Taijuan Walker’s Journey

Taijuan Walker is an elite pitching prospect. Despite the TINSTAAPP rules, Walker has ranked in the top 15 of the major top 100 lists, and he’s Seattle’s No.1 or No. 2 prospect, depending on the list. Walker’s 2012 line, however, was a little underwhelming. He posted a 4.69 ERA and 4.04 FIP, and during the couple chats I’ve done with Mike Newman, I’ve seen quite a few questions about whether we should be worried about it. The answer is no, but I thought it warranted a longer, more detailed answer.

Age is one of the most important aspects when looking at prospects, and Walker has that going for him. While being older doesn’t mean a player isn’t talented or even talented enough to be a quality player at the major-league level, a young age allows for more development time and more time to convert tools into skills. It’s also important because you want a player’s physical peak to match the timeline in which he can use those physical gifts meaningfully in a major-league game. If a person physically peaks in his/her early-to-mid-20s, then you would like for players to be in the majors and producing at that time.

Getting to the majors as a 21- to 23-year-old can help the player adapt to the high level of play and begin utilizing skills while he’s physically peaking. When he begins to physically decline in his late-20s, his experience and “baseball IQ” will (theoretically) compensate for the slight loss in physical talent, leading to his “performance peak.” If the player waits until his mid-20s to get to the majors, he’s fighting Father Time while trying to adjust to the majors, but it’s certainly not impossible for him to be a quality player. Walker is on pace to pitch in the majors at the age of 21.

That puts Walker is on the right side of this age conversation. Born on August 13, 1992, Walker was 19 for almost all of last season. Here are the median ages of each full-season league in 2012, courtesy of Baseball America.

League Level Median DOB Median Age
Midwest Low-A 11/28/1989 22
South Atlantic Low-A 1/6/1990 22
Carolina High-A 11/1/1988 23
California High-A 10/3/1988 23
Florida State High-A 12/20/1988 23
Eastern AA 12/20/1986 24
Texas AA 10/20/1987 24
Southern AA 11/3/1987 24
International AAA 1/4/1985 26
Pacific Coast AAA 7/3/1985 26

Having been skipped over High-A and the California League, Walker went to the Southern League (Double-A) and pitched against hitters several years older. As Keith Law noted, Walker was the youngest pitcher who spent the entire season in Double-A. But even if he was young, his stuff should have been able to get batters out, right? Well, kind of. Many of the batters he faced had a few more years of baseball experience, and they’re also more physically capable of punishing Walker for his mistakes. He was good enough to hold his own, but he also had to learn some lessons he would have otherwise learned in High-A, which hurt him occasionally

But even if he was young for his age, does his moderately underwhelming performance signal a sign of trouble? I took a look at the top pitchers from this past season, specifically the ones drafted out of high school (it would be unfair of me to judge the ones drafted out of college for being a bit older) and found out how they performed their first time through Double-A.

Player Age League IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 ERA FIP
Taijuan Walker 19 SOU 126.2 8.4 3.6 2.3 0.9 4.69 4.04
Felix Hernandez 18 TEX 57.1 9.1 3.3 2.8 0.5 3.30 3.17
Edwin Jackson 19 SOU 148.1 9.5 3.2 3.0 0.5 3.70 3.11
C.C. Sabathia 19 EAS 90.1 9.0 4.8 1.9 0.6 3.59 3.90
Matt Cain 19 EAS 86.0 7.5 4.2 1.8 0.7 3.35 4.08
Zack Greinke 19 TEX 53.0 5.8 0.8 7.3 0.8 3.23 3.60
Clayton Kershaw 19 SOU 24.2 10.6 6.2 1.7 1.5 3.65 5.02
Gio Gonzalez 20 EAS 154.2 9.7 4.7 2.1 1.4 4.66 4.80
Josh Johnson 21 SOU 139.2 7.3 3.2 2.3 0.3 3.87 2.92
Johnny Cueto 21 SOU 61.0 11.4 1.6 7.1 0.9 3.10 2.89

A couple things are interesting here: The first is that a lot of these pitchers pitched in Double-A around the same age as Walker. The second is they didn’t all perform so well, statistically speaking. King Felix is otherworldly, so comparing him to other guys is a little unfair. Edwin Jackson mowed through Double-A, but Sabathia, Cain and Kershaw had some bumps along the way (though Kershaw’s performance was only 24 innings). Gonzalez was a year older and had an even worse go of it. As for Johnson and Cueto, they were a full two years older than Walker. If Walker could sit in Double-A for another year or two, he’d probably dominate there, as well. This, of course, isn’t to say that Walker is definitely going to be the top-of-the-rotation pitcher like these fine gentlemen, but it should alleviate concerns over his Double-A performance. Getting to Double-A at 19 means you’re pretty good — and being able to hold your own at that level at that age means you’re pretty good, too.

That, however, leads me to a final point about minor-league statistics. Be careful. Statistics are great for major-league players because they’re accrued against major-league players. Everyone is assumed to have the skills to produce at that level. Minor league statistics are accumulated against a lot of guys who will never step foot on a major-league field, and as a result, context really needs to be considered when looking at them. Minor league players use the minor leagues to work on aspects of their game that aren’t so good because those weaknesses need to improve by the time they reach the majors.

This is good for them in the long-term, but it hurts short-term production. Luckily, statistical results don’t really matter in the minors, but once they’re in the majors, they do. This is why so much focus is placed on the scouting reports: If you have the raw tools of major-league talent and are gradually turning them into skills, you’re on the right track. As for Walker’s scouting report, Mike loves him some Taijuan Walker.

A scout once told me minor-league development is about the journey, not individual events. We’re so used to looking at individual season performances because each season is so important in the majors, but the minors don’t work that way. In the majors, everything is about winning and utilizing skills to accomplish that goal, but in the minors, it’s about the gradual developing those skills to the point that they can be used in the majors. Walker could have pitched in and dominated High-A, which would have been awesome for his statistics, but the Mariners decided Double-A would be better for his future with the Mariners. So don’t worry about Taijuan Walker. He’s actually ahead of schedule.

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8 Responses to “Taijuan Walker’s Journey”

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  1. maqman says:

    A non-baseball factor could well of had a bearing in TJs second half of the season results, which dragged down his seasonal numbers. He found out at that point that his mother, whom he is very close to, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It would be entirely human for a young man of his age to be distracted from his occupation by such news for an extended period of time. He finished the season in his league’s playoffs performing well again.

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    • Mark Smith says:

      That’s a good point. Easy to forget that these kids aren’t emotionally mature yet, in many cases. Hard to know how it affected him, though.

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  2. bookbook says:

    He also struggled with consistency on his curve ball. In AA, he could have probably dominated with the fastball alone (It’s good).

    But he needs to master some sort of curve for the Majors.

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  3. TwoScoops says:

    The median ages for all levels is over 21, which makes sense, since a pretty sizable chunk of players come to the pros from college. Is there any way to tell the median age of players who one day made an impact in the pros? (+10 career WAR or whatever threshold you want). I guess the thought is that a lot of filler guys are on the minor league rosters inflating the median age. Players who don’t have a shot to make it to the majors. Perhaps Walker’s youth isn’t as shocking under that microscope.

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    • Mark Smith says:

      Either way, he’s still facing guys that are older than he is. Just because they aren’t good enough for the majors doesn’t mean they’re just fodder. Some are pretty good at that level and are still legit competition for up-and-coming prospects.

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      For High-School draftees, here’s a good rule of thumb:

      18 – Rookie league
      19 – Low A
      20 – High A
      21 – AA
      22 – AAA
      23 – Majors

      That’s only to be used as a gauge. Almost no players are going to follow that same exact course, but it gives you a general idea of about where a prospect should be at a certain age, if he’s likely to have any kind of career in the Majors.

      The average age of any league is going to be older than what a good prospect should be when they hit that league.

      College players are different, of course, they’re older when they get drafted, and are placed higher or lower based on their draft spot and prospect status.

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  4. Average_Casey says:

    One thing that I think bears mentioning is that Walker did not play baseball and pitch until his later years in high school. His development curve is a little behind your average pitcher. I think that hurts him short term but may help long term because he has less mileage on his arm.

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    • Mark Smith says:

      Maybe. One could also argue that he hasn’t built up the stamina in his shoulder to consistently make it through seasons (we’re really not sure). That was probably more of a factor when drafting him, knowing he could make serious strides if he focused on one sport. He’s obviously still improving, but he’s seemingly closed the gap as he’ll be 20 and probably in AAA.

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