Name: Taijuan Walker
Notable 2011 Stats: 2.89 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 4 HRA, 39 BB, 113 K, and 55% GB% in 96 2/3 IP with Clinton (A)
Why He’s This High: Walker put together a huge year in the Midwest League at a mere 18 years of age, showing impressive strikeout and groundball ability to go with…well, as much control as one could really expect from an 18-year-old flamethrower in full-season ball.
The statistics reflect Walker’s dominant two-pitch arsenal. He gets great leverage with a high arm slot coming from his lean 6’4″ frame, and he gets deception in his arm action. He mainly works with a 93-96 mph fastball and a big overhand power curve. In a lot of ways, his size and style are quite similar to Michael Pineda, who in my opinion deserved to be the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011 with the Mariners. They’re both big pitchers with overwhelming heat who throw a lot of breaking pitches and boast deceptive releases. Obviously, anybody who has the potential to have Pineda’s age-22 season deserves to rank high on a prospect list, even if he’s just barely thrown over 100 professional innings.
Why He’s This Low: If we call Walker Pineda 2.0, then we should also acknowledge that he has many of the same issues that Pineda does. He doesn’t trust his changeup a whole lot, which means he’s far less intimidating to lefties than righties right now. He also has a lot of moving parts in his delivery, and while his arm action can create deception, it also can look rather ugly at times, and he still loses his release point and gets out of sync too often. There’s some danger that Walker will get sidetracked by those issues as he advances, a la Dellin Betances.
Wow, that rhymed.
There’s some worry about injury as a result of his motion, of course, and Walker didn’t top 100 innings in 2011, so he has yet to show that he can handle the grind of a full minor league season, let alone a big-league one. Combined with the attrition rates of pitchers and his distance from the majors, that pushes him just below the top tier of pitching prospects.
Conclusions: Walker has legitimate ace upside if he can stay healthy and improve his changeup and command of the strike zone. He’s got a long way to go, and right now he’s basically just a big guy with two pitches and a lot of potential. It’s a great sign that his stuff played so well in Low-A so quickly, and if he can carry that performance to High-A and Double-A in 2011, few pitchers (and perhaps few players) will rank ahead of him.
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