Taijuan Walker Debuts, Dazzles, Disappoints


Another day, another game, another win. The Seattle Mariners stomped the Houston Astros 10-4 last night, roughing up their best pitcher and making themselves right at home in Minute Maid Park. Oakland and Los Angeles both lost, so Seattle gained ground in the division and wild card races while moving to seven games over .500 and reclaiming MLB’s second-best run differential. All exciting stuff, but none of this was the big news of the day. The big news was Taijuan Walker.

Walker finally made his 2014 debut Monday, and the results were as mixed as anyone could have anticipated. The first inning started and ended with soft ground ball outs, but in the middle there was a single, a massive George Springer home run, and a walk. Walker’s got a famously powerful fastball, that much we’ve always known. He had a really hard time using that fastball effectively in this game, and that leads to things like Springer’s destruction of a meatball over the plate.

While Marwin Gonzalez certainly isn’t George Springer, Walker gave the two the same fastball and got the same result both times. Which is to say, Gonzalez also took Walker deep in this game. These were, of course, the first two home runs of Walker’s MLB career, as his cup of coffee last fall saw him run a home runs per fly ball ration of zero. This year it’s at 100%, as every out recorded came on either the ground or by whiff. And hey, that’s something.

Eight groundouts, six strikeouts, no outs in the air. Walker starts his season off with six innings and six Ks, and obviously that’s kind of what we’re hoping for long-term. He walked two, which is to say that his non-homer peripherals were right in line with what we’d like to be able to expect over a larger sample. The strikeouts were somewhat of a window into what Walker can be when he’s on, as he recorded whiffs with his change and curve while even sprinkling in some effective fastballs.

For simplicity’s sake let’s contain this examination to the fifth inning, where Walker worked around a hit batsman and stolen base to retire the side. He first faced L.J. Hoes and blew him away with a fastball that actually missed high and in. Hoes swung, realized he should stop swinging, and fell to his knee while still swinging. Next he got Alex Presley to whiff on a gorgeous change on the low and out corner of the plate. He then struck out Springer (for the second time!) on a curve, which was his working best for him last night. Springer had no chance – the ball fell right out of the strike zone and induced a critical attempted check swing.

The fifth inning was but a microcosm of this start on the whole, but it was a good glimpse at Walker’s night. Ultimately he was effective despite not having his best command – look at how his pure stuff stepped up to elevate the perceived quality of his pitches that routinely missed their spots. Even with shaky fastball accuracy, he still had the confidence and zeal to throw it past George Springer two times after the huge first inning blast. That’s rather insane.

Walker’s WAR is -0.1 with ugly ERA and FIP numbers. But take the homers out of the equation and we’re looking at his sterling 3.01 xFIP and dreaming about his ceiling. Since it’s only been one start, we’re still doing that. We have reason to do that, since Walker looked so awesome at points in this game. We really didn’t learn anything here – we were just reminded that pitchers walk a fine line. Keep your pitches out of the middle of the zone and you’ll be better off for it. As Walker settled in, he succeeded. His next start is July 6th in Chicago. I can hardly wait.

Okay, let’s talk about dingers. Collin McHugh is pretty awesome – a guy picked off the scrap heap who has somehow emerged as a top-flight starting pitcher after excelling in what was supposed to be a spot start. He was incredible his first time facing the M’s, then humbled in round two. This time he was destroyed, allowing the first three Seattle home runs while also walking three. Sure, eight strikeouts in six innings, but three freakin’ home runs. Logan Morrison walked leading off the second and scored on a Mike Zunino moonshot. It was fabulous, a high arch that must have been in the air for six seconds.

Zunino reached on a strikeout-wild pitch in the fourth, and then it was Michael Saunders‘ turn. Saunders hit a two-run homer of his own that bounced off the upper deck. One Dustin Ackley strikeout later, it was Brad Miller lining one out to right. McHugh was chased after six, but the first reliever of the game was Josh Zeid, and his night started with two singles. Next up was Robinson Cano, who went opposite field for his second homer in as many games. The M’s tacked on two “insurance” runs in the ninth, the Astros countered with a run of their own, and Tom Wilhelmsen ultimately finished with a goofy three-inning save.

What a game. Hisashi Iwakuma gets to pitch today, going against Jarred Cosart at 7:10. Cosart’s not really striking anybody out, but is having a fine season regardless. Iwakuma’s also running a K rate below his career average, but he’s countered that with the second-lowest walk rate among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 70 innings. Hell, drop the minimum threshold to 10 IP and he’s still one of the ten best in the league. Kuma’s coming off his worst start of the year, and it could even be argued that the Astros are a tougher opponent than the Red Sox right now. However you want to say it, this could be another fun game.