Nashville Sounds' Colin Walsh is hoping to get his hitting back on track after being returned to the organization by the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this month.
Walsh, a Stanford alum selected in the 13th round of the 2010 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, joined the A’s as a minor league free agent in 2014 after being released by St. Louis. Walsh had a solid 2014 season and then broke-out in 2015, making the Texas League All-Star team and leading that league in walks. During the off-season, the Brewers selected Walsh in the Rule 5 draft and the utilityman made the Milwaukee Opening Day roster out of spring training. He served mostly a bench role for the Brewers, collecting 47 at-bats and logging time at second, third and left field.
“It was awesome,” said Walsh of his big league time. “Obviously, I was in the big leagues, and everything's a little better up there. It was a great organization, good people, a cool city, good fans – it was definitely an awesome experience.”
Walsh had a tough go of it in Milwaukee in the batter’s box, hitting just .085 and logging a meager 424 OPS in 47 at-bats.
“I was in a tough role as a National League bench player,” he said. “I'd pinch hit a lot – probably most of my AB's were pinch hit at-bats. Coming off the bench is hard. You sit on the bench for seven innings or whatever, and then you have five minutes to get ready to hit...most of the guys I was facing are eighth and ninth inning closers.
“When you look at batting average against a starter, most [pitchers] are a lot better the first time through than the second time, whereas the third time is often when they start to get hit and the bullpen comes into play. So, coming off the bench, you don't get the at-bat where he's tired and he's 100 pitches in and he might lose a ball over the middle where he wouldn't earlier in the game.”
It makes the job of a pinch hitter that much more difficult.
“You're facing a guy that's fresh, ready to pitch and blowing it out for one inning,” Walsh said, “and he's pitching 97-100 [MPH], so I think the quality of arms you face as a pinch hitter is just better because the bullpen guys up there – if you don't throw 95, you're not in the bullpen. It's rare to see anybody throw under 95, 96. That's not an excuse; that's just the way you have to do it. That was my job and that was my role.”
When Walsh did get a start, it was usually to spell a starter in the lineup who had a bad matchup against that day's starting pitcher.
“The starts you are getting aren't against the fourth and fifth [starters],” he said. “I think my last start was against [Miami Marlins pitcher] Jose Fernandez...he struck me out three times,” he said.
Walsh said he was not making excuses; in fact, he said he was comfortable with his approach. He walked 15 times in 38 games and posted a .317 OBP despite the .087 batting average.
“There's a lot less mistakes [to hit] in the big leagues,” he said. “I felt like a did a good job of having good at-bats; the one or two pitch a game or the one pitch an at-bat I'd get to hit, and sometimes there were zero pitches in an at-bat I'd get to hit as far as mistakes, and so I didn't get a lot of hits, but I ended up getting walked a lot.
“But I didn't really do anything else, and when it came down to it, there was a roster move they had to make, and baseball is a business.”
As a result, the Brewers returned Walsh to the Oakland organization on June 4, where he was assigned to Nashville.
“I can't say that I got the shaft or I was in a bad situation,” he said. “I didn't do enough to earn more starts against starters, and I didn't do enough in the chances that I had to earn more playing time.”
While Walsh is no longer in the majors, he is thankful to be back with an organization for which he has had previous success. The 26-year-old spent two years in the Oakland farm system before being drafted by the Brewers; he hit .290 with a 747 OPS in 272 at-bats in 78 games at three levels in 2014. In 2015, he was one of the top hitters in the Texas League, hitting .302 with a 918 OPS in 487 at-bats for the RockHounds.
Now back with the A’s, Walsh is looking to regain his 2015 form and punch another ticket to the big leagues..
“The biggest thing is I kind of lost a little bit my ability to barrel up the mistakes that I would get,” Walsh said of his time in Milwaukee, “and there's just far fewer up there, so when I wasn't as good as I was last year at hitting mistakes, and then you factor in that I'm getting less of them, it was a recipe that ended up in me getting less hits. The goal the next time I go up is to more consistently take advantage of the mistakes I do get.
“I know I can hit better than I showed when I was up there [in Milwaukee], so that's my goal – to show my hitting ability will translate as well as my strikes and discipline. I need to find a better way of putting the barrel on the ball against those types of pitchers [I saw in the majors], because if I'm going to make it, that's one way to do it.”
Walsh says that despite the numbers he posted with the Brewers, he felt he could compete at the big league level.
“It wasn't like I was swinging at everything and was over-matched. I would swing at the pitch I wanted to swing at,” he said. “I was getting the mistakes that I wanted to, but instead of hitting a double or a single, I was fouling it off. And then I'd work it until later in the count, and then I'd get maybe a walk, or I'd strike out, or have a groundout, or whatever, but the one pitch an at-bat I'd get I wasn't consistently barreling.”
Walsh said he believes part of the problem was mechanics.
“I think it was mechanical a little,” he said. “My swing was a little altered. I have a different swing – there's a lot of moving parts, so it's definitely not the easiest to maintain, but it's been a few years of working on it, so I feel like now that I'm back, I'm getting back to what I was doing last year to be successful. There are one or two mechanical tweaks that I've been talking to [Sounds hitting coach Eric Martins] about that I'm trying to incorporate that would allow me to get the barrel into the zone a little earlier and stay in the zone a little longer, so you don't have to be perfect, whereas, if you're just going to nod in the zone, you have to time it perfect, and if you don't, you're not going to hit it.”
Walsh was starting to produce results for the Sounds when a hamstring injury stopped him in his tracks after a three-hit game on June 17. He has been on the disabled list since that night, but he is expected to return to the active roster soon.
Once Walsh does return, he knows he will be seeing playing time all over the field and that he will need to fight for at-bats once again. With the Nashville roster stocked at several positions Walsh plays, he is going to have to make the most of every chance he sees.
As such, Walsh is also committed to continue to work on his versatility in the field.
“I'd say my favorite position is batter's box,” he said. “But, seriously, I was a natural second baseman coming out of college, and my first few years I played second, but I moved a little to third and a little to left field. I've never really been what you call a 'big prospect', so it wasn't like, 'We need him to start 125 games at second base or at third base or at whatever position.'
“To get the at-bats, I had to fit into the lineup in a different way. For me and the type of player I am, to make the big leagues I have to be versatile. It's pretty rare to have a guy who comes through the minors that plays one position and it's all he plays.”
Walsh specifically pointed to one particular former teammate as an example.
“A former Stanford guy, John Gall, came up with the Cardinals as a first baseman, and Albert Pujols was there,” he said. “You could hit .500 and you're not going to go up to the big leagues as a first baseman, so you sometimes have to learn to play more positions. I think for most people that's important because it's the only way to make it and get playing time and at-bats in the big leagues and establish yourself as both a hitter and a fielder.”
And that is his plan; to inch – and then force – himself into the lineup.