“Why are the Seattle Mariners so bad this season?” is a question that you have probably asked (and been asked) many a time this year. A big part of the answer used to be “Taijuan Walker totally, completely sucks,” and maybe you’re still inclined to lump him in with what’s going wrong. Fight the inclination! Walker might have been a problem once, but nowadays that just isn’t the case.
Let’s take a trip back to May 24th, with Walker starting for the M’s in Toronto. Against the Blue Jays, Walker started off on a roll before unwinding in the fifth inning. He left after five and two thirds, having allowed four runs. During that outing Walker walked four and only struck out three, which, coupled with two long balls, was enough to convince me it was time for him to head back to the minors.
That didn’t happen, of course, and so five days later Walker again took the hill for Seattle. At home against Cleveland, Walker threw eight scoreless two-hit innings while striking out eight. Oh, and he didn’t walk anybody. It was seen then that his leash had been lengthened. One good start didn’t guarantee anything, though it did show that there was more there than a 22-year-old who had no idea where the ball was going.
Every single outing Walker has had since May 29th has followed suit, as he just keeps on refusing to hand out free passes. Command can be a tricky thing to grasp, and indeed there’s a lengthy list of guys who just never could figure out how to keep the ball in the zone against major league hitters. Command has long threatened to be Walker’s undoing. The most encouraging thing he could possibly do is to not walk batters.
In his next outing after the no-walk performance against Cleveland, Walker walked one Yankee over eight innings while striking out seven. Against Cleveland on the road seven days later he walked two over six with six strikeouts. In San Francisco he went seven frames with no walks and six strikeouts. And Saturday he struck out eleven Astros without allowing a single base on balls.
What we have here is 35.1 innings, which is about 45% of Walker’s season to date total. Over that span he’s struck out 38 batters and walked only three. For the first half of his 2015-to-date, Walker was a nightmarish pitcher who was seemingly obsessed with walks. Since then he’s been some kind of right-handed Cliff Lee.
As far as ways to make up for a weakness are concerned, there’s really nothing better than complete elimination. Walker’s problem was walks, and so he just decided to not walk anyone anymore. The results so far have been terrific, and seem to point towards a future home for Walker at or near the top of a rotation. Guys who throw gas and can get whiffs while avoiding walks are usually just called “aces.”
Of course, there are home runs to consider. Walker’s been great lately, but he’s not all the way there, and to prove that we have dingers. There were two on Friday, and two more against the Yankees. He could still stand to get better at keeping the ball in the yard.
And then what? Then there’s not a lot more to do. Taijuan Walker without walks or dingers is an incredible thought, and now all he has to do to get there is stop allowing long balls. Keep in mind his easy velocity and young age and it’s hard not to see Walker as one of this team’s most exciting young talents. Again.
Taijuan Walker’s season got off to a terrible start, but over his last five outings he’s been immensely successful. He’s got an absurd walk rate to thank for that, and that’s especially notable because his walk rate was killing him earlier on. If there’s ever been a time to believe in Walker’s ability to harness his potential, it’s now.