Taijuan Walker: Future ace?

Like many of Taijuan Walker’s teammates, his 2015 season got off to a rocky start. Nine starts into the season, the Seattle Mariners pitcher looked like a demotion candidate rather than the stud pitching prospect who was the number-43 overall selection in the 2010 amateur draft.

Hitters had posted a .313/.393/.503 slash and the right-hander reached the seventh inning only once. On three occasions, he didn’t even reach the end of the fourth inning. Unlike many of his teammates who struggled early, Walker’s season improved.

On May 29, the hard-throwing hurler pitched eight shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians during a 2-1 victory at Safeco Field. From that point on, Walker delivered the kind of results normally associated with a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.

2015 GS CG Team Record IP H BB SO HR ERA A VG OBP SLG OPS
Apr 10 to May 24 9 0 2-7 43 56 23 39 8 7.33 .313 .393 .503 .896
May 29 to Sep 14 20 1 15-5 126.2 107 17 118 17 3.62 .228 .264 .382 .646

The question going forward for many is which Taijuan Walker will report to Peoria report in February? The version that struggled to get hitters out early in the 2015 season or the one that looked like a “future ace” after Memorial Day?

Expectations have always been high for the Yucaipa high school graduate. His raw talent and athletic ability hint at potential stardom. Some observers view Walker as an heir apparent to Seattle’s ace – Felix Hernandez. To me, that’s a premature and unfair comparison since “King Felix” could be on a Hall of Fame trajectory and Walker’s career is just starting.

Still, it’s fair to say that Mariners management holds Walker in high regard and that they expect big things from their young hurler. When general manager Jerry Dipoto took the reigns of the club’s baseball operations in late September, he told Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish that he had observed Walker since his high school days and that he had an “elite upside.”

Although it’s unreasonable to compare the 23-year-old to the current-day King, looking back to a similar stage in Hernandez’s career might help provide a measure of perspective on Walker’s performance to date and what may lay ahead. Here’s a look at some key statistics from each pitcher’s first full season in the majors.

Player Year Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H HR SO FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 WAR
Felix Hernandez 2006 20 12 14 4.52 31 2 1 191.0 195 23 176 3.91 1.335 9.2 1.1 2.8 8.3 1.3
Taijuan Walker 2015 22  11  8 4.56 29 1 0 169.2 163 25 157 4.07 1.196 8.6 1.3 2.1 8.3 1.1

As you can see, there are similarities in earned run average (ERA), fielding independent pitching (FIP) and walk/strikeout/home run rates. Plus, they provided similar value in their first full season – based on the baseball-reference version of wins above replacement (WAR).

With that said, there are two clear-cut differences between the pitchers. Hernandez was only 20-years-old during his first full year, which further underscores how special King Felix was when he arrived on the scene. More importantly, there’s a distinct difference between the two pitcher’s repertoires.

Let’s take a look at PITCH f/x data – which I gathered from brooksbaseball.net – to get a feel for each pitcher’s dissimilar approaches. Since PITCH f/x wasn’t available for Felix’s first full season in 2006, I chose to use his 2007 data.

  2007 Felix Hernandez   2015 Taijuan Walker
Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) BAA SLG   Count Freq Velo (mph) BAA SLG
Four-seam 212 9.45% 98.64 .367 .592 1695 64.72% 94.84 .233 .412
Sinker 1025 45.68% 97.69 .321 .405 10 0.38% 94.18 .200 .800
Change 214 9.54% 88.20 .182 .296
Slider 493 21.97% 90.38 .164 .365
Curve 299 13.32% 84.13 .276 .431 203 7.75% 74.56 .243 .432
Cutter            229  8.74%  90.31  .259  .389
Split  481  18.37%  89.33  .297  .418

The most glaring similarity between the younger version of Hernandez and Walker is that they both could “bring the heat,” although Felix’s stuff was a tad hotter. Despite having a higher peak velocity, Hernandez’s pitch distribution was far more varied than the youngster.

Of Walker’s 2618 pitches thrown last season, the vast majority were in the “hard” category. Specifically, his four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter and splitter. Those pitches had a velocity range between 94.94 and 89.33 miles-per-hour (mph). That means that 92-percent of his arsenal fell within a narrow band of 5.61-mph. Conversely, Hernandez’s repertoire had a much wider velocity range.

A lot has changed with King Felix’s repertoire since 2007. The top velocity of his pitches are no longer in the upper nineties. These days, those pitches are about five-mph slower. But, that’s not all that’s changed. Hernandez has further diversified his pitching portfolio since 2007. Now, he throws his outstanding change-up about 28-percent of the time compared to just under 10-percent in 2007. As with all great pitchers, Felix evolved as his velocity has dropped.

Since Hernandez throws so many different pitches, comparing Walker to the Mariners’ ace isn’t necessarily as productive as desired. So, I searched for a pitcher who threw the same pitches as Walker. Finding a comparable pitcher wasn’t easy.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill pointed out that there’s a retired pitcher who used the same pitches as Walker and enjoyed a high degree of success in the big leagues – Curt Schilling. Yes, the pitcher best known for his postseason heroics and a bloody sock had the same basic arsenal as Mariners’ right-hander.

Since Schilling retired after the 2007 season, the only PITCH f/x data available was for his age-40 season. Certainly, he threw much harder when he first broke into the majors in 1988. However, “Schill” was still a useful asset during his last season when he started 24 games, had a 3.81 earned run average, and won game-two of the World Series for the champion Boston Red Sox.

  2007 Curt Schilling 2015 Taijuan Walker
Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) BAA SLG   Count Freq Velo (mph) BAA SLG
Four-seam 526 43.62% 89.90 .216 .388 1695 64.72% 94.84 .233 .412
Sinker 109 9.04% 89.49 .267 .333 10 0.38% 94.18 .200 .800
Curve 131 10.86% 73.42 .207 .207 203 7.75% 74.56 .243 .432
Cutter 167 13.85% 85.65 .195 .244   229 8.74%  90.31 .259  .389
Split 273 22.64% 82.25 .326 .568  481   18.37%  89.33 .297 .418 

Although Walker and the potential Hall of Famer have identical repertoires, Schilling’s pitches were proportionately doled out – just like Felix.

Up to this point, I’ve compared a pitcher who just finished his age-22 season to a couple of elite starting pitchers with many more years of experience. That may seem unfair to some and I get that. That’s why I decided to compare the young starter with several highly-touted contemporaries who are similar in age and have enjoyed some measure of success in the big leagues.

To help with the following pitch distribution comparison, each hurler’s “hard” pitchers – four-seam fastball and any pitch that’s within six-mph of the fastball – have been highlighted in yellow. That should help illuminate a glaring difference between Walker’s approach and everyone else’s.

Pitcher Age Four-seam Sinker Change Curve Split Slider Cutter
Taijuan Walker 22 64.72%  0.38%  7.75% 18.37% 8.74%
Jose Fernandez 22 49.67%  6.35%  9.87% 34.03%
Lance McCullers 21 53.33%  9.64% 35.76%  1.22%
Michael Wacha 23 58.48%  0.02% 19.36% 11.08% 9.39%
Carlos Martinez
23 36.95% 24.82% 13.08% 25.03% 0.04%
Noah Syndergaard
22 36.66% 24.59% 14.16% 21.44%  3.15%

Each pitcher – other than Walker – has at least one off-speed pitch that they threw in double-digits; some have two. None of the players listed above used their hard pitches more than 69-percent of the time. Conversely, 92-percent of Walker’s pitches were high-speed stuff.

Although Jose Martinez and Noah Syndergaard throw a faster four-seamer than Walker, both have a much wider velocity range than the young Mariner. Syndergaard, who’s size and looks have led Met fans to refer to him as “Thor” doesn’t drop the hammer as often as perceived – just 61-percent of the time.

Clearly, it’s rare for a pitcher with such a limited pitching repertoire to have a top-of-the-rotation impact for a club. Walker acknowledged as much in August when he told Andrew Erickson of MLB.com that he needed to do a better job of mixing up his pitches. The fact that the young starter is aware of the need to “diversify his pitching portfolio” is both encouraging and impressive and should help spur a sense of optimism among Mariners faithful.

Perhaps, the new voices in the organization – GM, manager, pitching coach, battery mates – combined with an extra year of professional experience will help Taijuan Walker have a breakthrough season in 2016 and catapult him towards becoming that “future ace.”

 

 

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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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