Taijuan Walker’s AAA Debut: Now it Can Be Told
Due to computer issues, I wasn’t able to get this up yesterday, but that just allows me to harvest quotes and play off all of the great posts and articles about Walker’s outing, while the off-day means I’m not obligated to bang out a gamethread instead. So hey, instead of talking about the rising frustration about the offense, Felix’s lack of support, the bullpen’s bizarre collapse or in-fighting about Raul Ibanez, let’s focus on the fact that the M’s have one of the best pitching prospects in minor league baseball.
I say this as someone who’s been a bit more lukewarm on Danny Hultzen than his numbers might lead you to believe.* Hultzen’s older, has an extremely high floor, and will pitch in Seattle fairly soon, but Walker’s potential and poise make him the superior prospect. Everyone mentions how raw he was coming out of high school as a two-sport star. He had a live arm, not a lot of coaching, and enough question marks that pushed him down to the supplemental round – and enough that many saw the M’s selection as an overdraft. And that’s why it’s so amazing to actually see Walker now. Raw is just not the word that jumps to mind when you see him. His fastball command isn’t perfect, but he’s by no means wild. His new pitch, a cutter that he learned late last year and really showed off in spring training, simply wasn’t working – he didn’t have a feel for it. So he worked around it, and used his big breaking curve ball as a put-away pitch instead. His poise was tested by an umpire who may not have been used to a 70MPH death-dealing curve, and at least one of his two walks absolutely needs an asterisk by it. But he caught himself, refocused, and worked out of trouble.
The first thing you notice about Walker is, of course, his size. He’s tall, athletic, and his mechanics make good use of that build. While most athlete height/weight listings are…generous, Walker looked at least his 6’4″ listing. He stood next to Alex Liddi, also listed at 6’4″, for the national anthem and looked a touch bigger. The second thing you notice is that his throwing motion is easy, not violent or complicated. This may help his fastball seem a bit faster than its plenty-fast 94-97mph, and, as Jason Churchill mentioned, helps him maintain his velocity from the stretch. He started his night off with a bang – striking out Giants’ CF prospect Gary Brown out on three pitches. He gave up his first hit to the 2nd batter, however, and didn’t really show pure strikeout stuff with his fastball again.
I was curious to see how he handled lefty hitters, but they didn’t present many problems for him. No one’s confusing the Fresno Grizzlies with the 1927 Yankees, but Todd Linden’s a pretty good professional hitter, and Walker absolutely froze him with his curve ball and ended up striking him out twice. Roger Kieschnick isn’t great, but he’s a successful PCL hitter, so it’s not like Walker faced a terrible line-up. He was able to move his fastball around, get some fouls and fly balls off his cutter, and then go to the curve when ahead to righties and lefties alike.
Overall, the things I was most impressed with were:
1) His curve ball. Walker changed the grip on it this spring, but this looked more like the curve that first opened eyes in instructs several years ago. This spring, his curve averaged 76-77MPH, but on Tuesday, it was in the low 70s, and the absolute pitch of the night came in at 69. That one elicited a spontaneous giggle from me. It had clear two-plane break, and looked like it was going into the earhole of the righty batter before dropping into the strike zone. It was just one night, but the curve was an easy plus pitch. I’m just sort of surprised, given the struggles he had with it last year, and with so much talk about how his cutter was becoming his go-to breaking ball.
2) Poise. I talked about it above, but this looked like a veteran. Walker pitched around a subpar cutter and subpar umpiring without getting flustered (and he had opportunities) and without resorting to centering fastballs. He started using more fastballs and pitching up, and got some quick fly-outs in the middle innings. It didn’t help his FIP numbers, but it looked deliberate – and smart.
3) Control. He began the year walking a ton of Southern League hitters, but something clicked for him in late May, and whatever change he made continues to work. This is not a guy who throws 98 and hopes for the best.
And, just for the sake of balance, some things that weren’t perfect:
1) His control of the fastball was great, but the Grizzlies put some good swings on it. His motion is clean and efficient, but perhaps not the most deceptive. His height may give him a deeper release point, but he didn’t have too many whiffs.
2) His cutter was just off. He mentioned this in a post-game interview with Ryan Divish, but batters clearly ID’d the pitch and he wasn’t spotting it where he wanted to. It wasn’t bad – no one really pulled a ball all night, but this pitch got rave reviews in the spring and through the AA season, and at least on Tuesday, it was something of a letdown.
3) As awesome as the big, slow curve is, I wonder if MLB hitters will be able to react when the velocity differential is so huge. Again, Walker touched the high 90s, and then dropped in a curve that occasionally hit the high *60s*. It was a very good pitch, and no one in Fresno’s line-up looked prepared to punish it. But I wonder if that’ll be true in the big leagues. Stephen Pryor worked on a slow curve this spring too, and he’d have a Walker-esque velocity difference if only he was healthy and felt like throwing the pitch in game situations. Something to watch, but it feels like a nitpick given how effective the pitch was.
* I’m happy to report that Hultzen rejoined the Rainiers tonight and tossed 6 scoreless innings against Las Vegas with 6 Ks. Still, I’m a bit concerned that he may run larger platoon splits than his MiLB numbers would suggest (ala Carter Capps/Brandon Maurer), and he simply hasn’t shown the Maddux-like command that some attributed to him out of UVA. Now, a lot of this isn’t Hultzen’s fault – he’d be a great pitching prospect for anyone, but he’s held to an extremely high standard as a #2 overall pick. But in 2012 he had that bizarre lapse in command in Tacoma and in 2013 he’s been shelved with a sore shoulder. No one’s saying he’s bad, but like pretty much any GM in the game, I’d take Walker.