PEORIA, Ariz. – Taijuan Walker is 19 years old and has been pitching now for two years. And Seattle Mariners minor league pitching coach Rich Dorman calls him special.
How about specifics?
“He’s got great makeup, a great work ethic, and then you get to his athletic ability,” Dorman said Monday. “Taijuan listens, picks things up fast. You can show him a pitch in the bullpen and two days later he can take that into a game.”
Dorman paused, shook his head.
“I’ve heard scouts compare him to Bob Gibson,” he said. “That’s special.”
Taken in the 2010 draft just out of high school, Walker is a physical specimen capable of playing any sport. He just hadn’t thought much about pitching.
“When I was a junior, I pitched like 20 innings – I was the shortstop. I had no clue what I was going to do. I thought I’d probably play junior college basketball or baseball,” Walker said.
“When I started my senior year, I was throwing in the mid-80s, but by year’s end I’d touched 95 mph. I really don’t have an explanation, other than I pitched more.”
Last season in Single-A Clinton, Walker’s fastball hit 98 mph with movement, he worked on a curve and struck out 113 batters in 962/3 innings.
Last week, he walked into his first big-league spring training.
“It was pretty cool coming into this clubhouse for the first time, seeing my locker, a Mariners jersey with my name on it. I called and told my mom about it,” Walker said.
“I’ve been smiling a lot, and trying to hold it in. I tried not to smile warming up or throwing my bullpen (session).”
Walker is one of Seattle’s Big Three rookies – always linked – including Dan Hultzen and James Paxton. All three are in camp, rarely far from one another.
“I pitched with Paxton in Iowa, and he’s like a big brother,” Walker said. “We talked baseball and we competed against one another. If he had a great game, I’d try to match it in my next start, that kind of thing.
“I met Danny in instructional league. He’s a great guy, too.”
Hultzen was the No. 2 pick in the country last June, Paxton a fourth-round selection in 2010. Walker, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, is the youngest of the three.
And still learning.
“Last year Rich Dorman helped me throw a curve. It was really frustrating, and I was begging him, ‘Let me throw a slider, I threw one in high school,’ ” Walker said.
“Rich told me to stay with it, that I’d get it and eventually I did. Now I’m working on a change-up, and it’s a tough pitch to learn, too.”
Dorman recalled Walker’s frustration.
“He gave up a couple of runs in the second inning one night and came off the field and went up the tunnel behind the dugout,” Dorman said. “He was frustrated. He said ‘My curve sucks!’
“Taijuan loves basketball and the Lakers, so I asked him: If Kobe Bryant starts the first quarter of a game shooting 3-for-15, do you think he stops shooting? He keeps shooting. You have to keep pitching.’”
The curve improved. In his last 16 starts of 2011, Walker went 6-3 with a 2.39 ERA.
“A pitcher who can throw 95 mph routinely and then drop a hammer on you? Those guys are rare,” Dorman said. “We have one of those guys already – and he won the Cy Young Award two years ago.”
Heady stuff, though Walker largely avoids talking about such praise like being compared to Felix Hernandez. Humility is part of the package, and he comes by it naturally.
“My mom is a very strong woman, and she worked a lot when I was growing up. She had to take care of me, my two brothers and sister,” Walker said. “I’d cook and try to clean up for her. I did it on my own, because I knew she was already working so much.
“When I signed, I bought her a car and a house. I’d love to eventually make sure she didn’t have to work any more, let her enjoy life.”
And his father?
“My father is out of the picture. I lived with him in Louisiana until I was 5 or 6, then lived with my mother in California,” Walker said. “My brother and I tried to reach out to him, have him be with us on draft day.
“He said he’d be there. He didn’t show up.”
“Growing up, my older brother Shamon would do things a dad would normally have done – we’d play catch, take care of each other,” he said.
Walker views his first camp as the opportunity to learn from many sources, teammates with far more experience.
“I’d love to get a lot of information this spring, from everyone, take in little pieces,” he said. “I want to be ready to compete, at whatever level, when camp ends.
“My drive to reach the big leagues has grown. You see the big crowds at the ballparks, the best players. I want to get there, have my friends and family watch me.”
Over the offseason, Dorman looked at video of Walker pitching in high school, then put it on a split screen with video of him pitching in Clinton last year.
“I couldn’t believe the difference,” Dorman said. “He’s throwing a curve now with the same release point as his fastball. When he gets a second and third pitch to go with that fastball, you’re going to see just what kind of weapon he is on the mound.”