The Oakland A's minor league system has had numerous superb pitching performances throughout the organization thus far in 2012. Stockton Ports' right-hander T.J. Walz, a former Kansas Jayhawk, has earned the right to be mentioned amongst the elite pitching prospects within the A's farm system and he has established himself as the Ports early season ace.
The Nebraska native attended Skutt High School in Omaha, where he guided his ballclub to a third-place statewide finish during his senior season. The two-time Academic All-State honoree drew the interest of college programs with his sheer prowess for the sport, which included a .337 average wielding a bat and a pitching resume that included 81 innings pitched, 136 strikeouts, 11-1 record and 1.81 ERA. Ultimately, Walz enrolled at the University of Kansas and would set the foundation for a career that would rival the best careers in the history of the Jayhawks baseball program.
Walz would appear in 30 contests, including 21 starts, over the course of his first two seasons at Kansas. During his freshman year, Walz would amass a 4-1 record with a 5.00 ERA. That year was highlighted by a dazzling performance on the road versus a top-10 ranked Nebraska Cornhusker club. During his sophomore season, Walz would compile a resume worthy of second team All-Big 12 honors with an 8-3 record and 88 strikeouts.
As a junior, Walz was slotted as Kansas' number one pitcher. Although he told teams before the draft that he intended to stay at Kansas for his senior season, he was drafted that year by Oakland in the 50th round. Walz stuck to his pre-draft promise and returned to Kansas. After another strong season, he entered the draft bearing the burden of being a college senior, a designation that has scared hurt the draft stock of many prospects.
Walz would excel throughout his senior season, accumulating a 6-5 record with a 3.97 ERA, 85 strikeouts, and 14 starts. He would graduate from Kansas as the university's career record holder in innings pitched (328.1), starts (50), victories (26) and strikeouts (307).
Despite his status as a college senior, Walz would move up the draft boards in 2011 and was selected in the 15th round of the draft by the A's once again. Walz hadn't anticipated hearing his name called so early in the draft.
"I was drafted by Oakland before, so I knew the organization," Walz said. "But for me to go in the 15th round was higher than I expected and a pleasant surprise."
After signing with Oakland, Walz would be shipped out to short-season Vermont, where he excelled out of the Lake Monsters' bullpen. His performance with Vermont earned him a promotion to full-season ball with the Low-A Burlington Bees. Overall, between the Lake Monsters and Bees, Walz gathered 40.2 professional innings while compiling a 4.30 K/BB ratio and 0.91 WHIP in 21 appearances with a 4-1 record to his credit coming out of the bullpen.
Walz pointed to his collegiate experience as a key to his ability to perform well professionally out of the gate.
"I really think it was just learning how to pitch in college," Walz said of his successful transition to professional baseball.
"You really had to learn how to pitch around the middle bat. As much as it was preached to pitch to contact, a lot of times you weren't necessarily allowed to do that. You know, being able to get out to contact and avoiding contact were what helped."
Although Walz was a starter in college, he pitched out of the bullpen during his professional debut season so that the A's could limit the number of innings Walz pitched in 2011. Walz doesn't express a strong preference for either role.
"There are pros and cons," Walz said in regards to starting and relieving.
"In Vermont and Iowa out of the pen it was nice because if you had a bad outing it's much quicker as far as redeeming yourself. With starting, it's nice to know when you're going to pitch."
Before the 2012 season began, the A's moved Walz back into a starter's role as a piece in High-A Stockton's six-man rotation. Many consider the jump from the pitcher-friendly Midwest League to the hitter-friendly California League to be a formidable one, but Walz hasn't been intimidated by the Cal League thus far.
"I just think it's important to go after a hitter like anyone else," Walz said in regards to his approach to Cal League hitters.
"[You] can't judge a hitter by their league and if they're better or worse. [You] just have to pitch to your strengths and not his."
Walz' approach has paid dividends so far this season and his performance has been a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating season for Ports' pitchers. In seven starts, Walz has gone 42 IP with a 3.43 ERA, which is not indicative of his individual efficiency, as he's amassed a minute 2.44 FIP. Walz ranks fifth in the Cal League in FIP and a sports an impressive 5.88 K/BB ratio (10.07 K/9 and 1.71 BB/9). He's recorded a 1.21 WHIP and .253 opposing average to complement his seemingly non-existent 0.43 HR/9 ratio. As a pro, Walz has only surrendered four HRs in 92.2 total innings. His numbers even suggest he's underperforming, as he has a .339 BABIP (12th in league) and a less than satisfactory 67.1 LOB%. The sky appears to be the limit for Walz, who is establishing himself as one of the top arms in the Cal League.
Walz' goals for the rest of the season are simple.
"I just have to focus on improving my weaknesses now and becoming a better pitcher developmentally," Walz said.
"It's key to become more efficient with my pitch totals and games and hopefully we can win a Cal league championship."