After being predicted to have a breakout season since since his MLB debut Walker still has work to do
The Seattle Mariners chose a 17-year-old right-hander in the first round of the 2010 draft. The kid, a dominant power pitcher named Taijuan Walker, moved swiftly through the minors, making his big-league debut on August 30, 2013, shortly after his 21st birthday. Walker showed a lot of promise across the three starts he made in 2013, going 1-0 and posting a 3.60 ERA over 15.0 innings. He was expected to have a huge breakout season in 2014 and was even slated for a spot in the starting rotation.
The past two seasons have not been easy for Walker. He dealt with an injury throughout almost all of 2014 and was limited to eight games. He started 29 games for the Mariners in 2015, but struggled early on in the season; while he performed better in the second half, his 4.56 ERA on the year isn’t exactly what you would call a “breakout” season.
Since his successful debut in 2013, Walker has been expected to have his big “breakout season” twice already. Sports on Earth slated him for a breakout in 2014, and Bleacher Report put him on the list for a breakout again in 2015. As for the upcoming season, some are beginning to question whether or not Walker’s big breakout will end up happening at all.
In 2014, Walker was plagued by a nagging shoulder injury that began on the second day of training camp. He was shut down for a week by February 28 and again in early April, after making his first start in the minors and being scratched from his second. He finally made his first MLB start of the 2014 season on June 30th and was only used sporadically throughout the rest of the season, making a total of just five starts and just eight total appearances. Walker ended up posting a 2.61 ERA over 38 innings.
The 2015 season marked Walker’s first full season in the majors. He started 29 games for Seattle. He got off to a very rough start that allowed his ERA to balloon up to 6.18 by the end of May. He improved after that, going 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA, 118 strikeouts and only 17 walks in his final 20 starts. Those last starts are what is making him, yet again, a member of most 2016 breakout candidate lists. He finished the season 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA and a 1.96 WHIP over 169.2 innings.
The reason for Walker’s turnaround is pretty clear. In his first nine starts he walked 11.1 percent of the batters he faced. That number lowered to 3.4 percent in his final 20 starts. Yet, even after his turnaround in 2015, he still had some issues that he needs to get rid of before he will be able to be a top-of-the-line starter in the Mariners rotation.
Walker has natural velocity on his fastball which averages in the mid-90’s. His cutter and his splitter sit in the high 80’s – low 90’s. He also throws a curveball that sits in the high 70’s but he has never really developed a big league-caliber changeup. While he has a curveball he doesn’t throw it nearly often enough, and it was alarmingly ineffective against right-handed hitters, who posted a .278 average and .333 ISO when he threw it to them.
His being primarily a fastball pitcher really limits him, as hitters will wait for that inevitable pitch left up in the zone and take him deep. He allowed 1.21 home runs per nine innings over his final 20 starts in 2015, and his hits allowed per nine innings have jumped from 6.6 in 2013 to 8.6 last season.
Even after he’d begun to turn things around beginning with his 10th outing of the season last year, the problem was evident. So was was his ability to keep the ball in the yard. His ISO allowed in his first nine starts was .190 and while it did improve in his final 20 starts to .154, that’s a number that is still a bit too high for comfort.
Of course, at just 23 years old, there is still a chance Walker will progress into an elite pitcher. He needs to work on his mechanics and keeping the ball down. At the same time, he needs to develop a real changeup or learn to throw his curveball more often and more effectively. If he can’t get a handle on these issues and make the necessary adjustments, Walker will likely never have the big breakout season that everyone, especially the Mariners, have been waiting for.