The Phillies couldn’t rely on Zach Wheeler. So they signed Taijuan Walker. The team needed bullpen depth after losing David Robertson, Brad Hand, and Corey Knebel to free agency. So they pledged $15 million over the next two years to lefty Matt Strahm. Clock in. Clock out. After inking superstar Trea Turner to a colossal 11-year, $300 million contract, the Phillies have not made any massive waves in the free agent market. They haven’t needed to. Although the additions of Walker and Strahm aren’t as flashy as their division rival Met’s flurry of starting pitcher signings or the Braves’ trade for catcher Sean Murphy, they are likely more than enough to compete for the crown of baseball’s toughest division. Here’s why. Walker, who signed a 4-year, $72 million deal, placates the Phillies’ biggest weakness: starting pitching depth. At the outset, $72 million may seem like a lot for Walker, who seems primed to slot into the number four spot in the rotation behind Ranger Suarez. However, take into consideration the team’s previous options. In 2022, previous back end starter Kyle Gibson made 31 starts, throwing 167.2 innings, yet posted a 5.05 ERA and was relegated a non-factor in the postseason. Noah Syndergaard did his best upon joining the team after the trade deadline, pitching to a 5-2 record over 9 starts with a 4.12 ERA and Bailey Falter falter filled in valiantly with 16 starts after Zach Wheeler went down with injury, but consistency was missing. Most of all, Zach Eflin made just 13 starts before his knees imploded rendering him out until the postseason. What the Phillies are getting in Walker, they hope, is consistency. While the Tampa Bay Rays gave Zach Eflin $40 million to be the pitcher they think he can be, the Phillies gave Walker $72 million to be the pitcher Eflin never could be: a healthy, dependable rotation piece. In 2022, the 29-year-old Walker (now 30), posted a 12-5 record over 29 starts, with a 3.49 ERA and 132 strikeouts over 157.1 innings. In 2021, the right-hander made his first All-Star team, thanks to an excellent first half where he went 7-3 with a 2.66 ERA, and finished the year with 159 innings pitched over 29 starts. The key metric here is innings pitched – Walker’s main duty will be to fill the gap behind the top three starters and fill it well. If the team plans on making another postseason run in 2023, Walker will need to provide quality innings not just in the regular season, but throughout October. Even if a three pitcher rotation was enough to propel the Phillies to the World Series, it wasn’t enough to win it – in a sense, the incredible depth of the Houston Astros starting rotation created a template for the Phillies to build from. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Walker’s game – albeit the most concerning as well – is his potential. While on the macro level, his last two seasons are a model of the type of consistency the Phillies covet, a closer examination shows his performance to be a little more volatile. Walker has made his bones in the first half of the previous two seasons, but fallen off abruptly after the All-Star Break – in 2021 he went 0-8 with a 7.13 ERA in the second half and 5-3 with a 4.80 ERA in 2022. Although the reasoning as to why Walker has experienced such drop offs isn’t entirely clear, the vast difference between his first and second halves in 2021 could be attributed partially to him pitching the most innings he had since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018. What is encouraging, however, is that Walker clearly shows the potential to pitch at All-Star or near All-Star level – outperforming the mere above-average competence the Phillies expect of him. Two aspects of his 2022 season suggest as such: his drop after the All-Star break in 2022 was not nearly as significant in the year – signifying the promise of an even longer, more consistent 2023 – and the increased use and effectiveness of his split-finger fastball. In 2022, Walker threw his splitter more than ever before at 27.6%, a near even pairing with his 4-seam fastball at 29.5% and a significant jump from 14.3% in 2021. Consequently, it made him a much more effective ground-ball pitcher – his groundball rate jumped from 41.9% in 2021 to 45.9% in 2022 – and opposing batters hit just .195 with a .267 slugging percentage against it. At 88.8 mph, Walker’s splitter makes for a strong alternative to his 4-seamer. which sits at 93.7 mph. It functions almost as a power sinker, (which is also included in his six pitch arsenal) averaging 32.6 inches of vertical drop in 2022, up from 27.7 in 2021. Most importantly, however, Walker’s increased confidence in his splitter could be what transforms him, at age 30, into the best pitcher he’s ever been. No more trying to overpower hitters with a mid-90s fastball, Walker has the potential to grow into a steadier and even more effective ground-ball pitcher, leading to easier innings, and longer seasons. 

 

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