Mets Bolster Rotation With Taijuan Walker

Two days after pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training, the Mets augmented their rotation — which they’d already upgraded significantly this winter — by landing one of the top remaining free agents, Taijuan Walker. The 28-year-old righty agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal that carries a player option for a third year, making him just the fourth free agent starter this winter to secure a multiyear contract.

A former supplemental first-round pick (2010) and consensus top-20 prospect (2012-14) while with the Mariners, Walker has been beset by injuries for most of his major league career. Shoulder woes wiped out much of his 2014 season, while ankle, foot, and blister problems limited him to an average of 27 starts from 2015-17 with Seattle (the first two of those seasons) and Arizona. He made just three starts in 2018 before needing Tommy John surgery, and then sprained his shoulder capsule in May ’19 while rehabbing; he threw a single inning that year in a start on the final day of the season.

Given that litany, it rated as quite the pleasant surprise that Walker was healthy enough to make 11 starts totaling 53 innings in 2020; he did that while splitting his season between a return to the Mariners and an August 27 trade to the Blue Jays. His 2.70 ERA was outstanding, 38% better than league average; after posting a 4.00 mark through his five starts with Seattle, he delivered a 1.37 mark in six starts for the Blue Jays, who won five of those six games while qualifying for the expanded playoffs, though he did not get a chance to pitch in the Wild Card Series.

Alas, that sterling ERA was something of a mirage. Not only did it conceal seven unearned runs, for a still-respectable RA-9 of 3.88, but his 4.56 FIP was actually six percent worse than league average. Relative to the major league averages for starting pitchers, both Walker’s 22.2% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk rate were slightly subpar, while his 1.35 homers per nine, for as gaudy as it was, was slightly better than average.

Statcast-wise, Walker’s 88.4 mph average exit velocity and 7.2% barrel rate were both similarly middling, ranking in the 50th and 48th percentiles, respectively. His 32.9% hard-hit rate was up in the 74th percentile, his .325 xwOBA down in the 29th percentile. Just as his 1.86 gap between his ERA and FIP placed him second among the 71 pitchers with at least 50 innings last year, his 39-point gap between his xwOBA and .286 wOBA placed him in the 91st percentile among pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches last year, all of which suggests some amount of regression ahead.

A couple other facets of Walker’s performance stand out. For the first time since 2015, he had a lower groundball rate (39.1%) than fly ball rate (40.4%). That appears to be a product of his uncharacteristic struggles against lefties:

Taijuan Walker Platoon Splits
Split AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA GB% FB%
Vs. RHB 2013-19 .257/.315/.416 .314 43.8% 35.8%
Vs. LHB 2013-19 .237/.306/.415 .310 43.6% 36.0%
Vs. RHB 2020 .178/.252/.263 .234 42.9% 34.1%
Vs. LHB 2020 .265/.351/.518 .370 33.3% 50.0%

One of these things is not like the other… Drilling down further via Statcast’s pitch splits, lefties slugged .600 with three homers on their 21 batted ball events against Walker’s four-seamer, compared to .440 against the same pitch on 110 batted ball events in 2017, the last time he had a meaningful sample; the pitch did lose a little steam in those three years, dropping from an average of 93.7 mph to 93.2 mph (and for some reason just 92.8 mph against lefties). Similarly, they slugged .630 on their 23 batted ball events against the splitter, up from .371 on 64 batted ball events in 2017.

Given that prior to 2020, one couldn’t tell Walker’s lefty/righty splits apart without their labels, and that his anomalously bad numbers against lefties occurred in just 94 PA (61 batted balls), this may not be significant — or if it is, then it’s likely fixable, at least in the Mets’ view. As Brendan Gawlowski suggested in writing Walker’s Top 50 Free Agents capsule (where he was number 22), it might just be a matter of him ditching the splitter and going with curves and sliders or cutters (Statcast calls that particular pitch a cutter, Pitch info and Sports Info Solutions call it a slider).

The other area of concern is Walker’s 7.8% swinging strike rate, 1.7% below his previous career mark. Via Dan Szymborski, Walker ranked among last year’s top strikeout overachievers, which is to say that based on his contact data and velocity numbers, his expected strikeout rate (17.2%) was 5.1% lower than his actual mark, the ninth-highest gap in the majors among pitchers with at least 200 batters faced. While it’s worth noting that the two Cy Young award winners, Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber, topped the list, it’s another sign of regression ahead.

As Szymborski explained in providing his ZiPS, that regressed strikeout rate is already part of Walker’s projection, and the good news is that he’s still forecast to be a slightly better-than-average pitcher in terms of run prevention:

ZiPS Projection – Taijuan Walker
Year W L ERA FIP G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2021 7 6 4.17 4.40 20 20 101.1 99 47 15 36 90 102 1.4
2022 6 5 3.96 4.15 18 18 91.0 87 40 12 32 82 107 1.5
2023 6 5 3.99 4.13 18 18 90.1 86 40 12 31 82 106 1.5

Even with very conservative workloads, Walker projects to provide 2.9 WAR over the first two years of the deal, and 4.4 over the three-year stretch. That’s adequate production for a fourth or fifth starter, which is what the Mets expect him to be, as he’ll slot into the rotation behind Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, and Marcus Stroman, with lefties David Peterson or Joey Lucchesi likely to round out the starting five until Noah Syndergaard returns from Tommy John surgery, which won’t be any earlier than June given that the Mets placed Thor on the 60-day injured list in order to add Walker to the 40-man roster. Peterson pitched reasonably well as a rookie last year (3.44 ERA, 4.52 FIP in 49.2 innings), albeit with worse strikeout and walk rates than Walker offset by a stronger groundball tendency and a lower home run rate. Lucchesi was very solid for the Padres in 2018 and ’19 but spent most of last season at the team’s alternate training site, throwing just 5.2 major league innings. Long story short: this move gives the Mets — who already project to have one of the game’s top five rotations — some impressive depth.

Given the rumors regarding the Mets’ pursuit of an additional starter after missing out on Bauer and then James Paxton, the question arises as to why they signed Walker rather than Odorizzi, who was said to be a target of theirs. The answer is probably price tag, as Odorizzi was reportedly seeking a three-year deal for about $45 million. Odorizzi, who’s turns 31 on March 27, making him more than two years older than Walker, has a longer track record of success and durability, having averaged 182 innings and 2.2 WAR from 2014-18, with a 3.88 ERA and 4.09 FIP, but he was limited to just four starts and 13.2 innings last year by an intercostal strain and a blister. Those shouldn’t be the kind of injuries that scare teams away the way elbow or shoulder trouble would, but at the same time, this has been a tough winter to be seeking a multiyear deal even for pitchers considered healthy.

Indeed, prior to Walker signing, the only free agent starters who had landed multiyear deals this winter were Bauer, Mike Minor, and ex-KBO and ex-Mets pitcher Chris Flexen. While Walker’s recent performance isn’t on the level of Bauer’s, the two share a vaguely similar contract structure, in that both contain a less valuable player option for the third year, which suppresses the average annual value of the deal for the purposes of navigating the Competitive Balance Tax. Per the New York Post’s Joel Sherman – and updated with additional information from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman — Walker will receive $10 million in 2021 ($8 million in salary plus a $2 million signing bonus), and $7 million in ’22, with a $6 million player option and $3 million buyout for ’23. Escalators based upon his innings total in 2022 can take that third-year salary to $8.5 million: he gets an additional $250,000 for reaching the 125- and 135-inning thresholds, plus an additional $500,000 for reaching the 145-, 155-, 165-, and 175-inning thresholds. He also will receive a $1 million assignment bonus the first time he’s traded during the contract. Thus, while he’s “only” guaranteed $20 million over the course of a two-year deal ($10 million AAV), for CBT purposes it’s currently scored as $23 million over three years ($7.67 million AAV), which provides the team a bit of wiggle room in case it scrapes up against the tax threshold; via RosterResource their current payroll for tax purposes is $194.7 million, about $15.3 million below the line.

In a market that had several options who would have served the purpose adequately, the Mets landed one of the youngest starters available. It’s easy to nitpick Walker’s flaws at this stage, but for the price, he’s a solid choice, and based on his pedigree, he may still have a higher upside than some of the alternatives.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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David Klein
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Not a fan of giving him two years, he had one of the lowest swinging strikes rates in baseball, had an elevated strand rate, had a expected E.r.a, Sierra and fip in the high 4’s. He has also been injured most of his career with TJ and shoulder problems I much preferred Odorizzi. The good thing is if he struggles with the Wilpons gone they can treat him as a sunk cost and bury him in the bullpen.

tomerafan
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Member
tomerafan

Last year was his first real action after two pretty-much lost years to injury. I expect he’ll be sharper in 2021 than he was in 2020. It’s a much better signing than Odorizzi both because it’s less than half the guaranteed money and only a two year deal compared to what Odorizzi wants. If he’s healthy, the downside here feels like a reasonably-priced #4 starter… if he is sharper than last year, there’s #3 starter potential here on a nice 2-year deal that buys some time for guys like Matt Allan and JT Ginn to work their way up to Queens. Personally, I like it a lot.

darkness88
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darkness88

I think a huge part of it is “Odorizzi wants”. It’s likely that the Mets simply preferred Walker, a #4/#3 potential, at 2/20, than Odorizzi at his asking price. But I don’t know, I could see a worse downside than “reasonably priced 4th starter” even if Walker is healthy.