Drafting high school pitchers in the first round of the MLB Draft is always a risky proposition. For every Dwight Gooden or Kerry Wood that comes along there are dozens upon dozens of Ryan Andersons, David Clydes, Chris Grulers, Mike Stodolkas, Brien Taylors and Todd Van Poppels littering the landscape of broken dreams. And even when they do work out, Dwight Gooden and Kerry Wood…so…yeah.
So when the Mariners took a shot on a basketball star who really only pitched for one season in high school with the 43rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, the right-hander out of Yucaipa High earned the tag as a "long-range project" immediately. But a coming out party in his debut of full-season ball for Clinton in 2011 set the expectation bar pretty high for Taijuan, and heading into 2012 he was already considered one of the brightest pitching prospects with the highest ceilings in the game.
But during the 2012 season, 73 of the 101 pitchers who threw 100 or more innings in Double-A posted a better ERA than Walker, and while his strikeout percentage was the sixth best in the Southern League (21.5%) many people still questioned his overall ceiling – especially after Walker broke camp in 2013 headed back to Double-A Jackson again.
Was his development stalling out? Is he just another one of the first round high school flameouts to add to the long list?
Taijuan Walker pitched the entire 2012 season as a teenager. He is pitching this 2013 season as a 20-year-old. And despite repeating with the Generals, Walker is still the second youngest player on a Southern League roster right now and the seventh youngest player in Double-A overall. And as Taijuan Walker the freakishly good athlete continues to morph into Taijuan Walker the freakishly good pitcher, the results are starting to catch up to the potential.
In seven starts for Jackson this year, Walker has a 2.23 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a league best 10.26 SO/9 over 40 1/3 innings. Opposing hitters are batting just .176 against him and he has increased his swinging strikeout percentage by nearly 50% over his 2012 rate. He has also allowed three or fewer hits in four of his seven outings so far on the season. Sure, the walks (22) are still much higher than you’d like to see, and that isn't something to just gloss over, but the fact remains that one of the youngest players in the league – seen as disappointing to some – is dominating some pretty talented competition.
Again, the walk totals are a touch high for Walker, and they clearly frustrate him and some of those around him at times, but he is still very new to pitching – very new to baseball. And he’s just 20. Try to remember what it was like to be 20. Try to remember how much you thought you had figured out but how much you really still had to learn. To draw from the current Mariners, Felix Hernandez was already a pretty good starting pitcher for Seattle when he was 20, but he has unquestionably come a long ways since that time. Brandon Maurer was struggling mightily in High-A with an ERA over 6 when he was 20. Tom Wilhelmsen was suspended and getting ready to retire, backpack around Europe and thinking about becoming a bartender when he was 20. Walker is going to get a lot better still – he's still growing up as a pitcher and as a person.
He is getting bigger, filling out his 6-foot-4 frame. He is adding and changing his pitches. Is Taijuan a finished product, ready to break into the Major League rotation in Seattle when the calendar flips to June? That is most likely a huge longshot. But Walker is still a very talented pitcher; one who is worthy of the praise put upon him by the experts in the prospect world. With his repertoire of mid- to high-90s fastball (that can have some intense arm-side run and sink at times), developing changeup, overhand spike curve and the cutter that he’s added this season that, to quote one source, "is just not fair" to left-handers, Taijuan Walker is about as good as could be expected out of a 20-year-old with a very limited background of playing baseball and pitching.
Don’t be disappointed because he isn't in Seattle – or even Tacoma – yet. His day will be coming soon. And when that day is here, the signs point to Walker being a very good one for the Mariners.