Taijuan Walker is Absolutely Fine

The Mets just signed a back-end starter who, under the Wilpons, would have been touted as an ace. Things are better than they used to be.

According to Andy Martino of SNY, the Mets have agreed to a deal with starting pitcher Taijuan Walker. With the Mariners and Blue Jays last season, Walker pitched to a 2.70 E.R.A.; he only made four appearances over 2018 and 2019, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Walker is 28; he has a career 3.84 E.R.A., and has averaged 8.2 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings. His career ERA+ is 108. For most of his career, Walker has been a solid, slightly above-average pitcher.

Can Walker repeat the kind of numbers he put up last season in 2021? Probably not. He allowed a .243 BABIP in 2020, almost certainly due for regression. He’s okay at controlling exit velocity (his average exit velocity allowed was in the 50th percentile last season) and doesn’t allow too many hard-hit balls (he was in the 74thpercentile at preventing them), so his BABIP-against should be average or better, but still, .243 is far too low to sustain. He won’t be an ace in 2021 — but he has every chance to be a solid starter.

The only thing we know with certainty about Walker is that we don’t know enough to tell how good he is, but he has a history of being pretty good. He hasn’t pitched a full season since 2017, so even advanced metrics only have an 11-start sample to work with. I’ve heard some rumblings that his FIP and xFIP and xERA indicate that he’s not really a good pitcher anymore, but I don’t quite buy it. We’re talking about an 11-game sample, even for advanced stats. Walker may not have been as good as his E.R.A. last season, but he also might have been better than his advanced metrics indicated. 

Walker won’t be a star in 2021, but there’s every chance that he’s completely fine. His velocities have ticked down slightly over his career: he averaged 94.8 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball in 2015, which fell to 93.7 by 2017; in 2020, that fell further, to 93.1. It’s worth remembering, though, that he was also returning from Tommy John surgery in a pandemic-shortened season. 

Again: for now, the only real conclusion is that we don’t quite know how good Walker is, but that he has a history of being pretty good. Already, that’s an improvement! Last season, the Mets signed Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, and there was no ambiguity about the moves: It would take a miracle for either of them to have a good year, and sure enough, neither did. That was pretty much the Wilpon free-agency model: sign guys who had good seasons four years ago, and hope either that they can magically rediscover their talents, or that memories of those long-ago good seasons cover up the fact that they’re no longer the pitchers they were. 

Signing Walker isn’t like that at all. At the very least, Walker is an absolutely acceptable fourth or fifth starter candidate. Calling him a “candidate” is probably inaccurate, since all indications are that one of those job is pretty much his, but the Mets also have Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto, both of whom can step in as fifth starters if there’s a sudden need. Bashing the Walker signing as nothing more than a Wilpon-ian reclamation project is misguided. 

To be clear: I’m not saying that Walker will be an ace in 2021. I’m not even certain that he’ll be good. But the chance that Walker is a valuable member of the Mets rotation is undeniably higher than it was for Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha, Wilmer Font, Walker Lockett…hell, even Jason Vargas, who’s somehow transformed himself retroactively into a Mets legend, was way more of a shot in the dark than Walker is today. 

Look at it this way. Walker is unquestionably better than four of the Mets six most-used starters in 2020. Last season, the Mets gave at least four starts to Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha, Steven Matz, and Robert Gsellman. Porcello’s 5.64 E.R.A. was the best of that bunch. On the 2020 Mets, Walker would have been the #3 starter at worst. In 2021, he’ll compete for the fourth or fifth spot. What does that say about how far the rotation has come?

Sure, Walker may not be quite as good as his 2.70 E.R.A. last season indicated. But he’s still a fine addition to the rotation, and a far better signing than the Wilpons would have made. The Mets rotation has impressive depth and talent, and after adding Walker, has seven pitchers capable of starting every fifth day, with an eighth on track to return in June. I’m not sure I can remember the Mets ever entering a season with this much starting pitching depth. It’s clear that things are better than they used to be.