Taijuan Walker, and the Rookie Hurlers Who Came Before Him

The list of compelling rookie seasons for Seattle pitchers is a short one.

Mark Langston debuted in 1984 with a 4.1 WAR. Freddy Garcia managed a 3.7 WAR in his freshman season in 1999. The flame-throwing Michael Pineda tossed up a 3.2 WAR in 2011. Felix Hernandez managed a 2.3 WAR in his somewhat brief debut season, the exact same mark that a 28-year-old rookie southpaw by the name of Bobby Madritsch managed in 2004 when he came out of no where to to appear in 15 games (11 starts).

We know Taijuan Walker, who will make his MLB debut against the Houston Astros on Friday night, will not come close to matching those marks. He’s going to make only a handful of starts, at most, due to his innings limitation and the fact that there is only about a month left in the season. That doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm around the most highly anticipated pitching debut since Hernandez.

Let’s break things down even further with the names above and look at how they performed in their debut games:

Langston — facing the Milwaukee Brewers and the likes of Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Cecil Cooper — went 7.0 innings and allowed just two runs. He gave up four hits with a few control problems that led to three walks, but he struck out five batters. Langston held the above mentioned trio to just one hit in 11 at-bats. Backup outfielder Mark Brouhard, who appeared in 304 games over six seasons, took the rookie hurler deep in the fifth inning for his first home-run-allowed. Despite that blip, Langston earned his first career win, and the Mariners took the game 3-2.

Garcia faced a potent Chicago White Sox lineup in his debut and came out victorious. He threw 57 of his 94 pitches for strikes and walked just two batters. The opposition — featuring Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Ray Durham — produced its fair share of threats thanks to seven hits allowed by the rookie, however only two of them were extra base knocks and Garcia allowed just two runs. The Mariners won the game 7-3.

We all know that Pineda’s career has crumbled due to injuries since he was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees but he appeared to have a very bright future when he took to a big league mound for the first time in 2011. Facing an unbeaten Texas Rangers club (4-0), the rookie pitcher allowed three runs in 6.0 innings. He struck out just four batters but walked only one while sprinkling in five hits. The Mariners took a tough loss 3-2 thanks in part to a strong game by opposing pitcher Alexi Ogando.

King Felix, just 19 at the time of his debut in early August 2005, took a hard-luck loss to the Detroit Tigers and journeyman hurler Sean Douglass. The Mariners rookie was touched up for one earned run in 5.0 innings. He allowed three singles and two walks while whiffing four. It was a decent result considering the fact that he threw just 49 of his 81 pitches for strikes. Interestingly, Hernandez did not allow a fly ball but he induced 13 ground balls. Old friend Magglio Ordonez appeared in this game and had two hits. Another familiar name — Carlos Guillen, who was traded from Houston to Seattle with Garcia (and John Halama) in the Randy Johnson deal in 1998 — went 1-for-3. The game ended 3-2 in the Tigers’ favor.

Walker will face an Astros’ lineup that many people will refer to as a ‘Triple-A lineup’ but they have some dangerous hitters in Chris Carter, who punishes mistakes and is closing in on 30 homers, as well as Jason Castro and Robbie Grossman, both of whom are among the hottest hitters in the Majors over the past month.

Walker enters the Majors on a high. Over his past three starts he’s struck out 24 batters in 16.1 innings. However, he’s also walked 10 hitters so his command and control still have a ways to go. He just turned 21 recently, though, so no one is expecting the fourth-year pro to be a finished product. The California prep product features two potentially plus pitches in his mid-to-high-90s fastball and curveball. His changeup has its moments.

Seattle has leaned heavily on its minor league system in 2013. Seven members of the pre-season Top 15 prospects list have now appeared in the Majors, including catcher Mike Zunino and Walker (once he takes to the mound this evening). Well-travelled reliever Danny Farquhar has produced the highest WAR (1.7) of any 2013 Mariners rookie — even though he didn’t join the club until mid-May.




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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

10 Responses to “Taijuan Walker, and the Rookie Hurlers Who Came Before Him”

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  1. Rule of Law says:

    7.0 innings

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  2. Dirck says:

    At this point ,what do you think the chances are that Hultzen becomes even an average MLB pitcher in the next 2-3 years ?

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  3. triple_r says:

    Is the game in Houston or Seattle? Cuz Carter’s got a crazy home/road split

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  4. reillocity says:

    In the past, Chris Carter has tended to sit versus the high-velocity RHP with a good breaking pitch. But the Astros are carrying 13 pitchers now leaving the bench thin with Jake Elmore and Marwin Gonzalez as the two replacement options for Carter in the lineup.

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  5. frivoflava29 says:

    6 innings and a movie

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  6. Scraps says:

    Interestingly, Hernandez did not allow a fly ball but he induced 13 ground balls.

    That’s what Felix was famous for; at least, famous to the readers of USS Mariner for in his first two to three years: incredibly high ground ball vs fly ball tendencies.

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  7. Balthazar says:

    It was 5.0 innings, 70 pitches, as the Mariners seem to be intent on nursing him through 3-4 more limited inning starts into September. That is actually not a bad plan at all. It will keep him at or near the 170 total inning cap the team has aimed for. It will give Taijuan a chance to polish his repertoire against advanced hitters without having to throw too many high leverage innings late in his year. It’s the best set up to prepare Walker to break camp in 2014 in the Mariners’ rotation, which seems to be what the org is leaning toward. I can’t say I think that’s a bad idea, given that the Mariners have been starting the wreckage that was Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders for practically all of this year.

    Three clownish plays in a row by Mariners ‘offenders’ in the field lead to the only run Walker allowed: catchable LD to left clanked off Raul Ibanez’ glove, sure inning ending ground ball to short that went _right through_ the space where 1B Justing Smoak’s glove was for the only error, letting the run in, and another playable ball in the hole that ticked off of 3B Kyle Seager’s glove. Walker walked one in his last inning IIRC. He only struck out two. Sequencing his pitches will still be an issue for him, all the more reason for him to throw some big league innings now. OTOH, he was getting a steady stream of grounders, which is hard to argue with.

    His change-up/forkball was filthy, but he’s still reluctant to use it enough. Only saw 1+ inning, and very little of the curve. I think MLB hitters may lay more off his mid-90s four seamer as things progress next year, making his use of his secondaries critical to sustain success. Don’t be surprised if he has a bad patch or two next year: he did in AA, and in AAA, but got past them due to the quality of his stuff. I don’t see him dominating out of the gate. Late 2014, or more likely 2015 for that.

    Glad to see Walker have a clean debut, and a W for the memory machine.

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  8. Mr. X says:

    Taijuan’s father Frank: “It is very exciting. It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable. Words really can’t describe it.”

    Winner of new TV show ‘Can Your Son Beat the Houston Astros?’

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  9. Bspittle says:

    “That doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm around the most highly anticipated pitching debut since Hernandez.”

    Strasburg says hi.

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