For many, spring training is not about results. For minor league prospects looking to make an impression on their big league coaching staff, results can go a long way towards creating future opportunities at the big league level.
When Corey Walter jogged to the mound at Hohokam Park in the ninth inning on Tuesday with a runner first and the A’s down 10-3, he wasn’t just mopping up a blow-out loss. He was making his first audition in front of A’s manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young. The Rangers hit the A’s hard on Tuesday, but Walter kept Texas at bay. With two groundball outs, Walter got the A’s out of the inning and he notched a solid first outing in a big league spring training game.
Walter admits that even though it was only spring training, he felt the magnitude of the moment.
“I was definitely excited. I felt like it was a little bit nerve-wracking jogging out there to the mound,” Walter said on Wednesday. “I wasn’t necessarily nervous, but amped up a little bit. Once I got to the mound, my warm-up pitches didn’t go so great. I was kind of over-whelmed. I took a deep breath and calmed back down and tried to execute my pitches. Once the batter got in there, I think I did a good job of doing that.”
Walter has done nothing but execute his pitches over the last 10 months. The A’s 2014 28th-round pick allowed four earned runs on 11 hits in seven innings last April for the High-A Stockton Ports. From May 1 until the season ended for Stockton on September 11, Walter gave up just five earned runs (and only one homerun) in 54 innings. He went from a little-known middle reliever to the closer for one of the best teams in the California League by the end of the year.
The A’s coaching staff got a good glimpse on Tuesday at how Walter was able to be so effective in the hitter-friendly Cal League. Walter struck-out only 50 batters in 61 innings (including the post-season), but he walked just 15 and induced groundballs on 61% of balls hit into play against him. Walter says that the groundballs have come naturally since he ditched his four-seam fastball in favor of the sinking two-seamer.
“[Using the two-seamer] really helps me especially to keep the ball down in the ‘zone because if it gets up in the ‘zone, it doesn’t get much action,” Walter said. “I really focus on keeping it down and getting that sinking action to get groundballs.”
Walter has shown the capacity to make adjustments throughout his career. He came to pro ball with a 4.45 career ERA in 267 innings at West Virginia University. After turning pro, Garvin Alston and Scott 'Emo' Emerson – both A’s minor league pitching coordinators at the time – suggested two mechanical adjustments designed to help Walter stay on a straighter line to the plate and maximize his energy into his pitches. Walter took to those changes quickly and the improvements were immediate.
“Both of them [Emerson and Alston] helped me out with a little bit of a mechanical change,” Walter said. “When Emo was here, my first Instructs, he had me landing on my front foot firmer and not rolling off of it. That helped me stay on my pitches and I got a little bit more action [on his pitches] with that. Garvin helped me with staying closed a little bit longer. Both of them seeing those things has helped me tremendously in getting more action and even a little bit more velocity on my pitches. Hopefully, I can just keep it going and pick up a few more things that will continue to make me better.”
Walter’s success with Stockton earned him an invitation to the A’s spring mini-camp. He was one of 29 A’s prospects who reported to the A’s minor league facility in February – three weeks before the official start of minor league spring training. Walter was grateful for the opportunity to work closely with A’s minor league pitching coaches – and for the extra time to prepare for the upcoming season.
“I was really lucky to be invited to mini-camp because I didn’t get to be outside once during the winter with the snow and the cold weather [in West Virginia],” Walter said. “It is definitely not just an honor to be invited but it also helped me out a little bit, too, to be able to get out there a little bit earlier this year and get into the warm weather. I got off to a slow start last year.”
Walter says his main focus this spring – in addition to getting in game shape for the season – is on adding a third pitch to his sinker and slider.
“Last year, I pretty much just pitched with my sinker and my slider,” Walter said. “I’m trying to work on getting a change-up in there but not take away from my other two pitches.”
Walter’s 2015 Stockton team went 74-66 and won the second half Northern division title. He is hopeful that he and many of his 2015 teammates will be playing together in Midland this season, chasing a third-straight Texas League title with the RockHounds.
“I hope to see all of our team move up and play together again this year because I think we did have a pretty good team and everyone kind of gelled,” Walter said. “We had a really good group of guys. It would have been nice to go deeper into the playoffs. Hopefully we can continue rolling as a group and keep the main core of the guys together this year.”