By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
Taijuan Walker, Starting pitcher, Seattle Mariners
2015 season (Majors): 29 G, 29 GS, 169 2/3 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.196 WHIP, 11 W, 157 SO, 40 BB
The name Taijuan Walker has been familiar to Mariners fans and those who monitor top prospects for quite a few years now. The Mariners drafted him in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft out of high school and by ‘12 he was ranked as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. It’s been all but a smooth ride for Walker the past few years, but he’s very close to being the pitcher everyone knows he can be.
Walker made his MLB debut in 2013 after posting a 2.93 ERA, 1.196 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 in 141 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple A that year. He continued to pitch well in ‘14 and even had more success in the bigs in ‘14 with a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings. Last season, Walker had his place in the Mariners’ rotation locked up, and for good reason.
Despite some struggles in the Minors, Walker had proven he could have success in the bigs, so 2015 was supposed to be his time for a breakout. Unfortunately, the season resembled Jekyll and Hyde more than anything. In Walker’s 11 wins, he posted a 1.55 ERA and struck out 77 batters in 75 1/3 innings, issuing just five walks and allowing 51 hits in the 11 starts. In his other 18 starts, he was smacked around, giving up more hits (102) than innings pitched (94 1/3).
Fortunately, much of Walker’s success came in the second half, so he was able to make positive progress in his first full year in the bigs. On some nights, Walker looked unhittable — notably his complete-game one-hitter against the Twins on July 31, in which he struck out 11. He followed that up with three straight quality starts and, aside from two slip-ups, was very good the rest of the season.
Walker features a fastball that hovers around 94-95 miles per hour (his four-seamer averaged 94.1 mph, according to Fangraphs’ PITCHf/x tracking. He also primarily featured a splitter and curveball last season, but he struggled to control the curveball. This spring, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. has worked with him on his arsenal, which could feature a slider more this year.
Still only 23 years old, Walker is still developing. His numbers last year are impressive, considering his age. He cut down on his walks drastically from the previous year, posting a 5.7 BB% that ranked in the top 25 among starters last season. Walker’s main issue last year was the home runs — he gave up 25 of them. That was a product of Walker throwing more strikes, but he is getting a lot of swings and misses, so some of that may have been due to some misfortunate. Nonetheless, his hard-hit rate of 30% needs to come down, and he can do that if he can really improve the effectiveness of his breaking ball. The fastball is there, and when it’s on, it’s hard to hit. If the secondary pitches come this year, Walker may take the final step towards front-end starter — and from there, with his talent, the ceiling is almost limitless.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.