How a breakthrough at the plate turned Angels slugger Jared Walsh into an All-Star

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Jared Walsh loaded his hands, planted his front foot and lashed the barrel of his bat at a pitch over the plate.

His swing was quick, powerful, mechanically sound. It was also rhythmically smooth, with a leg kick and hip turn and one-handed follow-through that looked like poetry in motion, crescendoing to Walsh’s skyward stare at a ball flying deep into the night.

Sometimes, there’s no telling when a moment of affirmation will arrive. When the realization of belonging sets in. When years of work and lessons forged through struggle will suddenly crystallize.

For Walsh, it happened on Sept. 12 of last season, when he hammered a game-winning three-run home run on the road against the Colorado Rockies.

“That,” Walsh said recently, “was a huge moment for me.”

Part of it was the situation, with two runners on base and two out in the 11th inning of a tie game. Part of it was the opponent, a pitcher in Tyler Kinley who had the kind of wicked stuff Walsh had struggled to handle in the past.

Angels’ Jared Walsh watches his three-run home run during the 11th inning against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 12.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

From when he was picked in the 39th round of the 2015 draft, Walsh had visualized a breakthrough like that. Not just a clutch blast in a crucial situation. But the feeling of mastering the art and science of hitting at the major league level, of delivering on demand at the perfect time.

“We ended up winning the game and I had a lot of texts from people,” Walsh said. “It was just one of those things where I started to feel a little bit more like a big leaguer, a little more comfortable.”

Ever since that ball dropped into the vacant right-field section at Coors Field, Walsh has ridden that confidence in himself and his swing to a breakout performance over the past 10 months.

Once an overlooked prospect without a clear path to MLB stardom, Walsh is now playing like one of the best first basemen in the sport.

After a strong finish to the shortened 2020 campaign, he has soared through the first half of 2021 with a .282 batting average, .571 slugging percentage, 22 home runs and 64 RBIs, cementing himself in the Angels’ long-term plans.

And for the first time since that series last September, Walsh will return to Coors Field next week — this time to play in his first All-Star Game, the biggest honor yet in his suddenly burgeoning young career.

“Slowly but surely, that’s what I’ve been working my way toward,” he said. “It wasn’t something that happened overnight.”

::

Walsh propped up one leg on a field-side fence, ran his fingers through his thick, wavy beard, and rattled off a list of names like they were comic book superheroes.

Asked recently about his biggest baseball influences, the 27-year-old had more than a few idols come to mind.

“Barry Bonds is my favorite hitter of all time. … Watching him swing a baseball bat was art.”

Jared Walsh

“I loved Josh Hamilton,” he said.

“I was a big Lance Berkman fan,” he added.

He mentioned other stars from the past, such as Alfonso Soriano, and present, including Nolan Arenado and J.D. Martinez.

“Even on this team,” he continued, “you’ve got guys like [Mike] Trout and [Anthony] Rendon who really control the zone. That’s something I like, the guys that know, ‘You have to get me out in the zone.’ ”

He paused and shyly chuckled before revealing another, even more prominent slugger.

“Barry Bonds is my favorite hitter of all time,” Walsh said. “I understand that’s not the most popular answer, but it was art. Watching him swing a baseball bat was art.”

For Walsh, it’s one of baseball’s greatest appeals — the craft and beauty of a perfectly constructed swing, the process of mastering of what he calls “the art and the science of hitting.”

“Even though this is the era of the strikeout, the walk and the home run, everybody wants to be able to take a backside single, everybody wants to put the ball in play and drive the baseball as well,” Walsh said. “Watching other great hitters, I kind of molded my game in the hope it will carry over.”

It’s something that has guided Walsh since his professional career began six years ago, when the Angels took a chance on the college senior whose potential wasn’t fully realized as a two-way player at the University of Georgia.

“I always had this dream built up in my head that once I got to pro baseball, I was going to get more reps and become a better player and a better hitter and get better mechanically,” Walsh said. “When I was in college, I battled some injuries, I pitched. I was never really a full-time hitter. Once I got to the minor leagues and got to play on a daily basis and got to play against other good players, it really helped me.”

Indeed, despite hitting only seven home runs during his four years in school, the 6-foot, 210-pound left-handed slugger began unlocking previously untapped raw power early in his pro career.

He hit seven home runs and 30 doubles during his first full season at Class-A in 2016. Then 32 and 11 the next year while rising to double A. Then 29 and 34 the year after that as he reached triple A.

His MLB debut came in 2019, splitting the season between the majors, where he hit .203 in 34 games, and triple A, where he occasionally played both ways again but more importantly clobbered 36 home runs as his stock began to climb.

Yet, as Walsh went into the following offseason, “I knew deep down that there’s some adjustments I need to make if I’m going to be the hitter that I aspire to be,” he said.

And after beginning the shortened 2020 campaign with a hitless first week, hampered in part by a positive COVID-19 test that had cost him a chunk of the already abbreviated preseason training camp, he was optioned to the alternate site last August to polish his game.

::

The work would begin every day around noon, Walsh and a handful of Angels hitting instructors stepping into a batting cage at Long Beach State and not emerging until hours later, grinding away until their work was complete.

It was like a baseball laboratory. An individualized workshop. An atelier for mechanical alterations.

And during his monthlong stint at the alternate training site, the slugger’s development took its most influential step yet — the seeds he’d planted throughout his career finally blossomed into a more refined, consistent swing.

“He knew he wasn’t able to do certain things at the big league level,” said Angels minor league hitting coordinator Damon Mashore, who oversaw hitters at the team’s alternate site last year. “Him being open-minded enough to attack it, I don’t think people realize how difficult that is.”

Jared Walsh watches his solo home run against the New York Yankees on June 30.

Jared Walsh watches his solo home run against the New York Yankees on June 30.

(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

For Walsh, the key was his strong, quick hands, the thing that he said earlier this year “drives my swing.” The problem was that the rest of his movement had too many inefficiencies, leaving his hands in a less than optimal position to cover all parts of the plate against big league pitching.

So, when he showed up in Long Beach, where Angels prospects were training in lieu of the canceled minor league season, he spent hours every day either in the hitting cage or taking at-bats in intrasquad games.

His goal: trying to eliminate the little flaws and unnecessary extra movements to better utilize his hands and simplify the motion of his swing.

“I was spending every bit of 2½ hours in the cage on a daily basis, just to rewire the way I approached hitting,” Walsh said.

The improvements weren’t immediate. During the first couple of weeks while he was adjusting to the changes, there were times Walsh went dozens of at-bats in scrimmages without a hit.

But after a month, the adjustments started to click. His process, from drill work to self-evaluation to his mental approach during at-bats, finally felt complete.

“You just want guys to understand themselves, not try to be somebody else,” said Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed, who helped plan and coordinate Walsh’s alternate site program from afar. “That’s what Jared’s done very well.”

After returning to the Angels during the last week of August, Walsh immediately caught fire, hitting .326 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs over his final 25 games.

“You just want guys to understand themselves, not try to be somebody else. That’s what Jared’s done very well.”

Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed

And while he’d already had a few signature moments in his first couple of weeks back, it was after that home run in Colorado that a sense of belonging began to set in.

“I felt like it was where the adjustments mechanically showed up,” Walsh said. “Where in the past, I don’t really know if I would have gotten that swing off. So that was a really special moment for me. And just tried to keep the ball rolling.”

::

Those special moments haven’t stopped coming for Walsh this season.

He had two home runs, including a walk-off blast, in a nationally televised “Sunday Night Baseball” game during the first series of the year.

He’s had three more multi-home run games since, including last week’s comeback at Yankee Stadium when he hit a tying, ninth-inning grand slam, and Wednesday’s performance in the Angels’ rubber-match win over the Boston Red Sox.

Last Sunday, he was informed of his All-Star selection during a surprise clubhouse meeting called by general manager Perry Minasian — the same man who, two months ago, repeatedly declared Walsh as the Angels’ first baseman of the future after the club released Albert Pujols.

And once the Angels finish a three-game series in Seattle on Sunday, Walsh will board a plane and travel to Denver for the Midsummer Classic.

“I’m really pleased,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “This is a guy that was a low draft choice, killed the minor leagues, had to wait for his turn, no one wanted to give him a chance. Finally he gets here, we give him an opportunity and he’s taken full advantage of it.”

Which leads to the next challenge. After climbing to the mountaintop of the sport, Walsh is now trying to make sure he stays there. Figuring out a formula for big-league success was one thing. Now, he’s trying to learn the art and science of constructing a long career too.

“When I was 12 years old, all I dreamed about was being a big league player, so it’s just appreciating every day as an opportunity,” Walsh said. “It sounds cliche, but the more I’ve simplified it and blocked out the external stuff of what people are saying or where I am on the stat boards, it’s been so much more fun just playing the game.”

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