Taijuan Walker is the most naturally-gifted starting pitcher to don a Seattle Mariners uniform since Felix Hernandez came through the farm system more than a decade ago. Things simply haven’t developed for the right-hander.
Heading into his first September start, Walker owns a collection of ordinary statistics. Both traditional numbers and advanced metric say he’s been nothing but a replacement-level arm this season. His 4.83 FIP fits the mark of a swing arm out of his element in the rotation. Walker’s 20.3 percent strikeout rate ranks No. 62 in baseball among starters with at least 100 innings. His 14.8 percent K/BB percentage ranks No. 42.
Last season, Walker ranked No. 41 and No. 30 in those two categories. Something’s not right. Simply put, Walker’s broken. That’s the bad news. The good news is, he’s just 24 and there’s time to fix him.
Walker throws hard, using a four-seam fastball up to 97 mph and with some life at the top of the strike zone. His split-change is inconsistent, but flashes solid-average. His cutter and curveball are below average at best. Let me repeat that last part: His cutter and curveball are below average at best.
There was a time three seasons back when Walker’s best two pitches were, you guessed it, his cutter and curveball. He was dominating Triple-A hitters with velocity, a cutter with depth that kept lefties honest inside and a low-70s curveball he could throw for strikes or bury below the ankles.
Most of the above is gone. In fact, the Mariners have seen almost none of it, and certainly none of it consistently. Certainly there are numerous factors, but I believe one of the bigger contributing dynamics is the delivery Walker’s been using the past few years. I’ve disliked his delivery for years and it’s long past time for the Mariners to do something about it.
He has done a much better job using his legs once he’s under way, but without any semblance of a true windup, Walker’s leg kick isn’t as effective as it should be. Walker’s present mechanics also fail to create deception, which brings us back to the leg kick. Yes, the leg kick. The leg kick provides momentum, power and balance, but also deception. Where the bottom half leads, the top half follows.
The best way for a right-handed starter to create some deception is to hide the baseball with his front shoulder. Walker doesn’t do that. Why? Because he can’t. First, take a look at King Felix’s leg kick peak out of the stretch:
This is the peak height of Hernandez’s leg kick from the stretch. He’s used something similar for the last several years. While many other factors are a part of Felix’s prime years, his delivery is a significant one.
Notice the drive leg knee is bent while the front leg is kicked back over the rubber. In the following frames, Felix will drive toward the plate with both legs in sync, and with his lower half timed up with his waist and front shoulder.
This helps Hernandez stay closed and explode through release point.
It’s not something Walker does consistently, yet, but needs to.
Not only is Walker’s kick not as high — it may not be high enough or athletic enough to help him do much more than if he threw flat footed — but he’s straight in line to the plate already, with no chance to carry a ‘closed’ front shoulder a he nears release point.
This makes the ball a little easier to pick up for the batter — showing the ball sooner in the process — and eliminating any real chance for Walker to consistently repeat a quality delivery.
Here is Felix’s leg kick from the wind:
This is the height of the leg kick from the wind. Clearly higher and more pronounced, as is the closure to the front side, thanks to the front leg leading his upper half. This hides the ball from the batter, creates a little more momentum for Hernandez and helps his drive leg do its job more effectively and efficiently.
Walker doesn’t need to twist, as Hernandez has done more acutely in the past, but as-is he’s all upper body through the first movement toward the plate. As a result, Walker is squaring to the plate too early and because his drive leg isn’t active early enough he’s upright at release point.
This drastically hinders Walker’s ability to finish pitches. Fastballs are left up or over the plate, curveballs back up on him and changeups sometimes lack sink and fade and end up tumbling and floating, instead.
In this shot you can see Walker’s front foot has yet to plant — he’s late to pronate because his foundation isn’t there.
This again takes his lower half out of the equation, which is like taking one of the back wheels off a tricycle.
In the photo at left you can see Felix at the exact same point in his delivery.
Not only is his foot now planted, but i’s pointed toward his finish. Remember, the lower half leads the upper half. Felix creates exactly zero cross-body action and his legs and feet properly lead the upper half and arm to the right place.
You can see the difference in the angle of the back leg, too. Felix is driving forward, adding power from momentum and strength. Walker is robotic and upright with little chance at front shoulder tilt, which you see in the video above leads to a very tall, stiff finish, which isn’t a finish at all.
For the record. The photo shots are of one single pitch per pitcher. Walker’s was a 94 mph fastball middle-away that was lined into center field for a hard-hit lineout. Felix’s was a sinking fastball for strike three at the bottom of the zone and on the outer edge.
Felix’s mechanics haven’t been terrific this year, but in this game he was on and this pitch is a great example of the typical result when he is.
How and Who?
It sounds like Walker is a mess, and in a way he is. But this is all fixable stuff. I’m just not sure Walker can do it by himself. He’s never had to concern himself with this sort of thing, at least not to this extent, even in the minors. He always had a pitching coach, manager or coordinator to guide him. There’s rarely as much hands-on time spent on mechanics coming from the major-league staff. They just don’t have the time during the season.
Mel Stottlemyre, Mike Hampton and company need to guide Walker to a delivery that allows him to take advantage of his natural athleticism. Doing so will give him a chance to further develop the curveball and changeup — maybe the cutter, too, but I’m not sure how necessary it is — and to get each pitch, his command and consistency to a big-league level.
Right now, Walker is a thrower better suited for relief work, except he doesn’t have a back-to-the-bench offspeed pitch. What he can be is a pitcher with three or more quality offerings that throws an easy 95 from a frame that can handle 225 innings. Walker has a few years of relatively cheap labor left before his play will determine his pay and I’d be willing to bet the Mariners would prefer to be ‘stuck’ owing the former No. 43 overall pick an eight-figure salary as he nears free agency.
It all starts with his mechanics.