Mariners righty's performance improves after tip from former Tigers ace
By Andrew Erickson
SEATTLE -- The past two and a half months have been better for Mariners starter Taijuan Walker, but the 22-year-old right-hander said it has taken until his most recent starts to become a more complete pitcher.
Walker relied heavily on a fastball-changeup combination early in the season, but he has recently mixed in a curveball that has forced opposing hitters to anticipate another pitch. It's a pitch he had gone away from at times this season until he had a conversation with David Price after Walker's 4 1/3-inning, six-run outing in Detroit on July 21.
"He told me, 'Your stuff is really good, you throw hard, but everything's hard so you have to be able to mix stuff in,'" Walker said.
Walker received similar feedback from teammate Robinson Cano, who told him if he were facing Cano, he would be sitting on fastballs and changeups in the absence of a curveball.
Walker stuck to his routine to begin his next start against the Blue Jays at Safeco Field. But when Toronto's hitters teed off on him for four runs over the first two innings, he changed his approach. He started mixing in his curveball and immediately saw results, holding the Blue Jays scoreless over his last four innings in what became an extra-inning win for the Mariners.
"Once I started doing that, I saw the swings I was getting. I was getting a lot more swings and misses on my changeup," Walker said. "I was getting a lot more takes on my fastball. After I showed that I could throw my curveball for strikes, that was another pitch they had to look for."
Walker used the curveball even more and earlier in counts in his next start against the Twins, and he wound up with his first complete game of the season, striking out 11 Minnesota hitters in the process. He saw more frequent swings and misses on changeups, even on pitches that were well off the plate.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said the curveball has greatly improved for Walker since the start of the season, though he would like to see better velocity to allow the pitch to more closely resemble his other pitches coming out of his hand.
"He was up to 77 [mph Tuesday]. We would like to see him get to 78, 79 miles an hour. It's still a work in progress, but he's getting better," McClendon said. "I think the biggest thing is when you've got a fastball pitcher who pitches up in the zone, it gives him another pitch that looks like his fastball and a lot of hitters will give up on it."
Working in the curveball has been yet another lesson during a season in which McClendon said the 22-year-old has "grown up."
"I just have to throw my curveball more just to get them off my fastball," Walker said. "It's been a learning process the whole year, and that's just another thing I learned."
Andrew Erickson is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.