Taijuan Walker’s spring training began only 30 miles from where he’s been the last four years, but very little is familiar. He has a new uniform in his locker, a new number on that uniform and a new windup; not even his mechanics were spared from the winds of change that came from being traded this winter.
The trade, which sent Jean Segura to Seattle and Walker to Arizona, came out of nowhere, catching Walker by complete surprise.
“I was shocked more than anything,” Walker said of the trade. “It just kind of happened. [It was] the day before Thanksgiving and I wasn’t really thinking about it. No news, nothing. It just came out of the blue.”
Ketel Marte – also in the trade with Walker – shared a similar recollection of the trade. Nothing. Nothing. Bang.
Walker, a highly-touted pitching prospect coming through the minor leagues, has pitched well in stretches at the major-league level, but hasn’t put it all together to become the top-of-the-rotation starter people have expected.
In his career, he’s featured a fastball, curveball, changeup and cutter combination. He used the curveball to set hitters up early in the count, and while he was effective against left-handed hitters, he struggled with right-handed hitters.
Last season in Seattle, Walker added a slider to his repertoire that used to be a cutter, according to Chris Iannetta, who caught Walker in Seattle last year before signing with the D-backs this offseason. The change was made to help his success against right-handers.
“He didn’t bring it into a game until late in the year and even then, he didn’t have the feel,” Iannetta said. “With the offseason throwing program and getting spring training under his belt, getting that slider going is going to be a difference-maker for him.”
Walker not having the feel for the slider early on is not uncommon, and reminded Iannetta of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, whom he caught in Colorado.
“I saw it with Ubaldo and it took him a year-and-a-half to get the hang of throwing it,” Iannetta said. “He was also a fastball, curveball, changeup kind of guy. Adding a slider elevated his game to the next level, and that’s what Taijuan is looking to do.”
Part of Walker’s struggles to learn the slider were due to injury; he admitted to pitching with 10 bone spurs in his ankle last season and that resulted in his mechanics getting all out of sorts.
Now, with Arizona, pitching coach Mike Butcher is working with Walker on not only fixing his mechanics, but altering them to make him a more effective pitcher.
“Yeah, working on a higher glove slide, having an actual windup instead of a modified windup,” Walker said. “Staying back and bending my legs.”
The purpose of it, according to Walker, is to create more deception — more of an angle, to hide the ball from the hitters for a bit longer.
“Any advantage I can get against a hitter, I feel like I have to take it.”
Being in a new league, a new environment, around different people – players, coaches, etc. – may be the best thing for Taijuan Walker to reach his ceiling.
By Robert Murray