Here’s an analogy that should help even the most casual baseball fan understand what has made LSU right-hander Eric Walker so tough to hit this season.
You’re driving on a rural highway where the speed limit is 55 mph. You come over a blind hill and see the legal speed has suddenly dropped to 35, and you quickly adjust.
You turn a corner, and the speed limit goes back up to 55, but your attention is so drawn to that flashing yellow light indicating a school zone ahead that you miss the sign indicating you’re actually in a 45-mph zone.
When the cop pulls you over and asks you how fast you were going, you honestly don’t know.
That’s essentially Walker, LSU’s human speed trap.
The freshman added another strong effort to his growing collection Saturday when he notched 6.2 innings of two-run ball in a 3-2 win against Ole Miss to improve his record to 5-0.
Walker may appear constrained by his own speed limit — his fastball regularly sits in the hittable 87- to 89-mph range — but max speed is unimportant in this case. He ties hitters up by constantly keeping them guessing which speed they’ll see.
“It’s something to keep (hitters) off-balance,” Walker said. “Whether you’re (throwing) 96 or 86, you’ve got to change speeds in this league. The hitters are too good, and they’re too balanced.”
But it’s not as simple as alternating pitch selection. There’s an art to being a human speed trap. "Feel" is the word pitching enthusiasts use to describe that special quality.
“I think Eric came here with a real feel for pitching; I don’t think we should take any credit for that,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “I just think (pitching coach) Alan Dunn has taken it to a different level. He knew what he was doing when he got here.”
That feel is built on a foundation of command. Walker has a three-pitch mix — fastball, changeup, slider — and more often than not, he’s able to put those pitches where he wants them.
“He’s a guy who can throw all three pitches for strikes,” said junior Nick Coomes, who caught Walker’s shutout at Arkansas last weekend. “Those guys are tough to beat. That’s when you don’t score any runs, like Arkansas did (last) Sunday. If he were only to have one pitch he could throw for a strike, it would be a lot easier, but it’s not the case. He’s got all three.”
His command is strongest with his fastball, which got him into trouble at times early this season; his fastball command is so good that the Tigers began relying on it too much.
Even if Walker’s fastball is outstanding in terms of control, it is just average in terms of velocity. It only reaches its true effectiveness when the hitter doesn’t know it’s coming.
“You fall in love with his fastball, because he can put it wherever he wants and you know he’s not going to walk people,” Mainieri said. “But he started getting hit a little bit.”
So Mainieri and Dunn had a conversation, and it centered around Walker’s advanced changeup. The idea was to throw it in nonconventional changeup counts to add deception to Walker’s game.
Walker’s changeup might be the most lethal part of his arsenal, though there’s nothing particularly sexy about the pitch — other than the results.
He throws a circle change, which essentially means that, when he grips the pitch, he makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger on the inside half of the ball. The goal, as it is with all changeups, is to trick the hitter into thinking his 78-mph changeup is an 88-mph fastball.
“I believe it’s the best pitch in baseball, because you can make it look like a fastball,” Walker said. “Whether you’re sitting 100 and your changeup is 88, or you’re sitting 88 and your changeup is 78, it’s different speeds. It looks the same to a hitter, so they’re off-balance. That really helps. If you can mix in a breaking ball, you get in their head.”
Walker said he started developing the pitch his sophomore or junior year in high school, which is about the time he realized he wasn’t going to blaze his fastball past good hitters. The keys to a good changeup are comfort and — especially in a sport that prioritizes extreme velocity — trust.
“You have to feel comfortable with it, or it’s not going to work,” Walker said. “It’s definitely not a curveball, where you can snap it off and hope they swing at it. You can’t aim it; if you start aiming it, you’re going to have problems.”
Walker trusts the pitch fully. On a night when he throws 100 pitches, he estimated 20 to 40 of them would be changeups, depending on the matchup.
Toss in 15 to 20 sliders for a good mix, and Walker’s most hittable pitch, his fastball, is only coming in 40 to 65 percent of the time. And, if the hitter is concerned about Walker’s off-speed arsenal in every count, that 88-mph fastball appears faster than it actually is.
“Sometimes they get so conscious of his changeup," Mainieri said, "his fastball can sneak up on them."
Start thinking about that school zone, and you’ll miss the fact you’re going faster than you should be. That’s the game in which a freshman is schooling the competition.