that goal can't be too far off.
The 43rd pick -- and first selection by Seattle --- in the 2010 draft as a raw athlete relatively new to pitching, Walker hit the ground running in pro ball in 2011 after a brief introduction to the professional ranks in 2010. That 2011 season saw him post a 2.89 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.5 SO/9 over 18 starts as an 18-year-old in the Midwest League. His performance and his stuff from that season led to him being widely considered as a Top-20 prospect in baseball. Working mainly off of his overpowering fastball, Taijuan was simply more talented than most of his opponents while he was in Clinton. So despite still learning about himself as a pitcher and a person, Walker succeeded on stuff more than anything else.
That off-season the teenager worked hard to improve himself and would end up being assigned to Double-A Jackson in the Southern League to open the 2012 campaign. Pitching almost the entire season as a 19-year-old -- nearly five full years under the average age for the league -- Walker was good, not great, although he showed flashes of brilliance. He dominated out of the gate but stumbled in June and seemed to hit a wall when August rolled around. All in all, a 4.69 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and .744 opponents' OPS showed that there was still work to be done.
Admittedly a little disappointed at being reassigned to Jackson in 2013, Walker didn't sulk. He came into the season throwing a new version of his curveball and a new pitch altogether -- a cutter -- to help him better deal with left-handed hitters with a renewed focus and understanding of what he needed to improve upon to get where he wanted to be. The changes in the repertoire seem to be working, and the results are easy to see. His strikeout rate against left-handers climbed from 19.6% last year to 24.3% this year. And while his command wasn't sharp to start the year, Walker now has just 12 walks while striking out 64 in his last 56 innings dating back to May 1st.
|AA (2 seasons)||AA||3.80||39||210.2||182||89||18||80||214||1.244|
|A (1 season)||A||2.89||18||96.2||69||31||4||39||113||1.117|
|Rk (1 season)||Rk||1.29||4||7.0||2||1||0||3||9||0.714|
But the changes aren't just showing up in the numbers. "No doubt about it in maturity, as a person and as a professional pitcher," Jackson's Chris Harris told me when I asked about where the biggest difference was this year in Walker. "This time last year he hit a major wall but now he's thriving. He's mastered his three pitches and the changeup he's throwing for strikes now, too. He just knows how to throw to guys now." How are things different in his preparation, I asked Harris. "Starting at 6 o'clock for his 7pm start, he knows what to do beginning to end. He's just a quiet, confident kid. He works harder than everyone else to go on top of his amazing God-given abilities."
Beyond preparation, Walker is better understanding how to use those abilities. He's stretching himself later into games with more left in his tank, enabling him to reach back for that high-90s velocity if and when he needs it. "He had a 96 mph FB on his 96th pitch the other [Thursday] night. He'll pinpoint a 92 or 93 mph fastball instead of trying to throw three at 97 to blow a guy away now." That maturity on the field is matched with a maturity off the field, too, according to Harris. "He's a star -– we haven't had a guy like him in my five years here. Everybody in the league wants to talk to him and they are always just blown away with his professionalism."
Walker is a fan favorite in Jackson, too. The night of his T-shirt jersey giveaway happened to fall on a night where Taijuan was in the stands charting pitches for his next start. Fans hoped they could get a little something from Taijuan that night, and they weren't disappointed. "Every half inning there was a line in the aisle to his seat and he would sign every jersey. He stayed a half an hour after the game to make sure he got to every one of them," said Harris. He continued, "And it was Taijuan making sure that he got to everyone because he was so happy they were there for him."
The scouting report on Taijuan reads like a checklist of the step-by-step of what you look for in a frontline starter: Great size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and excellent athleticism (former standout basketball player and shortstop) get the package started. He has long limbs and a sound, easily repeatable delivery. His fastball works comfortably from 93-96 and he can dial it up to 98 when needed, getting good arm-side run and sink when he gets the ball down but also showing great late life when it is up. His new spike curveball is typically 73-76 and he has been locating that pitch in the zone for called strikes and down out of the zone getting chase swings much better over his last 10 starts or so. The cut fastball is usually 89-91 but he throws it as high as 93 from time to time, and it has great run that produces some funny looking swings from left-handed hitters. The changeup is Walker's least effective pitch because it is fairly flat and straight, but it is still effective at times purely because of the speed differential. This video from Jason Cole of Lonestar Dugout from April on Walker is fantastic.
Seattle has a couple of outstanding starting pitchers currently fronting it's rotation with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. But with Walker's arrival, the Triple-A rotation could soon include Taijuan, Brandon Maurer, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez andDanny Hultzen. And when Walker makes his debut tonight he will be doing it as the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League this season. He'll also be the youngest starting pitcher to throw for the Rainiers since Felix made his first Triple-A start back in April of 2005. That is something that Seattle fans can certainly get excited about.
|AA (2 seasons)||AA||7.8||0.8||3.4||9.1||2.68|
|A (1 season)||A||6.4||0.4||3.6||10.5||2.90|
|Rk (1 season)||Rk||2.6||0.0||3.9||11.6||3.00|
The table above isn't to say that I believe Taijuan Walker will be the next Felix Hernandez, but the similarities in their ratios in the minors at like ages is an encouraging sign that Walker is following a path that can lead to big league success. Taijuan first needs to master Triple-A, of course.
So what will be different for Walker at this level? "Nothing changes, still the same game, go up there and keep everything the same," he said. If he is right and the results remain the same, that next goal of pitching in the big leagues could come sooner rather than later for Walker.
Looking for more Mariners news, articles and player interviews? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse site Editor Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.