For a young starter, finding that third pitch is everything. It is walking into the ice cream aisle and seeing Ben & Jerry's is half off. It's realizing that random band you just found on Spotify is playing a small show downtown next week for $12. It's flipping on Seinfeld at 10 and having it be a classic you haven't seen in a while—like The Merv Griffin Show or the one with Kenny Rogers Roasters.
It is very good is, basically, what I'm getting at. And it here, that third pitch for Taijuan Walker, is the curveball.
For those who haven't been watching recently—which, yeah, it happens—Walker's been throwing it more. A lot more. Through his first 19 starts, he threw 80 curveballs. In his last two, he's thrown 46.
Visually, his curveball usage by start looks like a win probability chart where the bad guys are on top and Fernando Rodney's just pitched two-thirds of an inning—back before the Jays informed the Mariners he was tipping his pitches.
It's clear that something big has changed in just the past week, that he's trusting the pitch and has decided it's ready for primetime. But while this is a big step, an even bigger change took place back before a May 29th start against the Cleveland Indians. As Ryan Divish wrote on for The Seattle Times, it was then that Walker made an alteration to the pitch itself:
Four days before the outing against the Indians, Walker, who has struggled with finding the feel of his breaking ball all season, decided to mimic the "spiked" curveball grip used by James Paxton and Felix Hernandez. Basically, Walker pulls the tip of his index finger back toward his hand, raising the knuckle — like a knuckleball grip. The pitch is gripped with his middle finger and thumb and pressure of the index finger tip. [...]
"It’s just a matter of continuing to throw it," he said. "I want to use it a lot more earlier in the game, especially to get them off the fastball. They kind of know that I throw a lot of fastball, change and slider. If I can mix that in and keep them off balance, it will help."
As Divish relays, the changed grip had the curve coming out "sharper and with more spin to it." This, when watching, is clear. Let's take just a quick glance at each's visual appearance—both to righty batters, with the target over the plate, but down.
Bad, fluttery, soft curveball:
Good, sharp, biting curveball:
As these gifs give away, one lends itself to better outcomes. I swear I'm not just selectively pulling gifs that prove my point. I mean, I am—because of course. But the larger sample backs up my point as well.
Not to overwhelm you with charts here, but the difference here is clear, and staggering. Provided via Baseball Savant, here's a gif showing the outcome of Walker's curveball over three different samples: the first pre-May 29, with his old curveball; the second everything since, with his new curveball; and finally, narrowing in on just the last two starts, where he's fully adopting it.
Pay attention to how often it's called a ball (green).
Let's just lay it out, actually.
- Old: 62.8 percent
- New: 48.2 percent
- Last two starts: 32.6 percent
- Old: 4.7 percent
- New: 25.3 percent
- Last two starts: 32.6 percent
- Old: 7 percent
- New: 13.3 percent
- Last two starts: 17.4 percent
So yes, it keeps improving. Walker's last start against the Twins was the pitch at its very finest. He threw 21 curveballs total, with 15 for strikes and a career-high five whiffs on it. Not a single batter put it play.
Now, I have to note, this isn't some amazing new discovery for Walker. At least not entirely. Walker, of course, has been throwing the curve his entire professional career. I mean, before 2015, Walker had thrown had thrown 107 curves at the major league level and allowed three singles. That's it. Those are all the hits. He also only threw it for a ball 35.5 percent of the time.
But as explained in that original piece from Divish, Walker's been playing with the grip all along, and this "new" one is actually an old one from spring of 2014. You can understand why he'd want to switch it up/back after this year's early struggles—and I'd be very curious as to the process behind that, and the newfound usage, especially after his two-pitch style before.
Whatever it is, it's fascinating to watch. And if this is Taijuan Walker finally fully adopting and trusting his curveball—a good curveball—at the major league level, that could be very, very big.