Taijuan Walker has unfortunately (but probably very wisely) reached his innings limit for 2013, getting to 156 1/3 combined in the minors and majors last night after his third and final five inning start for Seattle, so the Mariners are shutting him down for the rest of the season. That final start Monday night at Safeco Field was against the Houston Astros and SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall was on hand to take in the only opportunity to watch Walker in the big leagues first hand. This is the report on what the 21-year-old showed last night, and throughout his 2013 season in the major and minor leagues.
The most hyped pitching prospect for the Mariners since 19-year-old Felix Hernandez debuted back in August of 2005, Walker had what we could term a "soft landing" as two of his three starts were against the team with MLB's worst record in the Houston Astros. He faced the Kansas City Royals in between. While those match-ups were certainly by design and must be taken into consideration when evaluating his MLB starts, those two games facing Houston do still have weight because of the simple fact that he faced one team a second time.
There's no mistaking that Walker is a power pitcher. His fastball routinely hits the upper-90s and he has shown throughout this season that he can sustain that velocity late into games. That power allowed him to strikeout a batter an inning or better in 17 of his 28 total appearances this season. The velocity comes from an easy, fluid delivery that seems to make the explosive velocity of his fastball even more explosive. That was more evident in last night's start than it was in his previous two at the big league level, and the comparisons from the three games bear that out. Take a look at some charts:
Walker used his fastball as a weapon more last night than he did in his two previous starts for Seattle, and that led to an impressive 10 swinging strikes on the pitch out of 50 thrown. The 4th and 5th innings for Walker were pure fastball dominance as he struck out five of the last seven hitters that he faced and retired the final nine batters of the year after battling his command a bit early.
"The best thing about tonight was that he got better as the game went on," said Eric Wedge post game. "He was really, really good in the 4th and 5th -- he was really leveraging the ball down but he was able to elevate the fastball to get swing-and-misses," Wedge added. The skipper also talked about the overall impression Walker left in his brief big league introduction, "In three different outings we've seen three different types of games from him and they've all been good."
Those charts above reflect that statement from Wedge and the pitch use and success changed dramatically in Taijuan's three outings. After Walker gave up the second run in the fourth inning last night, you could see that he made a conscious effort to attack with the fastball more -- more than he had at any point in any start -- and there were a lot of 95's to 98's from that point forward.
Walker himself talked about how the game developed and why he was so much stronger later in the start. "[I] started getting ahead, fastball location got better, I was able to pitch my game and felt more comfortable [in the 4th & 5th]," he said. When he was asked if he was happy with his performance in these three games, what his focus was going to be going forward and if making the big league rotation in 2014 out of spring was on his list Walker stated, "I know I need to work on my breaking ball in the off-season, but for the most part I think I've shown them," the type of pitcher he is.
One of the biggest factors for Walker's success to me in these three games has been his ability to command the fastball and to use it up out of the zone to his advantage. I wrote back in June about how I thought that approach could help out reliever Carter Capps, who also has plus-plus velocity, but Walker seems to be one of the few pitchers in the organization who has really latched on to that philosophy. He expanded the zone up consistently with Jackson and Tacoma during the minor league season, and all five of his strikeouts which came on the fastball last night were of the swinging variety on fastballs up. My friends over at Lookout Landing posted a great GIF look at each of Walker's Ks this morning to give you a visual of that.
The willingness to elevate the fastball really speaks to Walker's development as a pitcher. He was drafted as a very raw, very electric high school arm who by his own admission didn't really know how to pitch. Learning to work and command the ball down and get his defense to do a lot of the work behind him was one of the first steps in that development for Walker, and he has done a good job of that in his time in the minors with a 43.8% GB% in his 68 starts.
Getting ground balls is something that almost every top pitcher does in this era of baseball. According to FanGraphs 28 of the Top-30 starting pitchers in terms of FIP over the last decade have a ground ball percentage of better than 40.0%. Walker was at 38.1% in his three starts, but that track record in the minors suggests that he'll improve to over 40.0% in a larger sample.
The cutter and curve -- which were both new pitches this season for him -- were the next step for the right-hander. And while Walker is certainly still working to refine both of those, each pitch has really improved over the course of this year. Elevating the fastball in key spots, again, has been huge, and now the last thing for Walker to fine tune his game is the improvement of his curve and changeup.
Both pitches have flashed as at least average offerings and both generated swinging strikes last night, but advancing those pitches is something that could make Walker really special. Just how special? Asked on MLB Network Radio today if he saw Walker as a future ace, Wedge answered, "He has that type of stuff. His upside is to be a number 1."
That label has been with Walker for a while now. But the past three games tacked on to a very successful season at the minor leagues' two highest levels are a good indicator that Walker could be one of the few prospects to actually deliver on that lofty promise.
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.