PORT ST. LUCIE — Taijuan Walker used his rehab from Tommy John surgery, over almost two entire seasons, to reevaluate his pitching identity.
To that point, leading into 2018 when he tore an elbow ligament with the Diamondbacks, the Mets’ newest starting pitching addition relied on raw heat, which often meant elevated pitch counts. He vowed to change his approach, and before last season started working out with Driveline, an analytics-based company.
“There’s so much technology in the game now and I think the biggest thing is learning about it and kind of figuring out ways to put it in my game,” Walker said Tuesday after a full-squad workout. “I got a bunch of data and was able to work on the stuff they told me to work on. It definitely helped with my pitches.”
Walker, after digesting the numbers, added a two-seam fastball and converted his cutter into more of a slider. No longer looking to boost his strikeout totals, the 28-year-old Walker says he is comfortable pitching to contact and conserving his bullets.
He split last season between the Mariners and Blue Jays, going a combined 4-3 with a 2.70 ERA and 1.163 WHIP in 11 starts. It was enough to earn Walker a two-year contract worth $20 million from the Mets, who desired another veteran arm to slot behind Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman.
“I liked where I was last year coming off Tommy John, I thought it was a big step for me,” Walker said. “But I think this year will be a lot better.
“I have a good defense behind me and try to put the ball in play. I don’t have to try to strike out 15 guys and get my pitch count up, I really want to try to go deep into games and really try to be aggressive out there.”
After missing late in the offseason on Trevor Bauer, who signed a three-year deal with the Dodgers worth $102 million, the Mets shifted focus and bid on Jake Arrieta and James Paxton, among others. It wasn’t until pitchers and catchers were about to report last week that the club got serious with Walker, who along with Jake Odorizzi represented the only real inventory remaining on the starters’ market.
“I thought [Walker’s] trust in using the splitter last year toward the end of the year when he went to the Blue Jays was a big key for him, even against righties,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We know that he’s got the spinner, he’s got the slider, but the splitter was a good pitch — a little funkiness there and the fastball can still be firm, even up to 95-96 [mph]. I can’t wait to see him out there.”
Walker built drama over the weekend, debating on social media whether he should wear No. 00 or 99. He ultimately chose the latter — becoming the first Mets player since Turk Wendell to wear 99. Walker had worn the number with Arizona, figuring he would get to keep it unless he got traded to the Yankees (Aaron Judge owns those digits), but when he got to Toronto, lefty Hyun-jin Ryu had 99. So Walker, wanting another number he thought would be safe regardless of for whom he pitched, selected 00. Then, after signing with the Mets, he discovered 00 belonged to team mascot, Mr. Met, so back to 99 he went.
Walker also endeared himself to Mets fans by last weekend posting a bottled wine picture on Twitter. This wasn’t just any bottled wine — it had come from Tom Seaver’s vineyards, in a nod to the iconic Mets pitcher.
“I’m a huge wine guy and the deal wasn’t official yet, but it was heading toward that way,” Walker said. “I just thought it was fitting that night to open a good bottle of wine and what greater thing to do than open a bottle of Tom Seaver’s wine? Really good wine, by the way.”