Defending Taijuan Walker

We all know people who seemed to have life figured out at a young age. They’re motivated, committed, and successful.

Conversely, we’ve all encountered a late bloomer who finally “got it” and eventually went on to triumph in business and life. They may have stumbled out of the gate, but they too reached the winner’s circle.

When given the benefit of hindsight, we tend to applaud the success of those slow starters who never gave up.  Why? Most of us can relate to them.

The harsh reality is that we all develop at different rates for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps, challenges out of our control or limitations we’ve placed upon ourselves are holding us back. Regardless of the reason, we’ve come to appreciate that our starts don’t necessarily define our finishes.

The same holds true for professional athletes.

There’s a pitcher on the Seattle Mariners who fits into category of sluggish starter. Someone who’s developing at a slower pace than most would prefer. I’m talking about Taijuan Walker. The young pitcher has struggled with injuries, inconsistency, and the perception that he’s not competing hard enough this season.

In other years, Seattle fans would be more understanding with the 24-year-old and willing to wait for their young star to bloom. But, this year is different. Very different. The Mariners have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

This season, fans aren’t interested in waiting for Walker — or any player — to find himself with less than 40 games remaining on the schedule. The hunt for October is on.

That sentiment is understandable — 14 seasons without playoff baseball will affect one’s psyche. Compounding fan angst is today’s news that the Mariners have designated starter Wade LeBlanc for assignment today. In the minds of many, LeBlanc — and fellow starter Ariel Miranda — deserve to be in the Mariners’ rotation over Walker.

I get the frustration, but is the case for either LeBlanc or Miranda over Walker compelling? I don’t believe so.

Here’s a look at the production of LeBlanc and Miranda as starters compared to Walker’s last eight (and worst) outings. The numbers don’t make a convincing argument to abandon Taijuan. Not to me, at least.

Taijuan vs. “The Competition”
Name G GS
ERA IP/GS AVG H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Taijuan Walker 8 8 5.26 5.1 .265 9.4 2.2 2.6 7.7
Wade LeBlanc 8 8 4.48 5.5 .266 9.6 2.4 1.8 6.9
Ariel Miranda 2 2 5.29 5.1 .189 6.2 2.2 2.6 6.2

Yes, LeBlanc did go a little deeper into games than Walker. But, not by much. Plus,  he wasn’t dominant and wasn’t going to suddenly become so. The southpaw’s best production was barely better than Taijuan’s worst.

The same holds true with Miranda. Other than the his .189 opponent batting average, the 27-year-old’s numbers are very similar to Walker’s totals. Who has a better chance of being better down the stretch?

I’ll take Walker, who held opponents to a 1.44 batting average and was averaging 6.25 innings-per-start in April, over a pitcher with two career major league starts. Although it’s an extremely small sample size, Walker has a better track record and possesses more raw talent than Miranda.

For some, the frustration with Walker runs much deeper. They’re fed up with the right-hander’s slow development and want to move on. My advice is simple for anyone wanting the team to “cut bait” and deal the former first-round pick. Be careful for what you ask for.

Walker isn’t the first young pitcher to struggle early in his career. Far from it. I’m sure if I were to reach 88-MPH in a certain modified DeLorean and go back in time, I’d discover most fans wanted to give up on the following pitchers after their first 55 starts — the number Walker currently has on his resume.

Taijuan vs. Former Greats (First 55 starts)
Name Team
G GS
W-L ERA IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Taijuan Walker SEA 58 55 18-19 4.16 318.1 8.4 1.3 2.4 8.1
Cliff Lee CLE 55 55 23-15 4.63 305.4 8.8 1.3 3.7 7.5
Greg Maddux CHC 59 55 23-23 4.13 368.4 9.1 0.7 3.5 5.5
Tom Glavine ATL 55 55 15-24 4.48 321.4 9.2 0.7 3.1 3.7
Roy Halladay TOR 80 55 19-18 4.87 375.3 9.8 1.0 3.8 6.5

Sure, many great pitchers are instant studs or they figure it out before the 50-start mark. But, as you can see, even Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine took take a little longer than 55 starts to develop. Patience paid off in all of these pitcher’s cases.

Am I suggesting that we’ll be seeing Walker enshrined in Cooperstown someday? No. Yet, history proves that even great players can take a little longer than desired to reach their full potential.

Okay, so I’ve demonstrated that I know how to dig the record books to find a few old guys who started slowly. Big deal. What about current players? Ask and you shall receive.

Taijuan vs. Notable Active Starters (First 55 starts)
Name Team
G GS
W-L ERA IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Taijuan Walker SEA 58 55 18-19 4.16 318.1 8.4 1.3 2.4 8.1
Jake Arrieta BAL 55 55 19-23 5.16 307.2 9.2 1.2 3.9 6.6
Zack Greinke KCR 55 55 27-40 4.97 317 10.3 1.4 2.2 5.8
Dallas Keuchel HOU 64 55 18-23 4.55 354.1 9.8 1.0 3.0 6.3
John Lackey ANA 55 55 22-42 4.47 334.2 9.7 1.2 2.9 6.1
Johnny Cueto CIN 55 55 24-41 4.73 310.2 9.3 1.4 3.3 7.5
CC Sabathia CLE 55 55 23-14 4.84 312.1 8.2 0.9 4.5 7.7
Bartolo Colon CLE 57 55 23-17 4.34 338 9.5 0.9 3.7 7.0

The starters listed above have combined to make 18 all-star game appearances and win five Cy Young awards. That’s pretty good considering they all had similar numbers to Walker through their first 55 starts.

For those wanting to trade Taijuan, do you think Baltimore Orioles fans wish Jake Arrieta was still pitching for their home team? Like I said earlier, be careful what you ask for.

Since the argument to give up on Walker now is largely an emotional one. I thought I’d bring the argument closer to home with my final table. Perhaps, seeing a few beloved Mariners from the past and present would help sway a few “dump Walker” proponents.

Some of you may be surprised to see the similarities between two pitchers already in the Mariners Hall of Fame and another who has a court named after him at Safeco Field.

Taijuan vs. Notable Mariners (First 55 starts)
Name Team
G GS
W-L ERA IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Taijuan Walker SEA 58 55 18-19 4.16 318.1 8.4 1.3 2.4 8.1
Felix Hernandez SEA 55 55 20-22 4.04 343.3 8.9 0.9 2.7 8.5
Randy Johnson MON/SEA 56 55 20-20 4.04 341.2 7.5 0.9 5.0 7.7
Jamie Moyer CHC 58 55 21-22 5.00 324.1 9.9 1.2 4.3 5.8

That’s right; Felix Hernandez, Randy Johnson, and Jamie Moyer — all Mariners icons — weren’t exactly stars after their first 55 starts in the big leagues. Granted, Felix was very highly regarded from the day he arrived in Seattle. But, he hadn’t become the King is today.

What if Seattle traded King Felix after just 55 starts? After all, he had a lot of promise, but he wasn’t still quite there yet. Moreover, he was a tad heavier than desired back then — a complaint currently voiced by fans and some in the media about Taijuan.

 Again, I’m not suggesting that Walker is destined to reach the heights of greatness that Felix, Randy, and Jamie achieved in Seattle. But, doesn’t it make sense to wait a little longer before casting a final judgement?

Otherwise, Taijuan Walker’s name could be mentioned in the same breath as Chris Tillman, Michael Pineda, and Doug Fister — former Mariners traded away too soon or for too little. A worst-case scenario would be having Walker become the next Jake Arrieta.

With less than six remaining in the season, the issues facing fans are twofold. Is Walker a better option than any in-house replacements right now and should the club continue to wait for the enigmatic pitcher to reach his full potential? My answer is yes on both counts.

Perhaps, you disagree. Just remember, we all develop differently.

 

 

 

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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