Taijuan Walker of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the first inning of game two of a double header at Citizens Bank Park on July 15, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
By Jon Caroulis
Special to World Baseball Network
After winning his 11th game of the 2023 season, Phillies starter Taijuan Walker was in a position he had never been before: He was leading the National League in wins.
A victory against the San Diego Padres on Saturday, July 15, tied him with Zac Galen of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Spencer Strider of the Atlanta Braves.
“I guess if I’m winning it means the team is winning games, which is what we want,” said Walker, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Phillies last off-season.
His last win wasn’t easy for Walker, who did not have his best stuff.
When that happens, he said he doesn’t “try to do too much, don’t try to force it, force the velocity. Really just execute as best as possible. It’s one of those games (I tell) the defense, I need you guys behind me. Just let them put the ball in play, and hopefully, good things happen,” he explained.
“After the second inning, we (he and backup catcher Garrett Stubbs) kind of went away (from the game plan). I didn’t have the best command of my fastball, so we went with more splitters and cutters and kind of stuck with that the rest of the game,” he said.
The win against San Diego was his seventh consecutive victory, which no Phillies pitcher has achieved since Cliff Lee did it in 2011.
Walker lost his first two starts, won his next three, then split his next four games. He was 5-4 but with an ERA near 7.00. That’s when pitching coach Caleb Cotham “tinkered with (my) mechanics,” said Walker.
“Just trying to use my lower half a little (bit) more, just to take a little more stress off my arm, which has been good. We started doing that after the Mets start in early June, and since then it’s really been solid, smooth. I just started throwing the cutter more, kind of away from the sweeper and focusing on the cutter, I have two different types of cutters, one that has a little depth and one that is just a true cutter,” Walker said.
He realizes the league will catch up to his new approach. How will he react?
“Honestly, I just adjust in game, see what’s going on. I throw my splitter a lot, and some teams will adjust to that. We just kind of go with it hitter by hitter and see what their game plan is against me,” he said.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Walker is married with two children. He was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the first round of the 2010 amateur draft and made his major league debut three years later, and in 2016 was traded to the Diamondbacks. A free-agent in 2020, he signed back with the Mariners, but was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays late in the season. He then signed a two-year deal with the Mets, where last year he had one of his best seasons, winning a career high 12 games in 29 starts.
He said his goals this year were to make career bests in starts, with 30, and innings, with 185.
Walker said a major factor in signing with the Phillies was how they showed immediate interest when the free-agency period began last off-season.
“Honestly, right when free agency opened up, they were on me from the get go. As a player, when a team really wants you that makes you feel good. We had a couple of meetings, calls, and they were the first team that offered me a contract. For them to want me as much as they did made me feel good, made me feel confident, made me want to want to come here, plus the team that we have, too.” He also said he wanted to work with “the best catcher in the game,” J.T. Realmuto.
At the Dec. 16, 2022 press conference announcing Walker’s signing, Phillies President Dave Dombrowski said, “We had our meetings and discussed him thoroughly. We had a great Zoom with Caleb (Cotham) and the other staff.”
“We were looking for that person that’s going to give us a chance to win every start, give us innings,” said Dombrowski at the presser. “We liked his stuff. We had all of our evaluations. He looked like a natural fit. We love his split finger. He’s improved the last couple of years. He’s got quality stuff that can win consistently, and we know we can help make him elevate his game.”
Walker’s development and usage of his split finger started last season with the Mets. “I had gotten in some jams and was getting beat by my fastball. I realized how good my splitter was and I kept telling myself if I was going to get beat, I want to get beat by my best pitch,” he said.
Joining the Phillies he was ready to work with Cotham, to tweak his cutter and slider and focus on the usage of his cutter, he said.
“Really just attacking the zone. We’ve had conversations about the 3-1 count,” he said, adding he’s “always open to learning and trying new things.”
One knock against Walker is his second-half stats are not as good as his first-half numbers.
“I see it, I hear it, but I wouldn’t agree with that,” he said. Walker said his performance in the later part of the 2020 and 2021 seasons were down, however, “last year I wouldn’t say that, had a pretty decent year the whole year, had one bad start in the second half.”
Coming to the Phillies also meant facing the notoriously fickle Philadelphia fans.
“They’re honest,” he said. “I played in New York, not easy playing over there either. I talked to Ryan Howard the other day, said it’s the loudest he’s ever heard a stadium. I love the passionate fans, they’re loud.”
If Walker and the other pitchers can reach their potential, maybe they can approach the postseason honors Howard and his teammates accomplished by winning the World Series in 2008.