NEW YORK -- As the Mets approach the July 30 Trade Deadline, there are two sides to their rotation equation. One comes from the front office, which is working toward acquiring additional pitching upgrades, even after trading for Rich Hill this week. The Mets know they still need help.
The other comes from their incumbent rotation members -- particularly top three starters Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker. If those three don’t pitch up to their potential, it might not matter whom else the team acquires.
To that end, the recent trends surrounding Walker have been troublesome. For the second straight start since his All-Star Game appearance, Walker allowed six runs, this time in Saturday’s 10-3 loss to the Blue Jays at Citi Field. In April and May, Walker had a 1.84 ERA with a .211 opposing slugging percentage. In June and July, those numbers have bloated to 5.16 and .458, respectively.
“I’ll be fine,” Walker said. “It’s a long season, 30-plus starts. These starts are going to happen. I don’t want them to happen. But they are going to happen. And now I’ve got to find a way to bounce back and go back out there and get back out to what I was doing in the beginning of the year.”
Toronto’s hit parade against Walker included home runs by George Springer, Teoscar Hernández and Marcus Semien -- the latter occurring in the fifth inning, after trainer Joe Golia and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner paid a visit to Walker on the mound. Upon convincing those two to let him stay in the game, Walker allowed a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. double and Semien’s homer before departing.
Asked multiple times about the issue, Walker declined to divulge much. Mets manager Luis Rojas clarified that the problem was a “pinch” in Walker’s left, non-throwing shoulder. When Walker reached out to try to grab Springer’s leadoff single in the fifth, Hefner suspected the starter’s shoulder might be troubling him. But Walker quickly convinced his bosses that nothing was amiss.
“Everything’s good,” Walker said afterward. “I felt great. My arm felt great.”
As has become custom, the Mets battled back with a three-run rally of their own against left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu in the fifth, but they could not complete the comeback. Instead, they fell for the fourth time in eight games since the All-Star break, continuing their months-long trend of doing just enough to maintain first place in the National League East, but not enough to pull away from the other contenders.
If the Mets ever want to do so, they’ll need more consistent starting-pitching performances -- not just from Walker, but certainly including him. Earlier this season, New York won eight of the first nine games that Walker pitched. Saturday’s loss was its first at Citi Field with him on the mound.
“He’s a guy that obviously we trust, right?” Rojas said. “He’s done so much for us.”
In the backs of their minds, however, Mets officials always knew Walker might endure some second-half hiccups -- in part because his stat line suggested a certain amount of regression, and in part because he hasn’t thrown this much in four years.
The last time Walker pitched more than 53 1/3 innings was in 2017, before he underwent Tommy John surgery. The D-backs eased him back from that operation in typical fashion, but the ensuing pandemic shortened what would have been Walker’s first full season back. So the volume issues that Walker might have faced last season, he’s tackling for the first time now.
“That’s a valid question, that’s a valid point,” Rojas said. “We’ve talked about these things -- not about Walker in particular, but just about keeping an eye on every guy because of how last year was. … We’ve got to do our best to keep them out on the field, just to keep them fresh. Our performance staff, I think, is on it, just paying attention. That’s the best that we can do at this point.”
Even if the Mets wanted to back off Walker or any other starter for a quick midseason break, they don’t currently have that luxury. Given all their injuries, the Mets often don’t know who’s starting the next day for them. They can ill afford to create another hole just for the sake of rest.
But they also know these trends for Walker are well worth watching, because the Mets likely won’t reach their goals unless he is both productive and fresh.