After that, the Mets face a difficult decision; it’s tough to draw a line between third and fourth starters Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker. Both have been key contributors for the Mets but notably inconsistent. Overall, Carrasco is 15-6 with a 3.79 ERA while Walker is 12-4 with a 3.42 mark -- numbers that hardly tell the story of their seasons.
The weightiest argument against Carrasco is that nearly all his success has come against bad teams. Consider:
- Versus teams with at least a .500 record, Carrasco is 4-5 with a 6.84 ERA. Hitters from those clubs have a .300/.365/.486 slash line against him.
- Versus sub-.500 teams, Carrasco is 11-2 with a 2.14 ERA. Hitters from those clubs have a .247/.295/.369 slash line against him.
In the playoffs, Carrasco would of course face nothing but good teams, forcing the Mets to take a leap of faith by including him in their rotation. But Carrasco also boasts more playoff experience than any Mets starter other than Scherzer, with three generally effective starts for Cleveland from 2018-20.
The alternative is Walker, who features similar quality-of-competition splits, albeit not so extreme. Walker is 2-3 with a 5.01 ERA against winning teams and 10-1 with a 2.29 mark vs. losing ones. He has only four starts of fewer than five innings, compared to seven for Carrasco, which could play into the Mets’ thinking when it comes time to discuss the playoff rotation.
“It’s a good question, man,” Carrasco said when asked about his potential playoff role. “I just want to finish the season strong right now. We still want to do that, so we can start thinking about the playoffs. But right now, I cannot put that in my head, so I’ll just finish the season strong.”
Asked about his preferences for a postseason rotation, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner began his response by saying: “You’ve got to strike people out in the playoffs, limit balls in play.” That would suggest an edge for Carrasco, whose rate of 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings is significantly higher than Walker’s mark of 7.0.
Then again, there’s an easy argument that Walker has been the more trustworthy pitcher over the last six months. Remove his pair of blowup starts against the Phillies and Braves in May and early August, and Walker would have a 2.63 ERA.
“I don’t think there’s a wrong answer,” Hefner said. “And maybe both is the answer.”
Unlike in years past, teams will be highly incentivized to use more of their regular starters this postseason, because fewer off-days exist. In a best-of-five Division Series, for example, teams can no longer bring back their ace on short rest in Game 4 unless they’re willing to do the same with their No. 2 starter (or proceed with a bullpen game) in a potential winner-take-all Game 5. Similarly, teams can only use four starting pitchers in the best-of-seven series if they plan a bullpen game for Game 7. And bullpen games will be harder to navigate given the added burnout that relievers may face.
In short, the value of back-end starters such as Carrasco and Walker has risen.
For now, the Mets will continue to evaluate both pitchers, who will make their penultimate regular-season starts Tuesday and Wednesday against the Marlins. Before his last outing in Milwaukee, Walker was lounging on a clubhouse couch when the television in front of him flashed a potential playoff rotation graphic that included Carrasco and not him.
“Damn,” said teammate Terrance Gore, who was sitting next to him. Walker just shook his head.
“This is my ninth year in the big leagues,” Walker said afterward. “If they want me to start, I can do that. If they want me to go in the bullpen, I can do that also. I know how to prepare. I know what my body needs. So whatever the team needs, I’m here for them.”