Taijuan Walker gets challenged

Christian Petersen

The Mariners ace-in-waiting hits a speed bump.

Taijuan Walker is a confident guy. If you follow him on Twitter, you can see this on full display. His Twitter picture is him in a Mariners uniform. He revels in his success, retweets others that praise him, he exudes swagger. It's a good thing. His fearlessness is a trait scouts love, and he feels like he belongs at the highest level, even at his young age. Hunger, drive. Positive traits, and not just cliches for a player torching his way through the minors at 20 years old. In the middle of July, not long after Walker's promotion to Tacoma, he took a picture of Safeco, with the caption "#soon." This is where he wants to be.

After another start, it appeared that maybe he wasn't far off. Through Walker's first four starts with Tacoma, he posted a 0.84 ERA, striking out 21 batters in 21.1 innings, only allowing 14 hits. This led to another burst of confidence from Walker, where he tweeted out the following.

Why not? AAA had been cake for him so far. He looked to be every bit of the ace he'd been hyped to be, putting the results together with the tantalizing stuff and delivery in 2013. Maybe he wanted to be challenged at Words with Friends. Or FIFA 13. This isn't a criticism of Walker's Twitter behavior, it's an examination of what happened after the tweet, even though they could very easily not be connected.

Whether Walker was tweeting in reference to his dominance or not, things have been a bit rocky for him lately. His start on Sunday lasted just 3.1 innings, allowing seven hits. Through his last three starts, Walker now has a 6.89 ERA, giving up a .928 OPS against. There's been some natural BABIP regression against him, but the strikeouts have been down a notch and there's an increase in extra base hits too.

Here's a closer look at the differences between the two levels, courtesy of Minor League Central.

ERA FIP SIERA GB% LD% BABIP K% BB%
AA Jackson 2.46 3.09 2.97 42.5% 16.9% 0.263 28.3% 8.8%
AAA Tacoma 3.60 3.06 3.60 40.8% 12.6% 0.337 23.2% 8.6%

There's no cause for concern. The FIP is virtually the same, and there's an obvious difference in BABIP. Walker has still allowed only two homers in 37 innings, and while he isn't going particularly deep into games, he's being handled with kiddy gloves. Even when Walker was dominating, the team held him to an average of 88 pitches a game. His walk rate hasn't changed. The strikeouts are down, but he's still striking out a batter per inning -- an expected drop facing a new batch of more experienced hitters in AAA.

Tacoma's in the last month of the season, and Walker is about to throw more innings than he did the year before, where he started to wear down as well, struggling after he hit 100 innings. The same threshold has been true in 2013. Walker is still 20 years old, at least until next week. He started the year as the youngest player in the Southern League, and now he's up to a much older league with plenty of players in their late 20s and 30s. Walker is going to be good, even if it takes a bit longer for him to arrive than he might like.

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