Hamilton Herald Masthead Attorneys Insurance Mutual of the South

Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 10, 2017

Walker a quandary for Lookouts and now Braves




Take a moment, if you would, to study the smiling face of Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Adam Walker.

He is, by all accounts, what he seems to be at first glance: cheerful, bright, a good teammate, a practicing Christian – someone you wouldn’t mind having on your team or in your clubhouse. His mother, Glynis, described Adam, an only child, as “a young man with an old man’s soul.” Well, long ago a phrase entered our lexicon that a picture was worth 1,000 words.

 In this case, in Walker’s case, that phrase missed the mark by about 999. While Walker is an interesting kid, a complex dichotomy that has him loving both the beach (having attended Jacksonville University) and ice fishing (having grown up in Milwaukee), one word has followed him his entire pro career:

Conundrum.

This is not a term that pops up often on scouting reports, as you might imagine. It is an extreme term for players who defy conventional descriptions. And so it has been true for Walker, who re-wrote the Chattanooga Lookouts record book in 2015 when his club won its first Southern League pennant in nearly 30 years.

And it remains true this spring, when the Atlanta Braves found themselves the latest team to play the “what if” game with the 25-year-old outfielder – and were rewarded by home runs in back-to-back major league spring games that had the Atlanta brass trying to re-assess exactly what they had in the big, strong right-handed hitter.

The conundrum is this: Few human beings on the planet can hit a baseball further that Adam Brett Walker II, the son of former Minnesota Viking Adam Walker and the cousin of major leaguer Damion Easley. A high school catcher, the 6-foot-5 Walker also had to eliminate basketball and being his high school’s quarterback from his options.

Few could find fault with the third-rounder’s choice. In his pro debut, in Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, Walker tied for the home run title and was one off the league RBI lead. His 76 strikeouts were second-highest.

His first full pro season, he blistered the Midwest League, winning the RBI title by 20 (with a career best 109) while hitting eight more homers than anyone else. His 115 strikeouts were well down the list of free-swingers and his .278 average included 65 extra base hits.

During his 2015 season in Chattanooga, his third full professional season, he hit 31 home runs, the most anyone has ever hit in the franchise’s storied history going back to 1885. He matched that with 31 doubles and drove in 106 runs – most for a Lookout since baseball returned to Chattanooga in 1976.

But rest of the equation is this: he also struck out 195 times and hit only .239.

“When he gets hold of one, it goes. It might bring rain,” Terry Ryan, the Twins GM, told Baseball America. “I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody in his category. He still has a lot of work to do.”

Twins scouts told Ryan that big league pitchers would carve Walker up like a Halloween pumpkin. But if a pitcher made a mistake …

“We’d like to see him become more selective,” Ryan added, “not just go fishing for fastballs; force a pitcher to throw strikes. … We’ve seen plenty of progress.”

That winter found himself that carved-up pumpkin for much of the Arizona Fall League season, striking out 35 times in 75 at-bats. But he also hit five home runs, tying him for second in the league, and wound up fourth with 18 RBIs. In the AFL championship game, his three RBIs were the difference in making his Scottsdale team the champion.

“My strikeouts are up a little bit,” he admitted before the AFL finale. “But overall, I felt like things went pretty well. I’m not even sure what my (strikeout) percentage was this year.

“When you’ve got two strikes, you’ve got to compete,” he said, explaining his strategy. “I know I’ve struck out some days, but I’ve been able to take a few walks. I feel pretty comfortable with two strikes … I’ve always been able to do a little bit more.

“My coaches have always told me, ‘You’ve got one more at-bat.’ So if I don’t get the job done with my first at-bat, I try to help the team with my second.”

Erasing 100-year-old records, followed by an AFL championship would seem to have Walker squarely on the yellow brick road to greatness. And while no one disagrees that Walker has left a trail of wasted at-bats behind him, there is that infernal little statistic called “isolated power,” or what actually happens when he puts the ball in play.

In 2015, his 120 hits (including 31 doubles and three triples to go with his record homer output) would project to a .391 average when he makes contact. But, oh, that strikeout total –195 was 57 more than the second highest player in the Southern League.

Moving to Triple-A in 2016, he stuck out 202 times and had a big drop-off in RBIs (only 75) but his isolated power was a heady .420, meaning he had 116 hits in the 276 at-bats when he did not strike out.

“His power is as much as I’ve ever seen,” Mike Quade, his veteran manager at Triple-A Rochester, said to MiLB.com. “And I’ve seen McGwire and I’ve seen Sosa. You hate calling it ‘light tower power,’ but there’s something to that. When he squares a ball up, it’s incredible.”

Those ambiguous statistics, coupled with the fact that the Twins did not call Walker up to the big leagues in September, made it much less surprising that the Minnesota management was waving the white flag in the attempt to figure Adam Walker out.

But Walker hitting the waiver wire meant that the conundrum was creating ripples throughout baseball, and before the off-season ended, he would be on and off four different major league rosters – including the Braves. It was a rare and remarkable journey for Walker – or for any player.

The Twins felt Walker expendable thanks to the emergence of Daniel Palka, another outfielder who was virtually given to them by the Angels before the 2016 season. Palka terrorized the Southern League, leading that league in home runs (21) when he moved to Triple-A, then added 13 as Walker’s teammate in Rochester. Palka also struck out at a fearsome pace (186), but he also hit .348 for the Lookouts and wowed the Twins with a gun for a throwing arm – something lacking badly in Walker’s game.

In November, he was claimed on waivers by his hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers, which meant that no American League team attempted to claim him. Walker and the Brewers (and their fans) were a little excited.

“It’s pretty cool,” Walker told MLB.com. “I was born and raised in Milwaukee.”

The Brewers were enchanted with the first glimpse of his power indicators.

“He has among the strongest power grades of any hitter in professional baseball,” said David Stearns, Brewers general manager. “An additional benefit is his willingness to try to play first base.”

It was a quick honeymoon, to say the least. Feeling the need to clear a spot on their major league roster, the Brewers put him on waivers three weeks later, in hopes of sliding him down to their Triple-A roster, but the Baltimore Orioles spoiled the party by claiming him on December 2nd, the eve of the winter Major League Baseball Meetings.

Orioles’ general manager Dan Duquette sounded pretty much like Stearns the previous month, tweeting, “Adam Walker has excellent power and good ability to drive in runs. We’re looking forward to having him help our team.”

But as much as Duquette has the rep for claiming strays, he likewise loves to DFA (designated them for assignment, meaning release them or place in the minors). And in January, that’s what happened – the Orioles waived Walker, hoping to slip him off the 40-man roster like the Brewers before them, and the Atlanta Braves stepped in. The Walker Tour 2017 was making a stop in Atlanta.

Or, more appropriately, Gwinnett. Walker was on the Braves’ 40-man roster until the final days before spring training. But the Braves had the lay of the land and knew they had a chance to do what the Twins, Brewers and Orioles couldn’t do – clear him through waivers and place him in the minors. Once that nifty feat was accomplished, Walker was made a non-roster invite to spring training – and he hit town with a bang. Two of them, in fact.

The first week of games found Walker providing more buzz than anyone. First, it was an opposite field home run against the Yankees in which he stood flat-footer and slapped the ball 380 feet. Then, in the first inning of the next day, he crushed a home run to center off Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright, and Walker’s became known throughout Chop Country just that quickly.

But with the increased scrutiny, the rest of Adam Walker’s game came into focus. Following the Wainright homer, he went 0-for-4 (three strikeouts) the rest of the game and stranded seven baserunners. In two games since, as a pinch-hitter, he was a strikeout victim.

So, for the moment, the buzz has died down. Walker has virtually no shot to make the Braves’ Opening Day roster, but with the new stadium in Cobb County, Gwinnett is closer than ever. Still, you’ve got to say that Walker, should he ever find a hitting coach who can get through to him, will always have a slugger’s chance.

“I’m not changing the way I am just to put a ball in play,” Walker said last year. “But sometimes I try to do too much. I don’t need to try to hit it 600 feet, when all I should try to do is put the barrel of the bat on it. If I barrel a pitch up, usually good stuff happens.”