Looking at Walker’s struggles

 This was supposed to be the year that Taijuan Walker began his transition from top prospect to top-of-the-rotation arm, but unfortunately that has not been the case for the Seattle Mariners. After missing Spring Training with shoulder inflammation, the prized right-hander made a pair of rehab starts before hitting the disabled list for more than two months, finally making his season debut with the M’s on June 30th. It’s been an up-and-down ride since then, and Walker has had more than his fair share of struggles.

Walker last started for the Mariners on July 23rd against the New York Mets when he allowed two earned runs in five innings of work. The problem with that outing is that the right-hander issued six walks and just 51 of his 94 pitches were for strikes. Control was been Walker’s enemy throughout the season and it was a similar story in his July 6th start against the Chicago White Sox as he issued five walks and threw 49 of 83 pitches for strikes. Walker’s first major league start of the year, one week prior, was a solid six-innings performance in which he allowed two earned runs, issued only two walks, struck out six, and picked up the win.

The 21-year old was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma after the start against the White Sox and pitched five innings in each of his following two starts. Walker only struck out two batters while walking four in the ten innings of work and the trend continued: his stuff was mediocre and control was yet again an issue. Fast forward to his most recent starts, still with Tacoma, and the picture doesn’t get much prettier. On July 29th, his last start before the trade deadline, he allowed four earned runs in five innings of work and struck out seven batters alongside a pair of walks and a hit batter. Walker’s last start, on August 4th, was ugly: two and one-third innings of work, eight hits including a grand slam to former Mariner farm-hand Carlos Triunfel, one walk, one hit batter, and one strikeout.

[pullquote]Walker was drafted No. 43 overall in the 2010 Draft as Seattle’s compensation pick for losing Adrian Beltre. He entered the season ranked No. 1 in the organization by Prospect Insider and as the No. 11 overall prospect by Baseball America.[/pullquote]

At first glance it’s difficult to attribute Walker’s control issues to any one particular thing. Perhaps he’s still been trying to find some consistency in his game after a lengthy rehabilitation process riddled with setbacks and there’s always the possibility he still isn’t 100 percent healthy yet, though there hasn’t been anything reported to support that. The former first-round pick has seen a decrease in his fastball velocity in his 2014 major league starts compared to his handful of September starts last year. Walker averaged 94.3 miles-an-hour with his fastball in 2013 compared to 93 miles-an-hour this year, though his cutter velocity has stayed about the same — his max velocity on both his fastball and cutter is down a couple ticks compared to last year. Keep in mind that this is using very small sample sizes.

Is a drop in velocity a reason for concern? We need more context than that since pitchers typically make adjustments as they get older and tend to focus on hitting spots as opposed to simply trying to blow the ball past batters. Remember: Felix Hernandez isn’t throwing the 98 mile-an-hour fastballs he exhibited in his debut season anymore.

After that disaster of a game Rainiers’ manager Roy Howell said about Walker, “it happens — it was awful command, and when he did get the ball over the plate it was out over the plate and it got hit. He just couldn’t hit his spots at all.” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon offered his thoughts on Walker Tuesday morning as well.

The truth of the matter could be simple: Walker’s a young pitcher and typically young pitchers struggle at times. It’s easy to forget that the right-hander is still a week shy of his 22nd birthday as this year marks his fourth professional season, excluding a handful of appearances back in 2010. Walker does have 429 minor league innings and 30 major league innings under his belt so he is much more advanced and arguably more refined than a lot of comparably aged pitchers, but his 6.18 FIP in 48 Triple-A innings this year is still concerning.

We also can’t underestimate the mental side of things as well. Aside from the frustrations he undoubtedly dealt with during the injury/rehab process from February to May, he’s been a hot topic among trade rumors for much of the last nine or ten months now. As much as players deny paying any attention to trade rumors and speculation, they do have some level of knowledge as to what’s going on, even if that’s just reading the same Ken Rosenthal tweets you and I do. There’s also little reason to doubt he’s been unable to handle the process in a professional manner as Reynolds Sports Management, his agency, likely has plenty of resources to help with the situation at his disposal. Not to suggest the trade talks have had no ill effects on the youngster, but at times some consider these types of external factors to play a much larger role than they actually do.

We should also consider the fact that Walker should be performing well at the major league level this year and the fact he hasn’t been has possibly furthered his frustrations. He’s had plenty of minor league experience to draw from and the talent is absolutely still there, but when things aren’t clicking like they should be, well, it gets frustrating. Walker knows who he’s supposed to be: No. 1 draft pick, consensus top-ten prospect in all of baseball, future superstar, but he also knows what he is now: extremely talented, still developing, young pitcher with plenty of miles ahead of him.

It’s been a very difficult year for Walker, there’s really no sugarcoating it. Between the injuries, control and consistency issues, trade rumors, and general underperformance, one could claim this season to date has been just short of a disaster for the young right-hander in several ways. I’ll discernibly disagree with those critics and offer a single word to describe Walker’s 2014 season: development.

There’s going to be bumps and bruises and injuries along the way and Walker has just had a misfortunate year all around where it feels like everything has gone wrong. But hey, there’s still two months of baseball left in the season, and A LOT can happen. It won’t take much for him to go on a nice stretch through August and September if he’s able to locate his fastball better and continue to utilize the rest of his repertoire.

Certainly Walker’s value is down compared to where it might have been in January, but I’ve maintained the stance that selling low on him would still be a mistake. The Mariners have no reason to make a hasty decision on just one poor year. Walker still has the talent to become an excellent player, and he appears to have the necessary work ethic and (mostly) positive attitude that are also key.

Seattle does not have a starter listed for Sunday’s game against the White Sox and it’ll likely be one of Walker and Erasmo Ramirez or the resurgent Tom Wilhelmsen and company that takes the mound. Some have suggested Walker’s implosion on Monday night took him out of the running to get the call, but McClendon has said that the outing will not factor into his decision.

There’s nothing wrong with leaving Walker at Triple-A for a couple more weeks to get regular work and refine his game since James Paxton pitched well in his first start off of the disabled list, but there’s also nothing wrong with giving the youngster another shot to prove he belongs with the big boys.

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Tyler Carmont

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