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February 1, 2013

Raising Aces

Bush League: Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker

by Doug Thorburn

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In the first edition of Bush League, I discussed the viability of sofa-scouting high-level prospects by scouring the archives of MiLB.tv (for a modest subscription price). I also noted the advantages when evaluating pitchers as compared to position players, given the additional off-camera variables that exist for scouting hitting and defense, along with the caveat that pitchers can have volatile mechanics during their development years. The subjects of the original piece included the top two picks from the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole and Danny Hultzen, and today we’ll take a look at another Pirate-Mariner combination of high-end pitching prospects.

Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker were both high-school products of the 2010 draft. Taillon was selected at number two overall by the Pirates, behind top pick Bryce Harper, and Walker was chosen 41 picks later by the Mariners during the supplemental round. I reviewed both pitchers back in July with a brief study of their back-to-back one-inning stints in the Futures Game, and the early returns were impressive. The mechanics of minor-league players are fickle and a pitcher might show different looks on any given day, especially when making a rare relief appearance in a nationally-televised showcase, so the offseason presents a great opportunity to take a deeper look into the performances of these two high-profile prospects.

Jameson Taillon
The right-hander spent most of the 2012 season in the Florida State League, where, according to our kick-ass prospect crew, “development took priority over dominance.” This helps to explain why his numbers lacked the sticker shock that one would expect from an elite prospect who was unleashing high-90s heat on A-ball batters. Taillon was promoted to Double-A Altoona in mid-August, and he dominated advanced hitters for three starts spanning 17 innings at the end of the Eastern League season.

2012

GS

IP

ERA

K/9

BB/9

H/9

A+

23

125.0

3.82

7.1

2.7

7.8

AA

3

17.0

1.59

9.5

0.5

5.8

Taillon made his Double-A debut on August 21st at Trenton, tossing five shutout frames of four-hit baseball and striking out six without walking a batter on his way to earning the big W. He had solid command of a 95-to-97 mph fastball, off-set by a sharp curve with steep break that had batters flailing harmlessly for the whiff. The heater generated few swings-and-misses but a plethora of foul balls, as opposing hitters were unable to square up the pitch to make hard contact.

Taillon’s curve was his primary instigator of K's, and he struck out four consecutive hitters on buried curveballs during a stretch of the second and third innings of the ballgame. He demonstrated the ability to drop a curve over the plate for strikes early in the count, but the pitch was most effective when targeted under the zone to hitters who had recently fouled off fastballs. Taillon mixed in some flat change-ups the second time through the order, as well as a tighter version of his breaking ball that was inconsistent yet occasionally effective. The break on his pitches was mostly confined to the vertical plane, with heavy downward movement despite his having a lower arm-slot than one might expect with such a steep trajectory.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

55

Momentum

60

Torque

70

Posture

60

Release Distance

65

Repetition

60

Taillon’s pitching delivery is incredibly advanced for his age, with a mechanical profile that is reminiscent of uber-pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Like Stras, Taillon gets above-average marks on every subject of his mechanics report card, with a spike of torque that produces easy high-90s fastballs in addition to the postural stability to repeat his release point. Both pitchers also carry the same risk factors, including the infamous “Inverted-W” and a heavy scapular load, a pair of warning flags that will place an exaggerated emphasis on proper timing in order to avoid the elbow-drag that can occur when such pitchers become fatigued.

It is exceedingly rare to find a pitcher with such an advanced combination of power and finesse, with a blend of heavy torque and solid momentum that is supported by a well-balanced foundation and culminates in consistency and depth at release point. Taillon has made great strides since he was drafted, both literally and figuratively, as he has addressed a previously-weak charge to the plate with early drift and a late burst that gets him closer to the target. He still features a drop in balance after max leg lift, and his head slightly trails the center-of-mass into foot strike, yet those inefficiencies have become minor obstacles to his pitch execution.

***

Taijuan Walker
The Mariners are deliberately building Walker's workloads, simultaneously shielding him from in-game fatigue while extending the right-hander deeper into the season, such that he averaged just a shade over five innings per start last season in Double-A. Walker started the season on fire, allowing two earned runs or fewer in each of his first nine starts and coughing up just a single homer, with an ERA that stood at 2.54 at the end of May. He walked 25 batters through those first 75 innings, but his walk rate nearly doubled in the month of June, with 26 free passes in 40 frames, and he failed to escape the fourth inning in each of his first three starts of the month. Walker righted the ship soon after the All-Star break, though he appeared to tire down the stretch, surrendering 15 earned runs and four bombs over his final 15 innings of the season.

2012

GS

IP

ERA

K/9

BB/9

H/9

AA

25

126.7

4.69

8.4

3.6

8.8

Walker's July 14 start versus the Tennessee Smokies exemplified his summer, alternating glimpses of excellence with a number of missed opportunities. His five walks on the day were the most that he allowed in any game last season, and it was one of only two starts on the year that involved multiple home runs being hit off of the right-hander. On the bright side, Walker surrendered just one hit that fell inside the park, and he struck out six Smokies in the contest. Reviewing the game tape reveals a player who pitched much better than the numbers would indicate, with multiple close calls that swayed his final numbers in the K and walk columns.

Walker relied on a heavy mix of fastballs and curves, though he avoided the off-speed stuff after giving up an early blast on a misplaced floater to Cubbie farmhand Michael Burgess. The catcher was setting up on the borders of the strike zone, and Walker was hitting targets with better precision than the walk totals suggest, but even small misfires can be deadly when working on the edges. The extra baserunners did allow Walker the opportunity to impress with his quick pick-off move, the first of which caught a baserunner napping off the first-base bag, though he became trigger-happy later in the game with Junior Lake at first base. After seeing a handful of throws to learn the move, Lake was able to pick his opportunities and steal both second base and third. Several at-bats ended with controversial calls by the home-plate umpire, some of which actually went in Walker's favor.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

65

Momentum

50

Torque

60

Posture

55

Release Distance

55

Repetition

40

Even in a bad game, the highlights of Walker's delivery shone through. He still has work to do in repeating the timing and positioning of his delivery, but the same can be said for nearly every pitcher in the minors, and Walker possesses the fundamental mechanical tools to one day support a consistent motion. His stability ratings are already better than the average major-league pitcher’s, as he begins the motion from a balanced position with flex in the knees and is able to maintain that balance through the high-energy phases of the delivery. His posture flashes a grade of 60-plus, and he sits comfortably above average regardless of pitch type. 

Walker is just realizing his potential, and similar to the case of Jameson Taillon with the Pirates, the Mariners are more concerned with the functional development of their prized young pitcher than the numbers on his stat page. Walker has room to improve his momentum, which was inconsistent in the Smokies contest yet played stronger in the Futures Game. Ramping up the kinetic energy would test his stability and his strength, but the strategic integration of greater momentum could have a positive ripple effect on the 20-year-old's timing and repetition, especially considering the inconsistent timing patterns that Walker exhibited in the July contest. One can envision a pitcher with plus grades across the board within the next two to three years, and the young Walker has a mentor to guide his apprenticeship in Seattle, where he’ll walk in the footsteps of the King.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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