The Oakland A's amateur scouting department thought enough of Kansas University right-hander T.J. Walz that it drafted him in consecutive years. After finally getting the pitcher signed to a contract as a 15th-round draft pick in June, the A's organization cannot be disappointed at the return on their investment thus far.
After allowing just one earned run and 17 base-runners over 22 innings of work with a K:BB ratio of 27:3 for short-season Vermont, the recent college graduate was promoted to Burlington in late-July. Walz has continued to miss bats as a part of the Bees' bullpen, striking out five batters in 5.1 innings.
Walz says his command has played a major role in his early success as a pro.
"I was able to locate the fastball and that was the biggest improvement for me," he said. "Especially throwing against wood bats for the first time, the inside fastball has become a huge part of pitching success."
Although the A's missed out on the opportunity to sign Walz as a draft-eligible junior, they have gained a better all-around pitcher than the one they selected in the 50th round in 2010.
Walz returned to KU and finished 6-5 with 85 strikeouts and a 3.97 ERA as a senior. Oakland area scout Yancy Ayers stayed in contact with him throughout the spring.
The 6-foot right-hander left as one of the best pitchers in school history and owns school records for innings pitched (328.1), games started (50), strikeouts (307), and is tied for first in career wins (26).
"Last year I talked to the A's and told them I didn't want to sign, but they decided to draft me anyway," Walz said.
"It was an honor, but I went back to school and finished up my degree. I also became a lot more mature as a pitcher. I improved my fastball command and developed a change-up, which made me more effective against left-handed hitters."
Once the A's made Walz the 466th overall selection in June, he didn't waste much time signing on the dotted line and becoming a professional.
"The only thing that was holding me back last year was the fact that I knew I wanted to play my senior year and finish my degree," he said.
"I knew this time around I was ready to start playing. This is something I've always wanted to do and I'm grateful for the opportunity."
With as much success as Walz has had in a reliever over his stops in the New York-Penn and Midwest Leagues, it stands to reason that he will return to his role as a starter next spring.
But in the short-term, Walz is on an innings limit and will remain in the bullpen.
"I have no idea what the plan is," Walz said. "They just told me that I was going to come in, and because of my innings I would be out of the pen pitching as a one- or two-inning guy. It's been different but fun.
"It's a different mentality. In starting there's that half-hour process of getting ready before the game, but in the bullpen they sometimes give you as little as two or three minutes. It's not just physically, but you've got to get yourself ready mentally to go into the game. It's nice to go out there and give everything you have for two innings, instead of pace yourself for seven or eight."
Walz's fastball currently sits between 89-91 MPH and he's featuring a three-pitch arsenal that also includes a change-up and curveball. Walz threw a plus-slider in college, but has yet to need the pitch in his short stints out of the bullpen.