Let's do one thing real quick, and take a deep breath. We're so used to hyped prospects Ackley-ing and Smoak-ing that to see a young player dominate in such a thorough fashion is thrilling and confusing in equal measure. But before we dive in to take a closer look it's important to remember that last night's start doesn't represent a "new" Taijuan Walker.
Every player's performance exists on a range of outcomes, one that is constantly in flux throughout a player's career. What Taijuan Walker did last night was elevate the ceiling for what we can expect anytime he's on the mound. Want to know what Walker can be at his best? Welcome to last night. But, while we're breathless with excitement and drunk on first place, we should remember that Walker will struggle again, and probably soon. This is the way with young players, pitchers in particular.
That said, Taijuan Walker spent the 6th and 7th inning last night playing Dementor on the Astros' souls. Let's take a look:
Colby Rasmus "Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone"
Walker spent the entire night emphasizing his fastball, and rightly so. On the night his fastball velocity average 96.2 MPH, up from his season average of 94.9. He had a good one, and he knew it. However these at-bats were defined by Walker's willingness to mix his pitches in unpredictable counts and locations. After a first pitch ball the next two pitches were splitters, both for strikes. At 1-2 Walker threw a 96 MPH fastball buzzing and hissing almost directly under Rasmus' armpits, then followed up with another a little closer to the strike zone. It resulted in one of American League's hottest hitters taking a feeble emergency hack for strike three:
Tyler White "The ever changing name of the wind"
Walker was pitching White at the top of the strike zone all evening and this at bat was no exception. After falling behind 1-0 on a curveball Walker's next five pitches were all at or above the letters. The last three were all clocked at 97 MPH, and White clearly was expecting something different with two strikes. Nope.
Evan Gattis "Never not be afraid"
Gattis, not known for his patience, forced Walker to throw strikes on every one of his at bats. For four pitches he perched his oak trunk of a bat on his angular shoulder and watched. Walker started him 2-0 with two curveballs, before evening the count with fastballs. On 2-2 Walker threw the splitter, down in the zone. It is the pitch that may represent the leap from "Taijuan Walker: Talented Prospect" to "Taijuan Walker: Oh holy shit".
Glove smack the first
Carlos Gomez "Dracarys"
After another first pitch ball Walker uses a fastball and cutter/slider to work to 1-2. At this point Walker throws about as perfect a 1-2 fastball as there is: Low, just off the plate, 97 miles per hour. Poor CarGo is helpless:
Luis Valbuena "Death, woe, pestilence, famine, despair"
Valbuena, Valbuena, Valbuena. The ex-Mariner turned Mariner heel battled. After falling behind 1-2 Valbuena fouled off four consecutive pitches, three splitters and a fastball. Walker, full of youth and anger though he is, showed savvy by refusing to give in. His eighth pitch of the at bat was a gorgeous, diving 12-6 curveball at the bottom of the zone. Valbuena was slightly out in front, as you can see here:
Erik Kratz "Window shop til I drop"
Poor Kratzy. Coming into the game with no hits in fourteen at-bats Kratz actually managed to get on base with a bunt earlier in the game. Here, Taijuan exacted his revenge. Like a cat with a mouse Walker toyed with Kratz with a first pitch curveball for strike one. After another curve for ball one Kratz was given his chance, his one chance. Walker flashed a fastball at 96 at the top of the zone. Kratz swung, and he fouled it off.
Now with two strikes Kratz was firmly within Walker's torture chamber. I liken this to a reeling boxer, helpless while his opponent windmills in anticipation of the killing blow. Kratz undoubtedly feared the the splitter down, and he had just witnessed Valbuena's helplessness at the curve. Instead Walker went with straight gas, 97, down the middle.
Thank you for watching.
Glove smack the second!
The totals from two innings of perfection:
In a start where Walker had his very best fastball velocity of the season it's a compliment to his maturity and growth that he threw it only a slightly more than 60% of the time. As the game progressed, and Walker worked through the, admittedly last place, Astros for the third time, Walker's fastball usage dropped to just a tick over 50%.
It all adds up to a player who believes in himself beyond his ability to throw a baseball very, very hard. It looks like a pitcher, and a hell of a pitcher at that.