Taijuan Walker Could Break Out in 2021

When the New York Mets signed Taijuan Walker this offseason, they were mostly just looking to fill out their rotation after missing out on Trevor Bauer and trading Steven Matz to the Toronto Blue Jays.

In fact, Walker finished out the 2020 season in Toronto so it, at the time, felt like a possible unofficial swap of backend starters.

However, it appears both of them might be destined for more in 2021.

With regards to Walker, though, he currently has a 2.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 31.1% strikeout percentage and 18% walk percentage.

Now, we’re talking about a sample size of four starts and 21 innings pitched. That isn’t exactly anything that would sound indicative of future success.

While the stats have been solid so far, that is not the reason for writing an article about how a starting pitcher might already be a worthwhile acquisition for the Mets.

The reason why this deal is already looking promising is because of some of the trends that have emerged early on this season for him.

Walker’s velocity over the years had appeared to have taken a dip, as it does for many with his extensive injury history.

In 2020, Walker’s fastball velocity topped out at 95.7 MPH and was thrown at 93.2 MPH on average.

But, in just his first start alone, reached or exceeded 95.7 MPH 21 times over six innings.

Now, many attributed the velocity in the first game of the season to be related to him being amped up, which is certainly very plausible.

It even showed somewhat in his second start. However, he still exceeded his 2020 high in velocity six times throughout the game.

His four-seam fastball velocity averages were also notably improved at 95.4 MPH in his first start and 94.9 MPH in his second start.

While there was a decrease in average fastball velocity in the second start, that still is 1.7 MPH higher than it was in 2020.

Walker’s third start didn’t quite feature the same peak velocity, but his average was still at 94 MPH and he did still hit 95.7 MPH.

His start took place on a cold night in Chicago against the Cubs, though, so the conditions weren’t exactly the best for a pitcher and six walks also didn’t help him. Walker did still strike out seven batters.

Walker rebounded in his fourth start, going seven shutout innings with a top velocity of 96 MPH and an average of 93.7 MPH on his four-seamer.

Over the length of a whole season, though, it is plausible that the increased velocity won’t necessarily translate to better results for the right-hander.

That being said, there is reason for significant optimism if this trend were to continue.

His 94.4 MPH average four-seamer velocity is actually the second-highest of his career, with his top fastball velocity coming back in 2016 when he was with the Seattle Mariners clocking out at 94.6 MPH.

If you look even deeper into the numbers, though, it actually gets even more promising for Walker.

Top: Walker’s fastball, curveball and splitter (from left to right), Bottom: Walker’s sinker and slider as well as a generic pitch

The type of movement he’s generated with some of his pitches is actually among the best of his career and in the upper tier of baseball.

His splitter, which is being thrown at a career-high velocity right now (89.8 MPH), has 16.8 inches of break which is 2.9 inches greater than the average amount for that pitch throughout baseball.

Meanwhile, his curveball is averaging 61.9 inches of drop right now, giving him the ability to go up and down as well as left and right with his pitches.

His four-seamer actually is the pitch capable of throwing off hitters, as it has both top-tier vertical movement (12.3 inches of drop) and horizontal movement (9 inches of break).

Now, the question to figure out going forward is what can Walker do improve even more going forward?

Well, there’s one pitch that he should probably throw significantly less: his sinker.

Despite the pitch having the ability to confuse hitters with similar velocity to his four-seamer, it simply has been incredibly ineffective.

Walker is currently only generating a 24% whiff rate on the pitch in addition to a 5.6% strikeout rate and 7.1% put away percentage. Opposing batters have a wOBA of .522 against the sinker as well, .317 points higher than his second-most ineffective pitch thus far.

Even with all of that considered, though, he is using the pitch 22.7% of the time, which only trails his four-seamer in usage (32.9%).

It also generates below-average vertical movement (16.5 inches of drop) by 16% (3.2 inches) while not making up for it in horizontal movement with roughly league average break.

Continued success with his splitter could be vital to his success going forward as well and he certainly should use it more.

In his first three starts, Walker has actually used it less than he did in 2020, going from 18.7% usage to 14.2% early on.

There’s no reason with the way he’s been throwing the pitch this season that it should be his second-least utilized pitch.

His least utilized pitch is currently his curveball and, given hitters have an xWOBA of .145 against it right now, it is absurd that he’s only thrown the pitch 26 times (7.4%).

So in actuality, he has two pitches that he is under-utilizing and one pitch that is being overused significantly.

Some different pitch selection could certainly give him the ability to become a notably better pitcher and make him more than worth the two-year, $20 million contract the Mets gave him this offseason.

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