Although the outcome of the final eight games of the regular season will still yet determine the winner of the NL East, the Mets have punched their ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2016. With the roster mostly healthy heading into October (I am knocking on every piece of wood in my apartment as I type these words), there will be a few decisions to be made at the periphery, but the postseason roster is mostly set. However, arguably the biggest decision facing the Mets as they head into the playoffs isn’t one regarding cutting a player or keeping him on the roster, but which of Taijuan Walker or Carlos Carrasco will serve as the team’s fourth starter in the postseason rotation.
The Mets have a very obvious top three starting pitchers in their rotation in Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt. When healthy, there is no denying that Jacob deGrom is simply the best pitcher in baseball. Max Scherzer is an ace as well and comes with an impressive portfolio of postseason experience. And Bassitt has been arguably the most consistent presence in the Mets’ rotation this season. After that, things get a bit murkier. While Tylor Megill and David Peterson have both filled in admirably in the rotation when there have been injuries, they are both clearly (and correctly) being primed for bullpen roles down the stretch and in the playoffs. Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker have both had fantastic seasons and would be the number three or even the number two starter on many other teams, but it is likely the Mets—like most teams in the postseason—will only use four starting pitchers in October to maximize the innings they can get out of their top three pitchers. So, which pitcher will the Mets favor for the fourth starter role between Walker and Carrasco?
Just looking at the season numbers for both pitchers does not reveal a straightforward answer.
Carlos Carrasco vs. Taijuan Walker in 2022
Both pitchers have been healthy this season with each having spent one short stint on the injured list—Walker in April for shoulder bursitis and Carrasco last month for a mild oblique strain—so they have pitched almost the same number of innings in 2022 with pretty comparable results. Both pitchers’ earned run averages are inflated due to a few very bad starts; overall Walker has the slight edge when it comes to straight-up run prevention. However, some advanced metrics like FIP and DRA favor Carrasco. Carrasco also strikes out more batters while Walker is a more contact-oriented pitcher and both walk batters at a similar rate. The calculation of their overall value varies pretty wildly depending on what WAR metric you prefer; bWAR is particularly discrepant between the two, favoring Walker by a fairly large margin. But, in aggregate, the 2022 season numbers do not reveal one pitcher to be clearly superior over the other.
So, there are a few things we can look to beyond just the numbers from this season. Both pitchers have postseason experience, but Walker’s is very brief. He pitched one inning for the 2017 Diamondbacks against the Dodgers in the NLDS and it did not go well; he gave up four runs on four hits, striking out three and walking two in the inning. Carrasco’s postseason portfolio is more robust; he has started three playoff games across three postseasons—all with Cleveland. All three games resulted in losses for Cleveland, but Carrasco’s only poor performance was in the 2020 AL Wild Card game, in which he gave up four runs in three innings to the Yankees. In 2017, Carrasco tossed 5 2⁄3 scoreless innings against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Masahiro Tanaka was just as brilliant for the Yankees and Aaron Judge robbed none other than Francisco Lindor of two-run homer to preserve a scoreless tie that the Yankees would go on to win. Carrasco put forth another solid performance the following year against the Astros in Game 2 of the 2018 ALDS, giving up two runs on six hits in 5 1⁄3 innings, striking out three batters and walking one. But, Carrasco was out-dueled by Gerrit Cole at the peak of his powers and took the loss for that effort. Over 14 total postseason innings, Carrasco has posted a 3.86 ERA, which is right in line with his career.
But there is one very notable bugaboo for Carrasco in 2022 that may prove to be the deciding factor: he has struggled mightily against teams over .500. In 52 1⁄3 innings against teams currently over .500, Carrasco has pitched to a 6.71 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP. Those opponents batted .300 against Carrasco and he struck out just 2.9 batters per nine innings in those starts. (Note the caveat that the team may not have been over .500 at the time Carrasco faced them; these numbers are simply for teams currently over .500.) As expected, Walker’s 2022 numbers against teams over .500 are also worse than his overall season numbers, but the difference is not as stark as it is for Carrasco. Over 65 1⁄3 innings against such teams, Walker posted a 5.10 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. If the field is narrowed to just teams currently in postseason position—so all potential postseason opponents if current standings hold until the end of the regular season—the picture changes very little: a 6.70 ERA for Carrasco and a 5.01 ERA for Walker.
So looking beyond the overall season numbers for both pitchers, the Mets may favor Carlos Carrasco’s postseason experience which has produced pretty good results in the past. But, his rather profound struggles against postseason-bound teams in 2022 may tip the scales in favor of Taijuan Walker.
Of course, this isn’t just a matter of which pitcher the Mets decide to use, but how they decide to use each pitcher since both pitchers are almost certainly going to make the postseason roster either way. When the Mets would first need a fourth starter is dependent on two factors: whether they win the NL East and how much they are willing to push their top three starters. If the Mets win the division, they will earn a crucial bye in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, enabling them to set up their rotation to their liking for the NLDS. If the Mets need to settle for a Wild Card and then manage to come out of the Wild Card round victorious, they may find themselves needing a fourth starter earlier in the NLDS.
The 2022 Mets are a team that has thrived on the back of its strong rotation and we have seen other recently successful postseason teams like the Nationals and Astros lean heavily on their aces on short rest to make deep playoff runs. Max Scherzer himself has done this, but he notably experienced a dead arm in the 2021 postseason and has had injury problems in his age 37 season as well. A fierce competitor, Scherzer will take the ball on short rest, but whether he will be able to this postseason and whether the Mets are willing to push him is not clear. Similarly, Jacob deGrom has only pitched half a season in 2022 and whether he will have the endurance to pitch on short rest come October is also an open question. So the Mets may need to rely more heavily on a fourth starter than some other postseason teams who are top-heavy in their rotations.
Whichever of Carrasco or Walker is not the fourth starter will likely go to the bullpen, but exactly what role they will fill in relief is unclear. The Mets have seen the likes of Jon Niese and Bartolo Colón act as firemen in the postseason in the past and the presence of other options in long relief such as Tylor Megill and David Peterson may favor the approach of using their best arms in high leverage, especially due to the lack of reliable options behind Edwin Díaz and Adam Ottavino in that department. But the Mets could opt to piggyback Walker and Carrasco instead, maxing them each out in a short stint in the same game. They could also choose to use one of them as a starter in the Division Series and the other in subsequent rounds, should they advance, based on their opponent. The choice the Mets make—both between Carrasco and Walker and their particular usage—may ultimately be a “game day” decision that comes down to matchups.
One thing, however, is clear: the Mets’ front office and Buck Showalter have a tough decision to make, but it is an enviable one. The Mets have a rotation that can match up favorably against any other in October and having options is a beautiful thing.