With 13 wins, one Phillies’ name currently stands at the top of the list for pitchers, and that name is Taijuan Walker. The 30-year-old, who signed a four-year $72 million contract this past offseason, was billed to be a third or even fourth starter in the rotation. He has come into the Phillies rotation and has been an absolute bulldog, scrapping together innings even after tough starts, keeping the team in games with a chance to win, and providing a veteran presence and leadership that the Phillies have always sought after.
When Walker signed with the Phillies, the expectations were somewhat subdued. I don’t think anyone expected him to compete for Cy Young Awards, but the expectations were that he would come in and provide significant, talented depth to a solid rotation and be a leader in the clubhouse. However, his season did not start off on the right foot. In his first nine starts of the season he gave up 30 earned runs in 41.1 innings amounting to a 6.53 era. His control was shaky, and his Achilles heel of giving up walks was glaring, surrendering 19 walks in those first nine starts and was 3-2 in those games. The fans and Walker himself were disappointed in the product that he was putting on the field. However, something clicked for him and turned his season around. Over the next 14 games of the season, he has gone 10-2 with a 2.74 era and the walks went down to 30 surrendered over 85.1 innings.
Walker has been a work horse for this Phillies team especially when they’ve needed to give the bullpen a rest. He has consistently pitched into the sixth, seventh and even eighth innings. In his last 11 starts, he has gone an average of 6.1 innings which is even more impressive when you dig deeper into the numbers. Like the other pitchers in the Phillies rotation, Walker has been hit hard early in games and digging the team quite the hole to get out of. In the first inning, Walker has a 6.75 era, opposing batters are hitting .301 against him in the first and getting on base at a .371 average clip. As the game progresses, those numbers get lower and lower. He has an era of 4.91 in the second inning, 4.50 in the third, 3.38 in the fourth, 2.00 in the fifth and a 0.64 in the sixth. This is almost counter intuitive as you would expect pitches so have their best innings early in games when they are the freshest. Another angle to look at this is by the looking at the numbers on times facing opponent in the game. In the first plate appearance, opposing batters have a .786 OPS and have walked 25 times. The second time around the order the OPS drops to .740 and Walker has only walked 12 batters. Finally, and most impressive the third time sound the order the OPS falls to .540. Walker seems to gain momentum as the game goes on and as he finds his rhythm.
It’s astonishing to see how he works out of jams early in games and gives the team a chance to come back and win. The Phillies have won 12 of his last 14 starts showing that he’s able to keep the team close enough in these games for the offense to get going and win.
Sometimes numbers don’t fully explain what is happening on the field and this seems to be one of those times. Looking at the advance statistics, it would show the 30-year-old has, for the majority, worse numbers than his previous six seasons. He is surrendering a .699 OPS which is the highest since 2019, his strikeout rate is down .5% from last year and 5.2% from his career high, walk rate has increased to 9.3 % from 6.9% in 2022 and his win probability added by a pitcher is down from 2.1 to 1.2 from 2022.
All this to say that baseball isn’t always black and white. The numbers don’t always tell the story on the field and Walker has been quite the addition to this Phillies rotation. He is an integral piece to the Phillies playoff run and success. It would be interesting to see if he would be awarded with a playoff start if the Phillies were able to get to that point. At the end of the day, wins are what matters in this league and Walker stands alone at the top with 13 of them.