The Metropolitan: February 22, 2021
Taijuan Walker and all the news from the weekend
Today we’ll talk about how new Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker changed his approach to pitching after having Tommy John surgery, but we start with the news.
⏰ Catch me up on the weekend news…
🍎 HAPPY MONDAY: Francisco Lindor is officially a New York Met and Steve Cohen is officially the owner of the team. We already knew those things, but this past weekend both men were on the field in Port St. Lucie for the first time, one getting ready to lead the team in the lineup, and the other getting used to his new role as captain of the organization.
REALITY: “It's just getting more real,” Cohen told SNY. “Because of COVID, I'm sitting in my house. Everything's by Zoom. And so now I'm at the park, you know, which is what baseball is — watching baseball and watching the players.”
EXCITING: “I think I'd seen a bunch of pictures out there of him in the uniform,” Mets Manager Luis Rojas said of Lindor. “But to actually see him in person wearing the Mets uniform is very exciting.”
✍️ SIGNING: The Mets made the signing of starter Taijuan Walker official after creating space on the 40-man roster by moving Noah Syndergaard to the 60-day Injured List.
LUXURY TAX SPACE: Since Walker’s player option in 2023 is not guaranteed for more than 50% of his base salary (it is exactly 50%), it is considered a “guaranteed” year in terms of the luxury tax payroll, which means the Mets can stretch his $17 million guaranteed + $6 million option over three seasons for an average annual value of $7.67 million. Had his buyout been for $1 more than $3 million, the AAV would have been charged over two years instead of three. In other words, they lowered the AAV and saved some space.
✍️ AND: The Amazins made the Kevin Pillar signing official, while designating Guillermo Heredia for assignment. The 40-man roster now sits at exactly 40 players. Heredia became dispensable once the Mets added both Pillar and Albert Almora Jr.
🍎 ROTATION BATTLE: With the additions of Walker, Joey Lucchesi, and Jordan Yamamoto, second-year man David Peterson finds himself battling for a rotation spot after a strong rookie campaign. After hinting at a six-man rotation on Friday, manager Luis Rojas told reporters over the weekend, “Competition is always going to be there, that’s just going to get the best out of you. So we talked to [Peterson] in the language of competing for a spot in the rotation.”
YAMAMOTO: “They told me we’re all fighting for spots here,” Yamamoto told reporters on Sunday. “Just trying to show them that I want to be here. Show them that I’m ready to go.”
🐦 TWITTER WAR: Quick, check Twitter. Trevor Bauer is probably getting himself in trouble again. The $102 million free agent who spurned the Mets for LA, got into two spats with his near-teammates over the weekend: the first sparked by Noah Syndergaard, and the second calling out Marcus Stroman for “sub-tweeting” him.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The Dodgers travel to Citi Field on August 13-15. Perhaps the only redeeming value of pitchers hitting again this season is the opportunity to see Bauer step to the plate against Stroman or Syndergaard (legal note: this newsletter does not endorse hitting players).
🎧 LISTEN: Our very own Jeffrey Bellone joined Tim Ryder on the Simply Amazin’ podcast to review the offseason and preview the coming year.
What Taijuan Walker has to offer, post-surgery
🧓 by Jeffrey Bellone
When it was first reported the Mets were signing right-hander Taijuan Walker, I did what many of you probably did at the time, and pulled up Google to search his stats. On the surface, the numbers looked good: 4-3 with a 2.70 ERA—a nice, healthy 2020 campaign after missing most of the previous two seasons due to Tommy John surgery.
But then I navigated over to Baseball Savant and was less impressed.
His fastball velocity and spin rate rank near the bottom of the league, he doesn’t strike many people out, and opponents hit him pretty hard. If we were to leave it right there, a “smart” baseball fan might say that his underlying numbers suggest his top-line performance is due for a regression.
But you probably wouldn’t be reading this newsletter if you were content to just leave it there, so let’s dig a little deeper in understanding why there is reason to believe Walker could be a useful starter for the Mets.
Two things jumped out at me in researching the evolution of Walker’s pitch design:
The location of his 4-seam fastball;
His transition from relying on a cutter, as a secondary pitch, to a slider.
First, his fastball. It is Walker’s most used pitch. He threw it 38.3 percent of the time last year and held opponents to a .156 batting average against, which is more than a 100 point drop from the two seasons before his injury when he was throwing nearly 2 MPH faster.
Think about that for a second: while his fastball velocity is slightly down since before his surgery, his results have been better. Not only did he turn more batted balls into outs, he generated more whiffs (23.1%) than he has at any point in his career in which he threw at least 200 fastballs.
What changed was where he located the pitch. Walker started living higher in the zone during the pandemic-shortened season.
While his spin rate and velocity don’t translate into anything special, by throwing his 4-seam with a high spin efficiency (meaning getting the most possible movement out of its backspin) and locating it along the upper edge of the strike zone, he has found some success. Only 15 pitchers threw a 4-seamer in this upper region of the zone more consistently than Walker did last year. And on those pitches, he produced a 16.7% swinging strike rate (vs 8.6% overall).
As we have talked about before with Trevor Bauer, pitchers generally can’t change their spin rate unless they use a foreign substance. You are stuck with what you have, like a fingerprint. But you can improve spin efficiency by optimizing how you throw the ball. And you can see in the representation from Driveline below how spin efficiency is important in maximizing the “rise” on a fastball. Given the same characteristics, a fastball with higher efficiency will have less vertical drop (or a higher location).
In summary: while Walker lacks an impressive spin rate and has lost velocity on his fastball, by locating the pitch higher in the zone and maintaining efficiency on its backspin, he has been effective.
To complement his high fastball, Walker also changed the grip and release point on his cutter to create more depth and transform the pitch into a slider that lands low and away from right-handed hitters. This gave him something he didn’t have before Tommy John surgery, and that is two pitches that right-handed batters swing and miss at when they are properly deployed.
The concern that remains is his hard hit rate. The danger of pitching up in the zone at 92-93 MPH is that big league hitters can turn a mistake into a big fly pretty easily. And while Walker gets more whiffs along the top edge of the strike zone than he does overall, he doesn’t have the type of stuff that hitters chase, as demonstrated by a career-low 21.2% reach rate against his 4-seamer last season. So if he misses a little up, it’s likely going to be a ball; and if he misses a little down, it’s likely going to be trouble.
This is why his collection of secondary offerings is important. Besides his slider, he also throws a split-change, and perhaps most importantly, a two-seam fastball that has similar velocity to his 4-seamer, but has more drop and arm-side movement. If he can master that pitch, it should keep him out of trouble when he has difficulty locating his 4-seamer up in the zone. This is still a work in progress.
Oh, and Walker also has a curveball he isn’t afraid to throw early in the count. We will have to talk about that more in another newsletter. But if you are looking at the individual pitch metrics for Taijuan Walker and find yourself unsure of what he has to offer following Tommy John surgery, hopefully this gives you an idea.
⚾️ A video surfaced of Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather saying… not so kind things about players in his organization, and admitted service time manipulation on top prospects like Jarred Kelenic. He later issued an apology.
⚾️ Pirates signed former Met Todd Walker to a minor league deal.
⚾️ Atlanta is in agreement with third baseman Jake Lamb, per Mark Bowman.
⚾️ Boston’s chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said the team "continues to stay in touch" with unsigned Jackie Bradley Jr.'s agent, Scott Boras.
⚾️ Ian Desmond posted on Instagram that he is opting out of the 2021 season "for now."
⚾️ The Yankees signed Brett Gardner to a one-year deal, as had been widely expected.
🔗 Jordan Yamamoto grew up a Sid Fernandez fan, via Mike Puma, NY Post: “[Fernandez] is a legend in Hawaii. I grew up with one of his nephews and we used to play Little League together, so we all got baseball cards from Sid Fernandez growing up, all of them signed and everything.”
🔗 Why Tomás Nido's swing coach believes NY Mets catcher will shock people, by Justin Toscano, NorthJersey.com: “Over the last few months, Nido and [his swing coach] Lorenzo Garmendia, the owner of Gradum Baseball in Miami, formed a game plan. They operated off this question: Once Nido starts seeing success, how will pitchers attack him? Then they adjusted Nido’s swing. ‘Without giving that away,’ Garmendia said, ‘I think you’re not going to find any holes to attack Tomás Nido.’”
🔗 How the data-driven Orioles and a New Jersey pitching facility led Matt Harvey to Baltimore, by Jon Meoli, The Baltimore Sun: “As he weighed his options for where to pitch in 2021, Harvey said what he picked up during his week at that pitching facility in New Jersey was so eye-opening that he chose to come to the Orioles to continue learning in a data-driven environment.”
🔗 Dom Smith had the opportunity to interview his childhood idol Barry Bonds via Instagram Live on Sunday. The two talked about baseball and growing interest in the sport among young Black players. Smith said he also got some swing advice, which if you think about it, makes sense:
Thanks for reading! Follow us on Twitter for regular updates until tomorrow’s newsletter.
And please check out our newsletter about the Knicks, too.