A step forward for Taijuan Walker, even when saddled with a loss
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As I mentioned and discussed with a number of you in the comment thread of yesterday’s post, I believe Taijuan Walker took a step forward in his start against the Blue Jays. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said he saw the same thing.
“I thought he did great. I really did,” McClendon answered when I asked for his thoughts on Walker’s pitch selection in the loss to Toronto. “I thought he competed well, even when he got in trouble.”
Competing well was exactly what McClendon and the staff were looking for, and what I asked you to look for as well in the same post mentioned above. Opponents were hitting .230 off Walker with nobody on base and .410 with one or more base runners. Pitching coach Rick Waits said Walker has the tools to improve those numbers quickly.
“I think we just want to see the type of pitcher he is,” Waits said late last week. “He’s a power pitcher and we need for him to just be very aggressive on every pitch. I think he is just in and out of that a little bit. I think he is still finding his way of what type of pitcher he is. He knows it, he’s been told it and it is just going out there and doing it each time.”
For four innings Sunday, Walker did that. After a clean first inning Walker put runners on in the next three but held the Blue Jays hitless (0 for 8) with runners on base.
“I think it was focus,” McClendon said of the improvement he saw in innings 1-4. “I think it was the ability to understand what you have to do in situations and not let the game speed up on you. A willingness to pitch in, to get them out of the way. He did everything we asked him to do other than a mistake to (Ryan) Goins. I was very pleased.”
Pitching inside is something Waits has wanted to see.
“To me Walker is a guy who should use his fastball a lot, but he should be not max effort but very, very aggressive and very intimidating,” he said. “When he has pitched his two best games this year that’s what you have seen.”
Sometimes it is hard to see Walker as intimidating. He’s only 22, and his body language on the hill at times has made him look even younger. That’s my view up in the press box, but it could be very different for the guy in the batter’s box, according to Waits.
“He’s a big figure on the mound,” he said. “He’s a huge guy out there and that hitter comes to the plate and when this guy is winding up and really letting it come right after you on both sides of the plate, up and down, in and out, it can be intimidating. He’s still got to make pitches but he is not going to be the kind of guy that just hits the corners, sinks it and changeups and things like that, but I think as he continues to get aggressive with the fastball all the other pitches are going to fall in line great.”
Those other pitches will be key and they are still developing. Walker feels comfortable with the changeup more often than not, but not always. The curveball and the slider are even more inconsistent. He seems to have been moving away from the curve lately and this may be by design.
“I think he needs his slider more,” said McClendon. “For me I think he has a plus-pitch in his changeup. As he continues to get the feel for it I think it is going to become a dominant pitch for him, the slider too. You have to remember he is only 22.”
The work is being put in on the pitches. It is also being put in on the mental side of the game and not just on the side. McClendon took a safety net away from Walker yesterday in Toronto. When Walker got in trouble, both Waits and McClendon stayed in the dugout. There was no advice from Waits, no getting after him or refocusing from McClendon.
“We purposely did not go to the mound because I wanted to see what he was going to do,” said McClendon. “He got himself out of that sort of thing. It’s tough for a young pitcher but I thought he kept his composure. I thought he continued to compete.”
It was a move for the long term. McClendon and the coaches are trying to move Walker forward. They are trying to get him closer to the potential that many believe he has. At times they have to give a push.
“At some point you have to stop enabling him,” said McClendon. “He’s got to figure it out, so to speak. I don’t think it is a matter of having him drown or sink a little bit, just grow up a little bit. It’s all on him there. Figure it out. Let’s see if we can slow it down and get it done.”
It’s all part of the process. Taijuan Walker is not a finished product, but in this game it is walk before you can run.
“The thing that I thought was important, he competed well, and when he left the ball game in the sixth we still had a chance to win the ball game,” McClendon said. “He did what you would ask of a starter – keep you in a ballgame. Give you an opportunity to win a ballgame.”