NEW YORK -- As Taijuan Walker remained unemployed deep into last offseason, he found himself sitting in mid-February without a single contract offer. To be certain, Walker had proven plenty over the shortened 2020 campaign, pitching to a 2.70 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. But as others across the league found new deals, Walker did not.
Only after losing out to the Dodgers in their pursuit of Trevor Bauer did the Mets pivot to Walker, offering him a two-year, $20 million deal just days before the official start of Spring Training. It was the only offer that Walker received from any team, and it is looking now like the steal of the winter. After striking out a career-high 12 batters in a 3-2 win over the Cubs on Tuesday, Walker improved to 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA in 12 starts.
“The Mets being my only offer, I feel like it was destiny for me to be here, honestly,” Walker said. “Everything has worked out well for everyone. I’m actually really happy to be here. So I’m glad the Mets were my only offer.”
Twelve strikeouts marked a career high for Walker, who had never accomplished that sort of thing even in his younger days before his 2018 Tommy John surgery. Now fully healthy and a crucial part of the Mets’ rotation, Walker relied on a darting two-seam fastball to neutralize Chicago’s lefty hitters, frequently elevating it to generate swings-and-misses. Pete Alonso drove in three runs for the Mets, Seth Lugo nailed down a multi-inning save and Walker did most of the rest, walking no one and allowing only two runs over seven innings.
“We’ve got a really good rotation,” Walker said. “ … I’m just going out there and doing my job, really.”
Walker, who spent the days leading up to his start battling a stomach bug, ran into enough early trouble for manager Luis Rojas to fear that he looked a bit sluggish. But after allowing the first two batters of the game to reach safely, he struck out three others that inning to strand the bases loaded, then punched out two more Cubs in the second. After caving for his only two runs on a 109 mph Javier Báez homer in the third, Walker retired 14 of the final 15 batters he faced.
When he returned to the clubhouse, Walker carried the National League’s fifth-lowest ERA with him. He has endeared himself to the fan base with his pitching, his leadership and even his personality, holding sacred the animal-tooth necklace that former Mets reliever Turk Wendell gave Walker after he adopted uniform No. 99.
“We hit the jackpot with this guy,” Rojas said. “He’s been outstanding for us.”
Although Walker’s fastball velocity is up a tick from last season, averaging close to 95 mph and often popping higher than that, he doesn’t throw quite as hard as when he broke into the league back in 2013. Instead, Walker has thrived by changing up his repertoire. After Tommy John surgery, he joined the long line of pitchers to work out at Driveline, a biomechanics institute based in Washington state. There, Walker learned more about what worked for him and what didn’t. Upon sifting through the data, he decided to begin throwing a sinker and to convert his cut fastball into more of a true slider.
He's had success with both this season, but as the year has worn on, Walker has increasingly leaned on the sinker. That crescendo continued on Tuesday, when for the first time, Walker threw the pitch more than half the time. It ate up left-handed hitters Anthony Rizzo, who took a called strike three on a sinker with two men on base in the first, and Ian Happ, who swung through a sinker at the top of the zone to end that inning. In large part because of that sinker, Walker boasts reverse platoon splits this season, with lefties hitting just .145 against him.
He knows how important that’s been. As the last of his 12 strikeouts zipped back across the inside corner of the strike zone, freezing Rafael Ortega in the left-handed batter’s box, Walker punched his glove animatedly with his fist.
“I just want to do my part,” he said, ignoring the fact that he’s done far more than that.
“He knows how his stuff works and he’s able to pitch and work through games with whatever he has that day,” Alonso said. “His pitchability’s absolutely plus, and he’s got great stuff. So with that combination, it’s no surprise that he’s carving guys up this year. He’s having a hell of a year.”