Farmhand Taijuan Walker and Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez grew up worlds apart: One born in Louisiana and schooled in Southern California, while the other emerged very, very quickly from Venezuela. So what brings the two together?
They both throw a baseball faster than the rest of us.
"That was pretty cool, to be in big league camp with him. Watching him pitch, that was helpful. He said I had good stuff. I just need to trust it and pound the strike zone," said Walker, who shared the Spring Training experience with fellow Seattle Mariners-in-the-making Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. "That's the biggest advice I've gotten: just trust yourself and trust your stuff and trust you can get outs anywhere, whether it's Double-A or the Major Leagues."
Hernandez would know, and so Walker listened. Like his informal advisor, the M's No. 3 prospect -- and MLB.com's No. 18 prospect overall -- has the repertoire of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Unlike Hernandez, Walker's is still in the development stage.
"My fastball was pretty good in high school," Walker said, "so I got away with just using it most of the time. When I got to Minor League ball, I tried getting people out with my fastball and that didn't work, so I find out I needed to mix in other pitches."
The lines of his progress are easy to draw. Since Seattle made him its first-round draftee in 2010, the 6-foot-4 right-hander has made 25 starts, compiled a 2.81 ERA and struck out 130 batters in 108 2/3 innings.
But at 19, seven years younger than King Felix, he's still green. Of his Double-A Debut for the Jackson Generals on April 9 -- he won it, fanning eight over five solid frames -- Walker quipped, "I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be, which was good."
To learn more, MiLB.com asked Walker to describe and grade each of the three pitches he employs. (His grade is based on a scout's traditional 20-80 scale, 50 being the Major League average.) Here is Walker, in his own words.
Pitch one: Four-seam fastball
: First pitch I learned. It's my best pitch. I started working on a two-seam fastball a week ago, so hopefully sometime this season that will be in there somewhere. I still have some work to do before using it in the game. It would help a lot with runners on, getting ground balls.
Purpose: If I throw it for strikes where I want it, locate it, that's the most important thing. I like to get ahead with my fastball first. If I can do that, I'll throw my off-speed.
Speed: Mid-90s mph. If I touch high 90s, it's a good day.
Grade: I've worked on it a lot, so I'll say 65-70.
Pitch two: Curveball
: I have thrown a couple of different curveballs. I used to throw a spike curveball at Yucaipa High School. But last year was when I actually got it down and learned the curveball from my Clinton pitching coach, Rich Dorman
. He helped a lot with it. He gave me a grip and told me how to throw it, to get out in front with it. It's 12-to-6, right over the top.
Purpose: I like to mix in, even for a first pitch. But, yeah, if I get two strikes, I'll go to my curveball. If my curveball is off, I have enough confidence in my changeup to get it in there.
Grip: Traditional, right on the seams.
Speed: High 70s.
Grade: I'd say 60.
Pitch three: Changeup
: Last year was when I started working on it, and this offseason I tried to hammer it, work on it a lot. People had shown me different grips, but I found one I feel comfortable with.
Purpose: I like to throw it to lefties especially.
Grip: It's kind of hard to explain how I hold it: I have two fingers on the ball and my thumb on the bottom, and my pinky and index finger are off it.
Speed: Mid 80s.
Grade: It's coming along, so I'd say 50.