Giants Talk

‘Underdog' Walker traveled unique path to success as Giants rookie

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With all of the travel during an MLB season, it's not unusual for a player or staff member to get locked out of a room late at night, whether that's in a visiting ballpark or a random road hotel. The next time it happens to a Giant, he won't have to look far to find someone who can help.

Rookie reliever Ryan Walker worked as a locksmith for 10 hours a day when the pandemic shut down the baseball world in 2020, and he's considering returning to the role this offseason. For Walker, the math is simple.

"One, what else am I going to do?" Walker said of his offseason plans on Thursday's Giants Talk. "Two, it's hard to feel like there's no income. I feel like I have to work."

Walker has spent most of this season earning the big league minimum, a life-changing sum, but it's easy to see why he feels this is no time to coast through an offseason. The right-hander is unlike the rest of a huge rookie class filled with former high-round draft picks who got big bonuses.

Walker was drafted in the 31st round in 2018 and didn't reach the big leagues until he was 27, but he certainly appears to be in a comfortable spot as the season winds down. He was called up from Triple-A on May 19, arriving somewhat under-the-radar because he walked into Oracle Park on the same day Patrick Bailey did. Like Bailey, he has never returned to Sacramento, even as the Giants shuffled through pitchers and sent fellow rookies like Kyle Harrison, Keaton Winn and Tristan Beck back as the roster needs changed.

The Giants have leaned heavily on the rookie and he has responded. Even after a rough appearance on Wednesday, he has a 3.20 ERA in the big leagues. Through 56 1/3 innings, Walker has 71 strikeouts, and he ranks in the 99th percentile among big league pitchers in hard-hit rate and 91st percentile in expected ERA.

Among rookies who have thrown at least 50 innings this season, Walker has the lowest hard-hit percentage and the seventh-highest strikeout rate. Limiting hard contact and piling up strikeouts will pretty quickly make you a go-to arm for your manager.

“He's been everything we could have asked for and more,” Gabe Kapler said recently.

Kapler has used Walker in a variety of roles. He became the right-handed opener when John Brebbia went on the IL, but when the rotation — briefly — went back to normal earlier this month, Walker went back to a more traditional look, pitching primarily in the sixth and seventh innings of games the Giants were leading or trying to keep close.

The staff values the versatility and has used him in multiple three-inning outings this season, including one in which he threw 51 pitches. Kapler said the group recently did a deep dive into Walker’s rookie year and found he has been a similar weapon to another funky right-hander who has excelled since getting a bigger role.

"(There are) interesting comparisons to Tyler Rogers and his ability to get left-handed and right-handed hitters out. It's not a perfect comparison by any stretch, they're such different pitchers, but you can see how that cross-fire delivery and the sinker-slider mix could look similar from a numbers perspective,” Kapler said. “And the thing I'll continue to sing Walk's praises about is he's very flexible. He can pitch in the first inning of games, pitch multiple innings to start a game, come in and get a big out and then go back out and pitch an additional inning, pitch in a tie game in extra innings.

“It doesn't matter, he's going to do whatever we ask him to do and he's going to do it with conviction.”

The stint as a “starter” was a somewhat ironic turn given that a similar move led to issues when Walker was at Washington State. Walker was dominant as a reliever his first two seasons, but when the Cougars stretched him out as a junior, he never felt comfortable. Trying to get through five wasn’t the right mentality for him, and he plummeted down draft boards over his final two years.

The Giants picked Walker with the 916th pick of the 2018 draft. That round no longer exists, and the odds are even longer when you’re a right-hander who doesn’t have an upper 90s fastball to dream on. Walker understood what was ahead of him, so he figured he would take a “nothing to lose” mentality. He didn’t think much about that leading to Oracle Park.

"No, no. I’ve never been a super-confident person,” Walker said on Giants Talk. “It’s always been like, 'All right we'll see how this year goes, we'll see how next year goes.'”

The Giants saw enough in those early years to stick with the late-round pick, although the pandemic nearly ended the dream. While the Giants brought their top prospects to summer camp at Oracle Park and the alternate site in Sacramento, plenty of lesser-known minor leaguers got released and never resurfaced. Walker saw a lot of friends and teammates get cut loose, but the Giants stuck with him.

“I was like, ‘Cool, OK, they see something in me,’ ” Walker said. “Once I knew the cuts were over, it gave me a little bit more of an edge, like there’s something here that they like, so let’s keep pushing forward.”

Strength training during the year off added some needed velocity, and a physical therapist helped Walker figure out how to more effectively use his lower body. Like most who throw from a unique angle, Walker didn’t realize he was getting more extreme over time, but the cross-fire delivery keeps hitters from seeing the ball and has proven to be a nightmare for right-handers in particular. It is also a perfect fit for an organization that priorities having different looks in the bullpen.

When Walker returned to the field in 2021, he had five extra miles-per-hour on his fastball and an extra level of comfort with his delivery. Team officials sprinkled his name into conversations this spring, and after Walker dominated at Triple-A, he earned a quick promotion.

The Giants have made a habit of that this year, being ultra-aggressive with players like Bailey, Luis Matos, Wade Meckler and Walker. For all of the disappointment at the big league level in recent months, there is still a hope that the next core has started to emerge. Walker traveled a longer road than the rest, but he looks like a lock for an opening day bullpen job in 2024, even if that's not a mentality he'll take into the offseason. When you're the only person from your draft round to reach the big leagues, the underdog tag is hard to shake.

“I definitely feel like I’ve played myself into a big role, which is great, but I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the underdog mentality, and that’s fine by me,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy that’s in the spotlight and gets all the praise and stuff like that. I just want to be able to do my job and help the team out.

“I’m kind of in-between now. It’s not so much of, ‘Oh man, I’ve really got to prove myself.’ Now I’m like, ‘Okay, cool, I have a role, but I’ve got to keep earning this role.’ I just can’t get content and complacent and think that I’m good forever. I’ve got to keep working.”

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