Taijuan Walker Talks Pitching

Taijuan Walker came back strong in 2020. Coming off two seasons lost to Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old right-hander put up a 2.70 ERA over 51-and-a-third innings. Six of his 11 starts came with the Toronto Blue Jays, who acquired Walker from the Seattle Mariners at the tail end of August in exchange for Alberto Rodriguez.

A return to health wasn’t the only thing that buoyed Walker’s rebound. Like many modern-day hurlers, the 43rd-overall pick in the 2010 draft has become an adherent of analytics and data-driven pitch-design. Currently a free agent, Walker is looking to move forward with a team that embraces those very things.


David Laurila: What is your background with analytics and pitch design?

Taijuan Walker: “I went to Driveline about a week after the 2019 season ended. I spent a few days there and got assessed — all of the numbers, threw a bullpen — and it was nice to see where I was at with my fastball spin rate, and more. We talked about the numbers, and how to use those numbers to know what I’m looking for.

“That was part of the reason I signed with the Mariners [in February]; they had a lot of that same technology. Woody [Pete Woodworth], the pitching coach there, is smart, and really good.”

Laurila: I assume you’d been exposed to analytics previously?

Walker: “Yes, but I had a chance to really learn the numbers, whereas before it was more like, ‘Hey, these are your numbers,’ but never really having them explained to me. It was never, ‘This is what they mean, and this is how to make [a pitch] better.’”

Laurila: How are you going about making information actionable?

Walker: “With the slider, it was really just taking the Rapsodo [readings] and seeing the spin on my slider, trying to see that dot. If you’re looking at the catcher from the pitching mound, on my cutter, the middle of the dot was facing towards the glove side of the catcher. Our pitching coach was like, ‘Okay, to get depth on the ball, you want to either have that dot pointing towards the center of the catcher, or off to his throwing-arm side. I was able to adjust my hand placement, and adjust my grip, but still stay on top of it while getting the dot pointed in the right direction.”

Laurila: You initially said “slider,” and then said “cutter”…

Walker: “It’s definitely a slider now.”

Laurila: It was more of a cutter before?

Walker: “Yes, 100%. It was just a little bit of depth, and a little bit of cut. It wasn’t anything crazy, and my goal was to get a lot more depth, That’s what I was able to do this year.”

Laurila: What exactly did you change? Was it just hand placement and seam orientation, or was it release point, as well?

Walker: “It was seam orientation, and then more of the release. I was more behind the ball, instead of getting a little bit more on the side… but not too much, so that it would be a curveball. I had to change my grip just a little. That, and obviously finishing through — feeling out in front is what I want to do with that pitch. A slider is a feel pitch, especially out in front.”

Laurila: Did you learn anything about your four-seam, and make any adjustments there?

Walker: “My vertical break was a lot higher this year than it was previously. I think that was because I was living up [at the] top of the zone, and really getting behind it. One of the key reasons for that was just being healthy again, but I did focus on getting out in front and getting that good extension.”

Laurila: Your fastball velocity [93.5 mph] was a bit lower than it was pre-Tommy John [93.9 in 2017]…

Walker: “That was coming off two years of basically not pitching. It was my first full season coming off of Tommy John, and I think next year my velo is going to tick up a little bit more, just because I have that year under my belt. I’m healthy again, and still continuing to build up strength.”

Laurila: I looked back at an interview we did in 2012, and back then you said that velocity was important to you. Are you still of that opinion?

Walker: “I guess as I’ve gotten older, and the more I’ve been around the game… like, velocity is definitely a big key in baseball. You can get away with more mistakes if you have better velocity. But it’s also not the only thing. I watched Marco Gonzales this past year. He’s 88-89, and a phenomenal pitcher. He’s an ace, and he doesn’t throw hard. It’s all about mixing your pitches. If you can keep hitters off balance, 88-89 can look like 95-96. A guy like Marco is able to get that good separation between his changeup, his curveball, and his fastball. So it’s not all about velo, but at the same time, if you have it, it’s definitely helpful.”

Laurila: Do you throw a changeup, or is it actually a splitter?

Walker: “It’s a split-change. I put my fingers just outside that two-seam grip, so I’m not splitting it like an actual splitter. I started doing that in 2013. I always threw a hard changeup that didn’t really have a lot of movement, and my pitching coach at the time, Terry Clark, was like, ‘Hey, grip it like this and just throw it like your fastball; it’s going to move.’ I got comfortable with that, and to me it’s always been my second-best pitch behind my fastball.”

Laurila: You throw your split-change 89 mph. That’s sinker velocity…

Walker: “That’s what I tell people. It could be a sinker, honestly… especially if my fastball velo is down that day. If I’m 92, and my change is 90… yeah, it’s a sinker.”

Laurila: And you also throw a two-seamer…

Walker: “Yes, I added that last year. I added it so I can get in to righties without risking pulling a four-seam over the middle. I didn’t want it to be a sinker; I wanted it to be more of a running fastball, arm side. I felt like it was pretty effective this past year. There were some games where it was moving a lot, so I would occasionally throw it to lefties, too.”

Laurila: Your curveball is by far your lowest-velocity pitch [75.2 mph].

Walker: “That’s by design. I want to get that separation from my other pitches. It’s actually a spiked curveball now. I started doing that last spring training, looking to get a little more bite. Throwing a traditional curveball, I’d also have it kind of popping out. Going to the spike, it’s just kind of rolling off that middle finger, rather than popping out.”

Laurila: You mentioned really liking Seattle because of technology and coaches like Pete Woodworth. How did Toronto compare?

Walker: “I feel like they had even a little bit more. Even though we were in Buffalo, they had it set up in the stadium, so after the game you could see the slo-mo video and the numbers. What kind of sucked is that they had all that stuff available, and I was only there for a month and a half. I didn’t get a chance to really dive into it with [pitching coach] Pete Walker.

“In Seattle, we had a six-man rotation, so I was able to throw two bullpens if I wanted to. When I got traded, I was going to a five-man rotation, plus we were in a playoff hunt. It was, ‘OK, I don’t really have time to work on stuff now.’ It was go-time, all the time.”

Laurila: It sounds like you’d be happy to go back to either place.

Walker: “For sure. Especially… I mean, I feel like the Blue Jays are pretty far ahead of the game with all the technology, all the data, and the way they set it up. They’re really prepared. Pete Walker is amazing. I wish I’d have had more time to work on stuff with him.”

Laurila: While you don’t want to limit your options, you’d clearly prefer that your next team is one that places a high value on technology and data…

Walker: “Yes. And like I said earlier, that was the case last year, as well. I wanted to dive into this stuff, and Seattle is really good with it. I know the Cubs are really good with it. The Reds are really good with it. A lot of teams are getting more and more into it. I think it’s going to be helpful for my career. Honestly, coming off the injury, and what I learned last year, I’m barely scratching the surface with my talent, and what I can bring to a team.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Smiling Politely
1 year ago

These interviews are some of the best reporting FG does (esp in the offseason, when we’re scraping the bottom of the news barrel) — if the circumstances ever come up, I’d gladly pay for a ticket to listen to you chat with some ballplayers in real time (and I can’t imagine I’d be the only one)