After struggling early in 2015, Walker went 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA over his final 20 starts last year. He didn’t just find the strike zone — he found himself.
PEORIA, Ariz — It had nothing to do with mechanics, velocity or talent. The God-given gifts that made him the Mariners’ most-hyped pitching prospect since King Felix had not gone astray.
But the fact remains that the start to Taijuan Walker’s 2015 season resembled a burning locomotive lying sideways on the tracks. And the reason was simple: He was scared.
“Mentally, I just got into a funk,” the 22-year-old Walker said, “especially after like five or six bad games in a row — the thought of ‘I’m gonna get sent down’ really started creeping into my head.”
Nerves commandeering Walker’s right arm seemed unlikely based on what he had achieved last March. In 27 spring-training innings, Taijuan allowed just two runs, struck out 26 and held opponents to a .114 batting average.
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It was an Oscar-worthy trailer that had Mariners fans chirping from Bellevue to Burien. But then came the premiere.
Making his season debut against the A’s, Walker gave up nine earned runs in 31/3 innings. The spring-training force had turned into a regular-season fiasco. Worse, what Walker hoped would be his bounce-back game took place at Dodger Stadium, less than 75 miles from his hometown of Yucaipa.
Among those in attendance was his mother, Nellie — and she didn’t like what she saw.
“He can say he wasn’t nervous, but I saw it from my own point of view,” said Nellie, adding that her “goofball” son was unusually quiet before his second start last year. “He really just wanted to impress everybody so much — to make everybody who came to watch him proud.”
Instead, Walker allowed five earned runs in four innings in a 5-2 defeat. Through two games, his ERA was 17.18.
Three starts later, the Astros took him for eight runs in three innings. And by that point, Walker’s once-clear head was covered in clutter.
Fearing the Big Hit, Taijuan stopped attacking batters the way he had in spring training and tried to paint the corners. The result was an abundance of walks, which led to runs, which led to losses that left him fuming.
Walker knew he was better than this, but he had to conquer the mental side of the game to free up the physical. So he sought out teammates, he sought out friends, and he sought out Mariners’ mental-skills coach Michael Gerson.
“I was struggling bad,” Walker said. “I had to try something.”
What Gerson introduced to Walker was the process of visualization — a process Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have employed. The idea is that if athletes visualize what they intend to do beforehand, they will reap the benefits of a dress rehearsal.
So these days before games, you’ll find Walker breathing deeply in a dark room while imagining himself facing specific hitters. And though he hasn’t perfected the practice, the stats suggest he is on the road to mastery.
For example, in his first 43 innings last season, Walker walked 25. In his final 1262/3, he walked 15. Part of this is due to improved command, but it is more reflective of Taijuan choosing to go right at hitters instead of pitching around them.
Perhaps that’s why Walker went 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA over his final 20 starts last year. He didn’t just find the strike zone — he found himself.
“We got away from his game plan and his strengths early in the year,” said Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, who was behind the plate for the majority of Walker’s starts. “We both wanted him to get back to using his power fastball, and once he got his confidence back in that pitch, he just took off the rest of the year.”
All that said, Walker is far from a finished product. His breaking ball, though improving, needs work. And until a pitcher actually has that dominant season, one is never sure he can.
Oh, and it’s not like he is immune to pressure now, either.
On the golf course last week, Taijuan needed only a bogey to break 80 for the first time, but he doubled the par-4 18th.
Still, it’s obvious this guy cleared a mental hurdle last year and has the physical talent to excel. The question is whether that will happen in 2016.
For what it’s worth, Zunino and Mariners manager Scott Servais think a breakout year could be on its way. And if those two could visualize that, you know that Walker has, too.