During the 2011 season, Mariners Taijuan Walker quickly morphed from project to one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Entering 2012, an aggressive assignment to Double-A skipped him past the hitters’ paradise of the California League. The upper level assignment was expected to challenge the teenage right-hander. However, with a 2.86 FIP, nearly a strikeout per inning and more than a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, Walker has posted one of the most impressive lines in minor league baseball when one takes age-versus-level into consideration.
Of course this level of success will lead to prospect speculation of his being ready for Seattle, but Walker still needs to add plenty of polish at the minor league level to unlock all of the potential his right arm holds. Given his present success, the idea Walker is far from a finished product is a scary proposition for future opponents.
Video after the jump
After a doubleheader the night previous, followed by a seven hour bus ride, Walker was understandably a little off to start the game. His first few fastballs registered in the 91-92 MPH range and it took some effort for Walker to touch 94 in the first. My initial reaction was, “he’s no Dylan Bundy“. However, Walker spent the next three innings dominating much like the Orioles top prospect.
In innings two-through-four, Walker worked in the 92-95 MPH range, touching 96. And while the velocity was impressive on its own, Walker was able to generate the best downward plane of any pitching prospect I’ve seen at the minor league level. From a high arm slot, Walker’s fastball exploded on opposing hitters. His slot also allowed him to hide the ball causing his velocity to play even higher. Additionally, the pitch featured explosive downward action to the bottom of the strike zone and he settled into grooves where his command to both sides of the plate came with ease.
When paired with his 75-77 MPH curveball, Walker was essentially unhittable. And while former cup-of-coffee big leaguer Travis Denker certainly isn’t the best litmus test of future success at the major league level, the veteran minor leaguer had much better swings off of Trevor Bauer and other top minor league pitchers scouted in Chattanooga over the past couple of seasons than Taijuan Walker.
In describing Walker’s curveball, it flashed true 12/6 action and two-plane break which buckled many a knee. On one pitch, Walker’s curveball appeared headed for the opposing hitters batting helmet causing him to duck. By the time the pitch reached the plate, it had broken over the middle for a called strike. From a side view, Walker’s curve fell off the table like a paper weight. At times, Walker did get around the pitch some causing a more slurvy 11/5 break, but this mostly occurred later in the game after he had tired. As he continues to log professional innings, I’m confident this will iron itself out and the pitch will solidify as plus.
At 88 MPH, Walker began to mix in a changeup with considerable potential the second time through the lineup. It was a bit hard out of the hand, but good arm action and late fade when the pitch was down in the zone is more than one can expect out of a teenage pitching prospect. When Walker tired in the fifth and sixth innings, the changeup dropped to 85 MPH and added even more drop and fade.
during Walker’s final two innings, he simply ran out of gas after surrendering a three-run home run to Dodgers farmhand Kyle Russell on a fastball up in the zone. The blast seemed to take the wind out of Walker’s sails leading to a three mile-per-hour drop in his arsenal across the board. With diminished stuff, he more fought than pitched his way through the final two frames. This is a tad concerning considering Walker only threw four innings before tiring, but when one combines his slender frame with the amount of time at the park/on the bus the day before, it’s completely understandable. However, it’s something I will asterisk and monitor going forward. If it becomes and ongoing issue, then it could become cause for concern.
Two other things to look for as Walker continues to develop are how much weight he is able to add and if that aids in smoothing out his present arm action by allowing for more effortless velocity. At times, some effort was noticeable in his arm action with a bit of wrist funk in the back of his delivery. Any discussion of what Walker can improve upon is more nitpicking than identifying a true problem area at this point though as he’s years ahead of the development curve.
Few pitchers at the minor league level project for even one plus offering, let alone two. With Walker’s fastball/curveball combination, along with a changeup which could stabilize as average-to-above, the formula is present for the teenage phenom to surface as a frontline starter if not true ace. With an additional 30 pounds of size to his frame, it’s easy to envision a fastball sitting in the mid-90′s with a wipeout curveball and changeup he can throw at 88-90 MPH. The quality of present stuff and considerable projection place him on the short list for best pitching prospect in baseball.
When comparing Walker’s stuff to pitchers who have thrown 500 or more innings between 2000 and 2012, one pitcher stood out as a near perfect match in terms of build, pitch type, projected usage rates and velocity. His name? Josh Beckett. Yes, the Red Sox right-hander has had some injury issues which have cut into his effectiveness and career numbers. But when right, Beckett is one of the better pitchers in the American League and was once expected to become the best in the game. Walker needs more seasoning at the minor league level than his numbers would indicate, but the ceiling is arguably the best I’ve seen in person.