Taijuan Walker has graced the top tier of many prospect lists for some time now, and for good reason. The former first rounder from 2010 shot through the Seattle Mariner minor league system, displaying a great fastball, a good cutter, and what have been called work-in-progress tertiary pitches in his curve and change.
All along the way, he’s demonstrated an ability to miss bats, and when his control doesn’t leave him, he has the stuff to dominate. Plus, he seems to have a great relationship with Angela Rypien, which can only be a good thing. Yowsa.
Walker’s three starts with the Mariners in 2013 were certainly a successful debut as he pitched 15 innings, giving up 11 hits and striking out 12, posting a 3.60 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. A note of caution outside the regular sample size alarm — two of those starts came against the Houston Astros who weren’t making any kind of playoff push late in the season. So Walker got a bit of a soft landing when it came to his initial cup of Starbucks.
If you’re a Seattle Mariner fan, it’s worth getting excited about Walker, even very excited. But for fantasy baseball purposes, I think you have to temper expectations. Projecting Walker for the 2014 is kind of a fickle affair do to his youth, experience, and anticipated role.
Throughout almost 400 minor league innings, Walker never demonstrated an ability to reign in his control. His walk rate at every level never got below 9%, and as recently as last year it was 11% over 57 AAA innings. Some pitchers can be successful with their wildness. Think Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, even Ubaldo Jimenez was good last year with a 10% walk rate. But other pitchers with an elevated walk rate and a K rate above 20% include Ryan Dempster, Ian Kennedy, Tim Lincecum. Those aren’t bad pitchers, but they’ve had their share of struggles — and all of them would occupy the back end of most self respecting fantasy rotations.
But to the issue of his age — that inexperience smacks of an impending learning curve, and many point to his underwhelming results at AA in 2012 as a natural bump in the road of development before performing well a year later at AAA. But Mark Smith did an interesting piece on Walker back in February of 2013 and dug up this interesting little nugget. Of pitchers drafted out of high school, age 21 and under, this is what their first pass through AA looked like:
Looking at walk rates and FIP, Matt Cain is a super interesting comparison. In fact not a whole lot of these guys save for Hernandez, Cueto, Jackson, and Johnson really dominated — many obviously still kind of feeling their way through.
Steamer isn’t particularly bullish on Walker going into 2014, suggesting a 4.43 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, with a 21% strikeout rate. That might be good enough as a bench stash and spot start, but it’s not going to win you any championships. But with Walker there is of course that elusive upside, which all but guarantees he’s owned in almost every keeper league out there.
There’s not even a guarantee that Walker starts the season in the Major Leagues. The Mariners could very well prefer to go with some retread veteran and let Walker season in the minors for a few months to ensure he’s ready. But chances are, he enters the season as their #4 or #5 and the question seems more when not if he finally arrives, results wise.
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