Taijuan Walker is more than the top pitching prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization. The 20-year-old right-hander is among the best in the game. With only 126 innings under his belt he remains a work in progress, but his ceiling is sky high.
A two-sport star at Yucaipa (California) High School — he also excelled in basketball — the 6-foot-4 Walker was taken 43rd overall in the 2010 draft. Blessed with athleticism and aptitude, as well as a mid-to-high-90s fastball, he profiles as a front-line starter.
Walker talked about his repertoire, which includes a newly-added pitch, during the Southern League playoffs.
Walker on his changeup: “My changeup has gotten a lot better since spring training and the end of last year. I’m comfortable throwing it in any count now. I’ve made really big strides with it.
“It’s just a regular straight change, a four-seam circle. I’ve tried many grips and this is pretty much the comfortable one and the one I like. Plus, I throw a lot of four-seam fastballs, so a four-seam changeup is going to benefit me more.
“You have to throw it like your fastball. You have to keep the same arm speed and let the grip do all the work. Sometimes I’ll throw it a little too hard, but I’m mostly been pleased with it. It ranges anywhere between 84 and 90, and I get a little downward movement and some arm-side run. Not a lot, but just enough.”
On his curveball and feel: “This year I didn’t really trust my curveball, so I kind of got away from it. I just wasn’t confident in it. In my last couple of starts, it’s been much better though. I’ve been trusting it more and throwing it more. Instead of trying to make it break, I’m letting the grip do its work. It’s going to be one of my key pitches. Every day I’m working on it, trying to perfect it.
“I was a big basketball player in high school and my pitching coach last year, Rich Dorman, would always use a lot of basketball analogies with me. He used them to help me understand pitching. When you throw a baseball, you feel it off your fingertips, just the same as when you’re shooting a basketball. You feel where the ball is going to go, whether you’re going to miss right or miss left. Same with pitching, inside or out.”
On his fastball: “Velocity is one of the biggest keys to my fastball. I can get away with missing my spot sometimes, just because I have the velocity that I do. I think I’ve topped out at 99 this year. But I can’t always get away with it, so I’m working on making my location better.
“You don’t ever want to be too fine. That’s when you get yourself in trouble. If you’re a hard thrower and can get your fastball in the area of the location where your catcher sets up, you should be fine most of the time.”
On missing bats and maturing as a pitcher: “There are times and places where you want to pitch to contact, but there are other times… it depends on what type of pitcher you are, if you’re a power pitcher, or not.
“I don’t really pay attention to it too much, but it’s always good to get more ground balls than fly balls. If the wind is blowing straight out, and you’re a fly ball pitcher, that can kind of hurt you. Plus, with runners on, you can get double plays.
“I think this year was big for me. I feel like I’ve had to learn how to pitch and not just be a thrower. In Double-A, you can’t just throw fastballs and get away with it. You really have to pitch. You have to mix your pitches and throw off-speed in hitters’ counts. This league helped make more of a pitcher.”
On his newest pitch: “I just added a cutter a few weeks ago. In high school I threw a slider, and I wanted to add it back, but they wouldn’t let me. Now that I’m at a higher level, they’re allowing me to work on this pitch. Not as my strikeout pitch, but just to have it. It’s another look. I feel it can be a good contact pitch, off my fastball, to get a ground ball. Or maybe I can get a broken bat or a pop out. I’ve been throwing it from 88 to 92, but I’m still working on it and trying to figure out how much break I need on it and how hard I need to throw it.”