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Anticipation was high for Taijuan Walker's first start of the 2015 season, following an injury-riddled 2014 campaign and an absolutely dominant spring. His line from spring training included just two earned runs allowed across a ridiculous 27 innings of work (seven games). He struck out 26 batters and walked only five, with just 10 hits allowed and a pair of solo homers accounting for the only runs. His raw stuff includes velocity in the mid-90s, a cutter and a hard changeup that both register in the high 80s to low 90s, and the occasional curveball that drops down to the mid-70s on the velo scale. His mechanics have received solid ratings from yours truly in the past, including an overall grade of B- in the 2015 SP Guide, which combined with the hard stuff to raise the optimism surrounding his first start.

That optimism was quickly crushed, as Walker gave up three runs in his first inning of work during the 2015 regular season. The April 10th start was a disaster, and Walker was tagged with nine earnies before the bludgeoning was over, as the weak links in his kinetic chain were exposed on the national stage. His start five days later against the Dodgers didn't go much better, as once again Walker was tattooed for a trio of first-inning runs, and he only escaped the ballgame without further damage thanks to some overly zealous baserunning by Joc Pederson in the second inning.

All told, Taijuan has given up an MLB-high 14 earned runs in his first couple of turns (in a weird twist of fate, he's tied with the man he replaced in the Seattle rotation, Erasmo Ramirez), allowing six walks and punching out six hitters across 7 1/3 innings of work. Was this simply a case of Walker succumbing to early-season jitters, or was there something more ominous that clouds his future performance?

Let's dive a bit deeper to see if we can uncover some semblance of an answer to this question.

April 10th

The box score makes it look like Walker was knocked around the yard by Oakland in the first inning, with four batted balls qualifying as line drives during that frame, but two of the hits were on soft liners over the infield. Walker was hit hard nonetheless, including Sam Fuld's leadoff rope that found the right-fielder's glove and Ben Zobrist's RBI double to the power alley in right-center field. The main issue that plagued Walker in the first—and throughout the game, really—was a pervasive lack of command.

The most common misfire often had the arm coming through late in the kinetic chain, resulting in pitches that missed up and to the arm side, but he would also overcompensate on occasion and invoke early rotation, missing low and to the glove side. Walker was punished when he caught too much plate as well as when he missed arm-side, as the A's were looking in that direction and able to take advantage.

Walker was able to bury a few splitters, but the right-hander was elevating fastballs throughout the game and finished with 10 fly balls and seven line drives on the 23 pitches that were put in play (or knocked over the fence). Even in a ballpark that carries penalties for balls hit in the air, Walker was too fly-ball-heavy due to his pitch location. The other factor that likely came into play was that Walker was throwing everything within a narrow velocity band, as his first 34 pitches all fell in the range of 88-to-96 mph.

The occasional valleys in the above chart represent Walker's curveball, of which he threw five out of 77 pitches in the contest (note: I have no idea what happened at the right-hand tail of his velocity chart). Given how quickly the A's jumped on Walker's mid-90s fastball, it follows that he could have benefited from a bit more varied pitch selection in the early-going. His change and cutter only offer a handful of mph slowdown from his four-seam, and when Walker is struggling to command the various sectors of the strike zone, then he falls prey to the hitting skills of MLB hitters who can time a high-90s fastball without breaking a sweat.

When all was said and done, Walker had thrown 41 pitches in the first frame alone, and the fatigue showed up in his waning velocity as soon as the second inning. Mark Canha certainly had no trouble with the second-inning velo, ripping this moonshot on an inside fastball at 94 mph, the third straight four-seamer that Canha had seen in the at bat.

Nobody could blame the Mariners if they pulled the plug at this point in the ballgame, but he stayed in and got the next five outs relatively quickly, before the wheels came off the wagon in the fourth and he was lifted with another run in and the bases drunk, with all three runners eventually coming around to score, sending Walker to ERA hell.

April 15th

Things couldn't get much worse coming off of the first-start beating that Walker had endured five days earlier, but his Los Angeles outing started out much the same way: he threw hard but missed his spots, a late arm resulted in elevated pitches, and the opposing batters jumped all over him. The issue with elevated pitches was even worse than it was in his first game, as Walker peppered the middle and upper thirds of the strike zone with hittable pitches. He still had the tendency to miss up and to the arm side, but his timing was so far off that he rarely overcompensated with pitches under the zone and the lower shelf was left bare.

Walker also dealt with the same issues of pitch selection as in the Oakland game, including a nearly identical usage pattern with his curveball. Once again he tossed just five curves (this time out of 76 pitches), none of which made an appearance until he was 35 pitches deep into the ballgame. So once again batters were able to hone in on a narrow timing window and look for the baseball within a tight velo band in a predictable location (up and to the right-side of the plate). All the stuff in the world won't save a pitcher who can't locate his pitches, and Walker was falling behind in the count on Jackie Robinson Day and pitching at the mercy of the Dodger batsmen.

***

Walker's struggles in his first two outings can be traced to issues with stuff as well as mechanics.

Stuff-wise, he made life too easy on opposing hitters by narrowing the options with respect to velocity and location. Perhaps he needs to include more curves, or perhaps the cutter needs some extra supination to exaggerate the break and reduce the pitch-speed (more similar to the slider that he used in the past), but the current approach of throwing 35 pitches with an 8-mph spread and a glaring tendency to hit the upper-right corner of the strike zone will get a pitcher pummeled in the show, as Walker has already learned.

Of course any time that pitch command is involved, the discussion naturally leads back to the pitcher's timing and repetition. This is an area in which Walker has struggled in the past, with subpar grades for repetition and a slowish pace of momentum that opened the timing window for his trigger of trunk rotation to misfire.

Report Cards

Post-2013

Post-2014

April 2015

Balance

60

60

60

Momentum

45

50

45

Torque

60

55

55

Posture

60

55

60

Repetition

N/A

45

35

Overall

B-

B-

C+

His mechanical baselines have been excellent for a long time, and though some of his mechanical efficiency took a small hit in 2014, the end result was very similar. Young players are expected to struggle with repetition and to improve that particular score as they gain experience in the physical aspects of pitching for a living. This task is theoretically easier for a pitcher who is already stable, and Walker's above-average marks in balance and posture are part of the reason that I have been optimistic that he can make the necessary adjustments in short order. Those stability baselines are still excellent, and Walker even flashed 65-grade balance at times in his first two starts. However, he has also slowed his momentum in the classic trade-off of balance and power, and the slower pace appears more difficult for Walker to effectively coordinate with his timing of trunk rotation.

I've reviewed his mechanical baselines in the past, so I won't rehash more of the same, but I will note that trigger timing was already Walker's Achilles' heel. I'm still a believer in the ceiling, but there's a trap-door in Walker's floor that can expedite a trip to the pits, and I would be very careful with his deployment until the 22-year old can harness his delivery.

Thank you for reading

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leites
4/17
Doug - Thanks for this! Would love to see a similar analysis of the first two starts by Mat Latos.