When Jared Walsh was recalled from the Angels’ alternate training site on Aug. 28, the move came with understandably little fanfare. The former 39th round draft pick had earned a reputation for tearing the cover off the ball in the higher levels of the minors, but after a couple of brief but disappointing stints in the majors in late 2019 and early 2020, expectations were not high to say the least.
Fast forward exactly one month, however, and things had changed for Walsh in a big way. The 27-year-old rookie found himself with an everyday lineup spot after the struggling Angels opened up an infield vacancy by trading Tommy La Stella to the Athletics at the deadline, and he proceeded to run roughshod over the league to the tune of a .326/.357/.719 triple slash and a 182 wRC+ with nine home runs in just 98 plate appearances. These numbers placed Walsh in the company of guys like Juan Soto and teammate Mike Trout over the season’s last month, and he even received Rookie of the Year votes despite playing in just over half of the games in an already shortened season.
So how did he do it? How did Walsh go from a minor league depth piece to the likely 2021 Opening Day first baseman for the Angels in the span of a few weeks? It may be easy to write off his performance as a byproduct of small sample size, but there were notable changes to Walsh’s game that paint a promising picture for his outlook moving forward.
Less Is More
When looking at Walsh’s superb September performance, one explanation jumps out almost immediately, which is a tangible change in his swing and setup at the plate. Here is Walsh in 2019:
Pre-breakout Walsh had a lot going on in his swing setup, most notably a high leg kick and exaggerated load. These mechanisms likely helped generate the gaudy power numbers that he posted in the minors (his 36 home runs in 2019 were good for third in all of AAA), but when he got to the majors, they worked against him. He wasn’t getting in a good hitting position nearly enough due to issues with timing, and an absurdly high 40.2% strikeout rate came as a result. Compare that to the September 2020 version of Walsh, and the differences are notable right away.
Even just a preliminary look shows just how much Walsh simplified things in the box. Gone are the long and looping motions from before, replaced with a much more quiet and compact setup that allowed him to get his hands from Point A to Point B a lot faster. The timing mechanisms of old are still present in the new version of his swing, but they have been modified in a way that cut out a lot of the unnecessary movement that was there before.
A Ripple Effect
This change was the catalyst to Walsh’s 2020 success, as it helped to minimize the downsides of his overall game without taking away from the positives. For example, remember his 40 percent strikeout rate in 2019 mentioned earlier? Take a look at how it changed, alongside some other important metrics:
A double-digit increase in contact rate and an almost 30% decrease in strikeout rate is a good thing for any hitter, but it was especially important for Walsh, who generally has had good things happen whenever he makes contact throughout his career. His minor league power numbers illustrate this fact (even when adjusting for the hitter’s paradise that is the Pacific Coast League, Walsh still posted a 161 wRC+ in AAA in 2019), and even his disappointing stint with the big league club last season came with underlying quality of contact metrics that looked better than what his stat sheet would indicate. Look at those same metrics from this season, and you’ll find something interesting:
On first glance, these numbers seem concerning, as both Walsh’s average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage fell in 2020. However, these changes came largely from a decrease in exit velocity on ground balls, which fell almost three miles per hour on average from 2019. This isn’t a huge deal for the kind of hitter Walsh is, though, as middle-of-the-order slugger types like him aren’t typically looking to do their damage through balls hit on the ground anyway. What does matter is how well he was striking fly balls and line drives, and as you can see, the average exit velocity for those stayed in line with what they were the prior season.
So to summarize, Walsh hit line drives and fly balls just as hard in 2020 as he did in previous years while also hitting more of them due to his increase in contact rate. As you may imagine, the combination of these two things did wonders for his overall production on those specific batted balls.
All of the numbers shown so far help to quantify just how Walsh’s swing alterations changed his game for the better. Prior to his emergence this September, his problem wasn’t the quality of contact that he was making, but rather that he wasn’t making enough contact altogether. By simplifying his swing in a way that made his path through the strike zone more direct, Walsh was able to maintain his ability to hit the ball hard while also putting it in play a lot more than he had been. This naturally gave him the opportunity to put the ball in the air a lot more than he had been too, and as a result of this, he was finally able to tap into the raw power that was always present in his game and do damage that placed him among the league’s best.
Projecting whether Walsh can emulate his post-breakout performance beyond just a 25-game sample size is a difficult proposition, but it’s not far-fetched to think that he can be a solid contributor in 2021, as the guy that we saw in the last month of the 2020 season looked like a fundamentally different hitter than the one we saw in his big league stints before that. The lower strikeout total and higher contact rate that came after Walsh’s swing change are certainly good signs, and his natural ability to hit for power should give him something to fall back on even if he starts regressing a bit in those areas. Walsh has definitely earned the chance to prove that his torrid September wasn’t a fluke, though, and the uncertainty surrounding Shohei Ohtani combined with the continued decline of Albert Pujols means that he more than likely will, at least to start the season. Whether he can hold onto a full-time spot or not comes down to if he can continue to build upon the adjustments he made in 2020 while improving in other aspects (raising his miniscule 4.6 percent walk rate comes to mind immediately), but considering how far Walsh has come in such a short time frame, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he does just that.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by James Peterson (@jhp_design714 on Twitter)