When the Mariners drafted a high school basketball player from California in the sandwich round of the 2010 draft, there were quite a few heads scratched. The team had seemed to reach on a bunch of draft picks the year before. That guy has become the Taijuan Walker that none of us still know, but that we know about, and that we’re growing to love!
Walker is a guy who throws in the mid-high 90s, is supposed to have a plus-curveball. I have a soft spot in my heart for fastball-curveball guys. I think that the curve ball is the most amazing pitch in baseball. A lot of players have moved to sliders because they’re easier to throw for called strikes (perhaps because curveballs generally have a more vertical break, and it is harder for umpires to see). I used to be a fastball-curveball guy. I still try to be a fastball-curveball guy. Taijuan Walker is a fastball-curveball guy, and I’m growing love Taijuan Walker!
He’ll probably need a third pitch, and supposedly he’s working on a change up, but because a curveball comes at a much lower velocity than a fastball it works to upset a hitter’s timing, it should remain effective against lefties. It does this in addition to changing the angle and quality of contact, the main function of the slider.
At one time, Felix Hernandez was a fastball-curveball guy. He had one hell of a curveball. Now Hernandez has a changeup that is one of the most underappreciated pitches in baseball (Damn, Felix is sooo good), but there was a time when his changeup and slider were little more than show-me offerings. They didn’t have to be much more than that because his other two pitches were so good. He’s become much more balanced now, but he was a very good pitcher even without the four plus pitches he possesses today.
But don’t you remember how Felix was so good at such a young age? Taijuan Walker will be 19 next year. Taijuan Walker hasn’t had a legal drink in his entire life, and he’s still already struck out more than 100 professional hitters. He has also yielded 50.2 percent ground balls on all of his batted balls. That’s pretty damn good. Felix was also that good, and Walker may be a lot closer to Felix than we think.
This is a comparison of rate stats from both pitchers’ respective age 18 seasons.
Let’s not go totally crazy. Felix pitched about 50 more innings and did it all at either Advanced A ball or Double A. Walker pitched in Clinton, which is the Mariners A ball affiliate.
However, while Felix pitched in the much-dreaded pitcher purgatory that is the California League, he didn’t do so for the High Desert Mavericks, who play in hitter’s heaven (isn’t alliteration fun!) Adelanto, California. Instead, he played in San Bernadino, for the Inland Empire 66ers, also perhaps the most pitcher-friendly park for a power pitcher in the entire California League.
It’s entirely possible that the Mariners would have put Walker at Inland Empire were the team still affiliated with the Mariners. He’ll probably never step foot in Adelanto. Good pitchers usually don’t (James Paxton skipped High Desert last year).
Worth noting though, is that Felix Hernandez’s age 18 season was actually his second full season of professional baseball. He’d been signed in 2002 and pitched a full season in Everett and Wisconsin, the Mariners two other A ball affiliates (low and standard A ball).
Walker’s well ahead of the curve for a pitcher of his age, or for a pitcher with his level of experience. He’s almost on par with Felix Hernandez, and if you consider some of the circumstances at work, he may be closer than his league-level indicates.
It’s not to say that Walker is going to be as good as Felix. He’s a prospect. He’s a really good one. And maybe better than I thought he was.