Still room for Walker to improve

 If you’ve watched Taijuan Walker this season, particularly his most recent two outings — in Cleveland last week and earlier this week versus Houston — you’ve seen what the former No. 43 overall pick can do. On the year, the 23-year-old owns a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 9-1, his FIP sits at 2.11 and he’s inducing ground balls at a 55 percent rate. Furthermore, the right-hander has a better curveball in 2016 and is using it four percent more than a year ago.

The ball is exploding from his hand — top 10 in American League in starting pitcher fastball velocity at 94.1 — his curveball is better, he’s figured out over the past 20 starts how to use the split-change, he’s holding the first batter of the inning to a .240 on-base percentage and with two outs opponents are batting .115/.148/.269. After pitch 75, which often coincides with the third time through the order, at least partially, batters are 3-for-29 with 12 strikeouts and no walks. After throwing a first-pitch strike, batters are 4-for-45 off Walker with one extra-base hit, 15 punchies and no walks. Walker’s been terrific.

But all this goodness we’re seeing is just a taste. Walker can, and probably will, get even better.

Sure, all pitchers can get better if they just do what they do best on a more consistent basis, and the same is true for Walker. But there’s more in the tank beyond improved consistency. Here’s how Walker takes yet another step forward as the 2016 season unfolds:

Curveball Development
We’re seeing a league-average curveball from Walker this year, which is a step in the right direction. Walker is 93-98 with his fastball, and his slider and split-change both sit upper-80s and touch 90 mph. Everything is firm and sometimes within 3-6 mph of one another. Having something softer to show a hitter can be important, particularly for a potential No. 1 starter without plus command.

We’re not seeing many swings and misses yet, but he has induced some weak contact and showed he can throw it for a called strike — which is imperative if he wants batters to take the pitch seriously.

Last year, Walker’s curveball had an 80.8 percent spin rate efficiency. This season he’s up to 87.7 percent, above league average. Tops in the league the past two years has been 92-94 percent.

Slider
This is a pitch in its infancy. He threw a cutter a few years back in the minors but ditched that to focus on his command, split-change and curveball. Since late last year he’s thrown it again, moving his fingers into more of a traditional slider grip. It doesn’t break much yet so he has to be careful with it, but as the year progresses it may very well become a more effective offering. He’s throwing it about nine percent of the time now in attempt to attack right-handed batters away more effectively, and to get inside to lefties.

If the slider becomes average or better, we’re looking at a three-pitch No. 1 starter. If the curveball follows, it’s a legitimate four-pitch mix giving Walker weapons that attack all quadrants of the zone versus both lefties and righties, contact hitters and power bats.

Delivery
This is one of those areas where most pitchers can improve, but Walker’s mechanics, as simple as they are, could easily be more deceptive and produce more perceived velocity and better finish to each of his pitches.

The right-hander tends to open up a little earlier than is optimal — again, not a huge red flag for consistency or even injury, but if he can tuck that shoulder in and create a more cohesive upper-half explosion, batters will have even less time to react and won’t get a look at the ball as early in the delivery.

I’d also like to a see a little bit more aggressive stride; you’ve probably heard or read my thoughts on how Walker uses his lower half. I don’t love it, and though it’s working for him I’d love to see better use below the waist to take some pressure off his arm. To throw 95 mph, Walker produces a lot of arm speed with his upper half. The more he uses his legs, the easier the velocity becomes.

Perceived velocity, by the way, is the effective speed of the pitch after considering how much distance between release point and the plate the pitcher gives the batter to react. If that’s confusing, thin of it this way: If the pitcher threw a 95 mph fastball to the plate standing on second base instead of the mound, the batter would have significantly more time to react properly. Even an inch or two makes a difference between velocity and perceived velocity. Using his lower half better could extend his release point further from the rubber and closer to the plate.

Walker also could use a better finish, generally described as just before release point through the release of the baseball. This will help Walker’s command and ability to create downward plane consistently. He already throws a heavy fastball, but he tends to cut himself off, almost snapping off pitches like a scrambling quarterback, which causes a miss of location. It hasn’t hurt him much in his first four starts but last year was good example; he’d throw a fastball 95 mph, but without a strong finish to the pitch it stayed up, flattened out a bit and his curveball had very little depth and bite.

Walker’s already improved in this area since last summer, but he’s athletic and has developed a work ethic and focus that could lead to ace-like features.

Conclusion
For years, many assumed Walker had ace upside because he threw hard and was athletic. I always contended he was likely a No. 2, and while I still see that for his ultimate long-term future, there’s a chance he’s not only a No. 1 in a year or less, but also an outside shot he’s among the 10-12 true aces in Major League Baseball by the time 2017 gets underway.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Walker’s, but I didn’t think we’d get to this point. Kudos to him for putting in the kind of work it takes to get where he is now, and where he may be headed: Stardom.

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Jason A. Churchill

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