SeattleClubhouse: Thanks for taking some time with me here to do an interview for the site, Taijuan.
Taijuan Walker: No problem, Rick.
SC: You and I talked at FanFest two years ago and even that year you told me that your goal was to make the big leagues during the 2012 season. How much do you think you've grown as a pitcher and as a person over those two years?
TW: A lot. Especially on the mound during my starts. I know that I used to get real frustrated when I gave up a hit or gave up a run. I'd be down. I think this past year I really worked on keeping up my confidence, keeping up my focus, realizing that I'm going to give up hits from time to time. I had Brad Miller tell me during the season, 'Tai, you've stepped up a lot, you've really grown.' Having someone like that come up to me and say, 'you've improved on this and this, keep it going,' I think that was big for me to realize and stay on track.
SC: The cutter. It's become, probably your number two pitch now.
TW: It is, yeah. It's my go to.
SC: How did that come about? Who taught it to you, suggested it?
TW: Just myself, really. I talked to LaTroy Hawkins a little bit about it. I just wanted to add it because, at that time, my curveball wasn't working so well so I was basically a one pitch pitcher with the fastball. It was getting real frustrating. So I really wanted to add the cutter. It was quick and easy for me to learn it and it was easy for me to control. This year I hope to really focus on my curve and improve that pitch so then I can hopefully have two other go to pitches that I can turn to when I need them.
SC: And with that fastball, talking again about your maturation process, you backed off a lot more often on that pitch last year, seemingly being more comfortable to work it at 92-94 and holding that extra in your holster for when you needed it. Was that move more about command, more about pacing yourself or just more about knowing situations and working to set hitters up?
TW: I think it's a combination of all of those. Watching Felix [Hernandez] and other pitchers...Felix is a really good example of that. You know, when he came up he was upper-90s a lot, and now he's just 90-92, but there is a ton of movement and he's spotting up. He's saving that velocity for when he needs it. Another one is [Justin] Verlander. He saves his gas until late in games. Sometimes you'll see him 120 pitches in and lighting up the radar gun at 100, 101. So I took some cues from that. I wanted to pace myself and definitely I wanted to make sure that my command was there and to have that [extra velocity] there if I needed that late in the game, too.
SC: Elevating. You have the type of fastball that, when elevated, that is a major weapon.
TW: Oh yeah.
SC: How do you work with the thought of consistently working down in the zone but still balance that with changing hitters' eye level and getting that swing-and-miss up when you need it?
TW: That started with [Rich] Dorman [Walker's pitching coach in Clinton]. He really hammered that home with me. He told me, ‘you know you really need to elevate with a fastball like yours.' The biggest thing is that I want to make sure that I don't elevate too much, give the hitter that illusion that it could be a strike and make sure that they offer at it. But I really want to command down and then use that high fastball as a weapon at 0-and-2, 1-and-2. And even off that, throwing my curveball, maybe in the dirt, to back up on that.
SC: Rick Waits is the new pitching coach at the big league level here but you've seen a lot of him over the past several seasons while he's served as the pitching coordinator, so you've interacted with him quite a bit. What does he bring as a pitching coach and what is that familiarity on both sides going to do for you this year?
TW: Yeah, he's been here since I got drafted, so just being comfortable with him. He knows me, knows how I like to pitch. And with that he'll be able to pick up on things if I need to work on something or if I'm doing something wrong, he knows and he can tell me, ‘hey Tai, stay closed,' so I think that helps a lot. With me and the other young pitchers that came up with him. I think it's a great fit.
SC: You were asked about the innings cap up there before. How many do you feel like you've got in you for this year?
TW: You know, to be honest with you, my body felt great last year, my arm felt good. I felt like I could've pitched the whole year, but definitely my goal next year is to be up here and pitch the whole year. I just want to get as many innings as I possibly can so that next year I'll be able to jump that up even more.
SC: We've talked about the cutter and you said that you want to work more on and focus on your curve this coming year. What do you feel that you need to work on improving to become the pitcher that you envision yourself being in the major leagues?
TW: I just have to be consistent with everything. I know last year my curve was real inconsistent, the change was inconsistent. I know in watching all the great pitchers -- even Kershaw, even though he's a lefty, I watch him, too -- their consistency and their offspeed pitches. They're throwing them for strikes, throwing them for balls when they need to, the break is consistent. So I think that if I can just get everything to where it is pretty consistent then I'll be pretty comfortable with myself.
SC: A social media question for you here. You posted a few videos of you doing some pretty amazing dunks and that got picked up by a lot of people, including the MLB Fan Cave people. Did the Mariners say anything to you about that?
TW: They did not, no. I was kind of surprised, actually. Honestly I didn't get any negative feedback from it. It's something [dunking] that I've been doing for so long that I'm really comfortable with it. I think if it was a different situation like a pick-up game and I was possibly landing wrong with other people around then that would be a different story. But just out there by myself I think it's safe.
SC: Alright Taijuan, well be safe. Everyone is looking forward to you having a great spring and showing what you can do in a full season in the big leagues this year.
TW: Thanks Rick. I appreciate it.
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