On Tuesday night at Citi Field, Mets right-hander Taijuan Walker did what he’s done most times he’s taken the mound this season — dominated his opponent.
Walker, whose ERA is now 2.12, struck out a career-high 12 batters while allowing two runs over seven innings and featuring a dastardly two-seamer that had Chicago Cubs hitters mumbling to themselves all night.
“Going back to when we acquired him, we hit the jackpot with this guy,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said after the game. “He’s been outstanding for us.”
As the Mets sit in first place in the NL East, it’s easy to point to Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman, the dominant bullpen, and the resilience of the offense in the face of a truly outrageous amount of injuries.
But the presence of Walker, whose emergence has given New York the best top three in baseball, is one of the main reasons the Mets are where they are.
Walker’s performance has given the Mets a third key cog in a rotation that has seen struggles from David Peterson and inconsistency in the No. 5 spot as the team continues to operate without Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard.
And it’s fair to list Walker as one of the Mets’ most important offseason acquisitions — and one of the best signings of the offseason by any team.
That’s pretty wild when you consider the Mets — who were his only suitor — didn’t sign him until after spring training started.
After Walker’s Mets debut on April 8, I wrote that his increased velocity — which Walker attributed partly to being a few seasons removed from Tommy John surgery — could be a game-changer for the Mets.
But while Walker’s four-seam fastball has averaged 94.4 mph this season (up from 93.2 mph in 2020), it’s his two-seamer that has been his biggest weapon.
A look at baseball savant shows that Walker’s two-seam usage has skyrocketed this season. He threw it 11.3 percent of the time in 2020 and is throwing it 26.1 percent of the time so far this season. The only pitch he throws more often is the four-seamer (30.6 percent). Walker also mixes in a slider, split-change, and curve.
So how did the Mets get so lucky? And should they (or any other team) have seen this coming?
Before the Mets signed Walker, they were linked to James Paxton (who is now out for the season due to Tommy John surgery), Corey Kluber (who is on the IL due to a shoulder injury), Jake Odorizzi (who missed time with an arm injury and has a 5.68 ERA for the Houston Astros), and others.
But it was Walker (listed by me on Oct. 23 as a good under the radar target for the Mets) who wound up with New York at what now seems like ridiculous value — $17 million for two seasons, with a player option at $6 million for the 2023 season (or $3 million buyout that triggers if the option is declined).
Before this season, Walker had showed flashes, but he lost most of 2018 and 2019 to Tommy John surgery before a resurgent 2020.
This season, Walker has simply taken it to another level.
To go along with his 2.12 ERA (2.76 FIP), Walker has a 1.00 WHIP, is striking out more batters than he ever has (9.53 per 9), and has an astronomically low HR/9 rate (0.40).
So how has he done it. Here’s what Rojas said after Tuesday’s gem:
“That front-hip sinker has been really good, and he’s also elevated his four-seam, which is a really good pitch for lefties,” Rojas said. “Typically, lefty pitches is down (and) in and he doesn’t go there often. But he’s placed some good sliders there and then he’s got a really good split-change that he works as well. Whenever he wants, in any counts he’ll throw it. So I think he’s got a really good mix for lefties, as he does for righties as well.
“I think just the velo going down a little bit because of the surgery helped him develop the other pitches. And he’s been doing that the last couple years. And now the velo is back and all the pitches are in the mix. He’s good against both. His command has gotten better, everything has gotten better. Still a young age, but very experienced.”
Walker, who will likely make four or five more starts between now and the All-Star Game in Colorado on July 13, should also be on track for his first All-Star appearance — and he should not be penalized simply because he happens to play on the same team as deGrom.
DeGrom will almost certainly represent the Mets at the All-Star Game, which could lessen the chances of Walker and/or Stroman making it simply because the Mets will already have a representative. But it shouldn’t.
Walker’s 2.12 ERA is the fifth-best in the National League and seventh-best in the majors. If he keeps this up, he is an All-Star.