Taijuan Walker is an elite pitching prospect. Despite the TINSTAAPP rules, Walker has ranked in the top 15 of the major top 100 lists, and he’s Seattle’s No.1 or No. 2 prospect, depending on the list. Walker’s 2012 line, however, was a little underwhelming. He posted a 4.69 ERA and 4.04 FIP, and during the couple chats I’ve done with Mike Newman, I’ve seen quite a few questions about whether we should be worried about it. The answer is no, but I thought it warranted a longer, more detailed answer.
Age is one of the most important aspects when looking at prospects, and Walker has that going for him. While being older doesn’t mean a player isn’t talented or even talented enough to be a quality player at the major-league level, a young age allows for more development time and more time to convert tools into skills. It’s also important because you want a player’s physical peak to match the timeline in which he can use those physical gifts meaningfully in a major-league game. If a person physically peaks in his/her early-to-mid-20s, then you would like for players to be in the majors and producing at that time.
Getting to the majors as a 21- to 23-year-old can help the player adapt to the high level of play and begin utilizing skills while he’s physically peaking. When he begins to physically decline in his late-20s, his experience and “baseball IQ” will (theoretically) compensate for the slight loss in physical talent, leading to his “performance peak.” If the player waits until his mid-20s to get to the majors, he’s fighting Father Time while trying to adjust to the majors, but it’s certainly not impossible for him to be a quality player. Walker is on pace to pitch in the majors at the age of 21.
That puts Walker is on the right side of this age conversation. Born on August 13, 1992, Walker was 19 for almost all of last season. Here are the median ages of each full-season league in 2012, courtesy of Baseball America.
Having been skipped over High-A and the California League, Walker went to the Southern League (Double-A) and pitched against hitters several years older. As Keith Law noted, Walker was the youngest pitcher who spent the entire season in Double-A. But even if he was young, his stuff should have been able to get batters out, right? Well, kind of. Many of the batters he faced had a few more years of baseball experience, and they’re also more physically capable of punishing Walker for his mistakes. He was good enough to hold his own, but he also had to learn some lessons he would have otherwise learned in High-A, which hurt him occasionally
But even if he was young for his age, does his moderately underwhelming performance signal a sign of trouble? I took a look at the top pitchers from this past season, specifically the ones drafted out of high school (it would be unfair of me to judge the ones drafted out of college for being a bit older) and found out how they performed their first time through Double-A.
A couple things are interesting here: The first is that a lot of these pitchers pitched in Double-A around the same age as Walker. The second is they didn’t all perform so well, statistically speaking. King Felix is otherworldly, so comparing him to other guys is a little unfair. Edwin Jackson mowed through Double-A, but Sabathia, Cain and Kershaw had some bumps along the way (though Kershaw’s performance was only 24 innings). Gonzalez was a year older and had an even worse go of it. As for Johnson and Cueto, they were a full two years older than Walker. If Walker could sit in Double-A for another year or two, he’d probably dominate there, as well. This, of course, isn’t to say that Walker is definitely going to be the top-of-the-rotation pitcher like these fine gentlemen, but it should alleviate concerns over his Double-A performance. Getting to Double-A at 19 means you’re pretty good — and being able to hold your own at that level at that age means you’re pretty good, too.
That, however, leads me to a final point about minor-league statistics. Be careful. Statistics are great for major-league players because they’re accrued against major-league players. Everyone is assumed to have the skills to produce at that level. Minor league statistics are accumulated against a lot of guys who will never step foot on a major-league field, and as a result, context really needs to be considered when looking at them. Minor league players use the minor leagues to work on aspects of their game that aren’t so good because those weaknesses need to improve by the time they reach the majors.
This is good for them in the long-term, but it hurts short-term production. Luckily, statistical results don’t really matter in the minors, but once they’re in the majors, they do. This is why so much focus is placed on the scouting reports: If you have the raw tools of major-league talent and are gradually turning them into skills, you’re on the right track. As for Walker’s scouting report, Mike loves him some Taijuan Walker.
A scout once told me minor-league development is about the journey, not individual events. We’re so used to looking at individual season performances because each season is so important in the majors, but the minors don’t work that way. In the majors, everything is about winning and utilizing skills to accomplish that goal, but in the minors, it’s about the gradual developing those skills to the point that they can be used in the majors. Walker could have pitched in and dominated High-A, which would have been awesome for his statistics, but the Mariners decided Double-A would be better for his future with the Mariners. So don’t worry about Taijuan Walker. He’s actually ahead of schedule.