PEORIA, ARIZ. – There is greatness in the powerful right arm of 23-year-old Taijuan Walker. It shows up in small clips, like July 31, when he threw a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts against the Twins. In the first few innings, Walker overpowered with his fastball. In the last few, his curve and changeup danced about six inches off the plate and the Twins flailed helplessly.
“I was able to expand the zone outside because I was getting ahead of every hitter,” he said, recalling the best outing of his 40-game, 37-start career on Wednesday morning at Mariners camp.
There is also struggle in there, when the fastball sails, the changeup and curve float, and the baseball ends up flying out of the yard. Walker gave up 25 home runs in 169 2/3 innings last season and had the seventh-highest home-run rate among ERA-title qualifiers.
Walker’s story thus far is a common one for a young pitcher. It’s a tale of inconsistency and trying to find his best self. Some days he wows, some days for lack of a better term, he whoas.
Walker was 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA in 29 starts last season. He had a 7.33 ERA through his first nine starts, but a 3.62 ERA in his last 20, which began with a seven-start run in which he had a 1.68 ERA, struck out 51 and walked only three.
Teasing out the wow and limiting the whoa is a good test for the new Mariners regime, headed by first-year manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.
“The challenge for Tai is just consistency,” Servais said. “You look at his season last year and he got off to a rough start, then turned it around in the second half. I talk to the players a lot. I tell them to be a great player in this league, you have to be good, good, good and then you wake up and you’re great. Consistency defines it. [Is he close?] Absolutely. The physical tools are there. He’s healthy and the ball is coming out of his hand well.”
Walker is built for the ball to come out of his hand with explosiveness. He’s listed at 6-foot-4 and a rather lean 235 pounds when you look at him up close. He can hit up to 97 mph with the fastball and his changeup looks like a fastball but averages 89. He also has a cutter that he works in from time to time. The one thing he’s still searching for is a consistent curveball. He has gone so far as to adopt the spike grip that some of his teammates use but hasn’t found magic with the pitch just yet.
Last season, Walker threw his curve for strikes 51 percent of the time, the seventh-lowest rate among the 118 pitchers who threw 200 curveballs last season.
“I want my curve to be my out pitch,” Walker said, “but for now, it’s just another pitch.”
“A work in progress,” Stottlemyre said, describing it. “The spin and shape is getting a little better. We’re working hard on the breaking ball right now. It’s a confidence thing with him, getting a feel for it, when to throw it, what it means to him, just to add to the rest of his stuff.
“The breaking ball is the last finishing touch. He doesn’t really have a handle on it, but I’ve seen spots where the shape and spin rate are there. It’s just a matter of getting consistent with it. Once that pitch develops, to go along with what he already has, you’ll be closer to a finished product.”
It was pointed out at the SABR Analytics Conference last week that it’s easy to tell a pitcher he would be better if he gave up fewer homers, but finding the formula to do so isn’t that easy.
“Guys on other end are going to eliminate the other pitches and they’re going to look for his heater,” Stottlemyre said “On days it loses life and command, and is in a bad spot, hitters are going to hit his 97."
Walker and Stottlemyre do have a plan in mind that they’re working through this spring geared to long-ball reduction. And it’s not complicated. Keep it low early, go above the barrel late.
“I’m working on just pounding the bottom of the strike zone,” Walker said.
There are high expectations for Walker from outside the Mariners' organization this season, but he’s focused on more simple goals
“Just making all my starts, giving my team a chance to win every game,” he said.
Stottlemyre is preaching patience.
“One thing about Taijuan is we know he’s going to push himself,” Stottlemyre said. “We’ve seen games he dominated, but he yet to put it all together [repeatedly]. I’m not convinced he knows how he’s [excelled]. He’s still trying to find out who he is and how he works. You learn that through innings and through seasons. When he’s 25, he’s going to be a completely different pitcher. When he puts it all together, he can dominate a game. He’s special.”