When the Phillies let Zach Eflin hit free agency this off-season, team president Dave Dombrowski knew they would be looking for a starting pitcher to replace him for 2023.
At the upper echelon of the free agent market were Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodon and Justin Verlander. None were ever a realistic option for the Phillies, and neither was Japanese import Kodai Senga. But there was a vast middle tier of starters amongst whom Taijuan Walker existed.
When the Phils signed Walker to a four-year, $72 million deal, it was with the understanding he’d be the team’s fourth starter, a reasonable expectation for a 30-year-old, 10-year veteran who made 29 starts for the Mets in 2022 and posted a 3.49 ERA, 3.65 FIP and 2.5 fWAR in 157.1 innings last year.
The early returns in 2023 have been ugly.
Last night against the Dodgers, Walker was flat-out awful in allowing 8 runs in 3.1 innings on 8 hits, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts. He allowed three home runs, none of them cheap, pushing his season ERA to a ghastly 6.91 in 28.2 innings, averaging just under five innings per start.
Walker’s early season struggles were crystalized in the second inning of last night’s gruesome 13-4 loss. First, Walker walked James Outman, followed by another free pass to Miguel Vargas, the team’s Nos. 6 and 7 hitters. With the No. 8 man at the plate, David Peralta, Walker spun a hanging curveball that was hit into outer space.
David Peralta - Los Angeles Dodgers (2)— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) May 2, 2023
The biggest issue has been command. Walker has never been a guy to issue a ton of walks, as his career 2.92 BB/9 and last year’s 2.57 BB/9 would indicate. This year, that number has ballooned to 5.34 BB/9. That’s 17 walks in 28.2 innings of work.
Walker has also now given up six home runs in his last three starts. It’s a weird thing given his strikeout rate of 22.5% this year is slightly above last year’s 20.3%, and his ground ball rate of 54.2% is actually higher than last year’s 46.2% or his career mark of 43.9%, he’s allowing a ridiculously high 29.2% of all fly balls hit off him this year to go for homers.
Walker has been getting crushed by his breaking pitches so far this season. Note the runs above average numbers for his slider and curveball last night, and this season overall.
Given Walker’s command issues are unusual for him, could some of this be injury-related? After his last start, Walker reported feeling tightness in his forearm and left the game early, only for team doctors to assure everyone he appeared to be just fine.
Taijuan Walker felt good after his bullpen session and the plan remains for him to start Monday at Dodger Stadium. The Phillies are holding Cristopher Sánchez back at Triple A, just in case. Ranger Suárez will pitch Tuesday for the IronPigs in beautiful Syracuse.— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) April 28, 2023
In terms of velocity, Walker’s average four-seam fastball was 93.9 mph, his second highest game velocity outside of his first game on April 3. The velocity on his breaking pitches was normal, too.
At the moment, all indications are Walker is just struggling to locate his pitches and get ahead of hitters. Not ideal for a pitcher who is temporarily the team’s No. 3 until Ranger Suarez returns.