Taijuan Walker was not content with the lowest strikeout rate of his career.
The fastball was there as it always has been – Walker hit 95 mph with his fastball as a senior at Yucaipa High School in Southern California – but something was missing.
It took the evolution of his split-changeup and slider to help him develop into one of the Mets’ most reliable arms this season.
Walker’s efficiency and comfort with those two pitches can be tied to a pair of Carloses: Carlos Carrasco and Carlos Rodon.
With an overhauled arsenal, Walker is second to only Max Scherzer among Mets starters with a 2.88 ERA so far this season. The 29-year-old right-hander is 5-2 with a 1.16 WHIP. He’ll put his newfound success to the test against Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara on Friday in Miami.
Getting down to business
Walker’s 2022 season began with a conversation.
He wanted his split finger to drop more rather than ride, so he sought help from his veteran teammate in spring training. By deploying Carrasco’s grip, Walker found a consistent tool to play off the carry of his fastball.
“I think he has a lot of depth in there, so it’s really good,” Carrasco said. “I got so happy when he started working on it, and I saw everything feeling good, feeling great and the way he threw and the action that it had. It was really good.”
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Walker toyed with the idea of working in his previous grip which lead the same pitch to ride in on batters, but he has stuck strictly with the latest iteration.
The biggest change is he feels more consistent with the pitch. That trust has allowed him to throw the new splitter 29.6 percent of the time this season, just below his fastball usage (31.7 percent).
The splitter is also his most evasive pitch. It has produced a .187 opponent batting average and 31.5 percent whiff rate.
“I was just watching how consistent my new grip was, and I was like, ‘You know what, let’s focus on this one and really get it down and really get comfortable with it,'” Walker said. “Ever since I’ve done that, I feel like I’m getting the ground balls I want. I’m getting the swings and misses I want and called strikes. Even now, if I wanted to, I get make it run a little bit more if I need to. “
Last season, Walker threw his splitter just 14 percent of the time, while opponents hit .350 against it.
Now, with an ally in his corner in Carrasco, the pair is constantly tinkering during bullpen sessions and talking during games as the results have followed.
“When he throws a bullpen and the game, he’s like, ‘Oh my God, it feels great,'” Carrasco said. “I’m really happy for him, as well.”
Walker was seeking answers after the opening two months of the season.
In his first seven starts between April and May, Walker only struck out 19 batters or 2.7 per start. With a lack of confidence his slider, he was frustrated. He felt like a two-pitch pitcher with teams being able to eliminate either his splitter or fastball.
He needed a put-away pitch, so he went to YouTube for a solution. He stumbled upon Rodon’s grip on his slider, which is almost held like a one-seamer, and began working with it. As Walker has thrown the pitch more, it has become more effective.
“I have to go out there and my main job is to get outs, but I also have to work on it and throw it to see what it’s going to do and how hitters are going to react,” Walker said before his latest start against the Marlins. “The last two games I’ve thrown it, I feel like it’s been useful, especially against Anaheim.
“It’s not a swing and miss pitch yet. I think it will be, but just to get swings on it, weak contact, get them off the barrel and get it for called strikes.”
He has worked that pitch into his repertoire more and more over his last two starts.
Against the Angels on June 12, he threw it 22 times out of his 97 pitches (23 percent). And in his latest start against the Marlins, Walker threw it 27 percent of the time – the same amount as his fastball. He induced five swings and misses on the slider, the most of any of his pitches.
“Having the slider now, I have three pitches they have to cover,” Walker said. “I have a plus-plus fastball and a plus-plus changeup now. I have those two weapons I know and then plus adding the slider.”
That pitch has been key in helping Walker strike out 19 batters over his last two starts.
Know your role
When injuries struck last season, including losing Jacob deGrom in July, Carrasco to elbow surgery in October and Joey Lucchesi to Tommy John surgery in June, Walker said he felt the pressure to elevate the rotation.
But Walker also learned that he doesn’t need to pile on any more pressure onto himself. When the Mets’ top-end starters, including Max Scherzer and deGrom, were put on the shelf this season, Walker knew he simply needed to stay within himself.
“I think what happened in the second half (last season), we lost some guys, and I think I tried to step up and do too much,” Walker said. “We have some guys out, but I’m just focused on doing what I know I can do. I don’t need to go out there and throw complete games or anything.
“My job is to go out there and get ground balls, get weak contact and hopefully I’ll get more strikeouts coming.”
Walker has been at his best since Scherzer hit the injured list on May 18. In his last seven starts, Walker is 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.21 WHIP with 36 strikeouts in 41⅓ innings.
And after undergoing offseason knee surgery and missing two starts with right shoulder bursitis earlier this season, Walker is feeling as good as he has all season.
“I was wearing a knee brace for my first 10 or nine starts, just to keep it stable a little bit,” Walker said. “Anaheim was the first time taking it off and I felt like a free man. That felt nice to go out there and move better and feel really healthy finally.”
Andrew Tredinnick is the Mets beat writer for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to all Mets analysis, news, trades and more, please subscribe today and download our app.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @andrew_tred