Midland, Texas has always been a stop on the way to somewhere else. It was originally a train station -- "Midway Station" -- and a pit stop on the Texas and Pacific Railway between El Paso and Fort Worth. In the 1920's, oil was discovered and an industry was born. Pumpjacks line the roads near city limits, and it's fair to say it's a place where work is done, money is made, and not much else. It will never be mistaken for a desert oasis.
This is the summer home of the Midland RockHounds, the A's Double-A affiliate. By extension, it's the summer home of 25-year-old second baseman Colin Walsh. Walsh leads the Texas League in on-base percentage (.447) and the entire minor leagues in walks (112). He also has 37 doubles, 13 home runs and 15 stolen bases. All together, it might be the most impressive season by an A's farmhand this year.
He's shown no signs of slowing, and now he's hoping that, like so many before him, Midland is just a place he's ‘passing through.' "I'm going to be straight with you," he let out with a short laugh. "It's not a nice place. It's oil fields, dusty, windy, not a lot going on. All chain restaurants. But if you start thinking about it too much, it's just going to affect your play, which is always a negative."
His outlook is both realistic and positive. At this point, five years into his pro career, he's played all over the country, sometimes in good places, sometimes in bad ones. In his mind, the best way to move onward and upward is to force the hand of the powers that be: through persistence, performance and hard work. "Be better" is the mantra he learned from his father.
The path hasn't been linear for Walsh, but things are coming together for the Stanford grad. At least, he's a lot closer to his goal of making the major leagues than he was just a few short years ago.
Last spring, just a year removed from slashing .314/.419/.530 in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, Walsh was released by the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him in 2010. It came as a shock, because, although his stats suffered at High-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield the summer before -- he saw his OPS drop more than 200 points from .949 in 2012 to .725 in 2013 -- he thought the organization might have looked at his season in context: he played his home games at Roger Dean Stadium, where fly balls go to die.
"I didn't change my approach. I hit a lot of fly balls to the track in left center, left handed."
Sure enough, if you look at the stats, Palm Beach is one of the toughest places in America to hit a home run, especially if you're left handed (Walsh is a switch hitter). Per StatCorner, the park's home run factor for lefties is a staggering 47, meaning home runs occur at 53 percent below the league average rate. The park isn't quite as bad for right-handers, but it's still well below league average, with a home run factor of 85.
(It's also worth noting that the Florida State League is known for its vast parks and low run scoring. These park factors are compared to other, bad-hitting parks, meaning Roger Dean Stadium is in a class of its own for power hitters.)
Eventually, Walsh learned that if he wanted to continue a career in baseball, he would need to adjust. Getting released made that abundantly clear.
The A's signed him a few weeks after his spring release and he was immediately sent him to Double-A Midland -- he spent half the season at Triple-A Sacramento. The two-week period between organizations was an opportunity to recalibrate and figure out whether or not it was time to quit or push forward.
"You could keep coming back to the dugout saying, 'Goddangit, if I wasn't playing here, that would be a double or a home run.' At some point you have to say, 'well, I am playing here.' I can't keep doing what I'm doing, getting out. The first time, it's unlucky, but after that, well, if that's still your approach and you know where you're playing, it's kind of your fault."
He attributes part of this season's success in the Texas League to the humid air and Polo Grounds-esque outfields of the Florida State League. Playing in Palm Beach for a season hammered home the idea that he needed to take everything into account, including his surroundings; taking good at-bats and making hard contact isn't always enough. He's taken the Texas League by storm with this mentality.
"In the Texas League, you don't get rewarded for hitting balls to the center of the field. There's a lot of wind and a lot of doubles and home runs get knocked down. As a switch hitter, I never have to see a breaking ball moving away from me, so I can focus on pulling a lot of pitches."
Combined with a leg kick and the benefit of regular at-bats, i.e., not looking over his shoulder after every 0-fer, Walsh has learned to look for pitches he can drive down the line for extra bases. He's clear, however, that there's a big difference between looking for pitches to pull and having a pull swing. He looks for specific pitches, and his eye at the plate, is something that's always made him an asset to a lineup. It may also be a skill that, in the view of some, is a liability. He strikes out a lot.
"To me, a strikeout is a groundout," he contended. "I would rather take a close pitch for strike three than swing at a ball where the pitcher did not make his pitch. I have no problem going down 0-2, working from there. I hit with two strikes a lot and it's part of the reason I have a lot of strikeouts, but it's also the reason I have a lot of walks. I'm not afraid to strike out on a pitch I think is a ball."
Even with two strikes, Walsh is looking to do more than just put the ball in play. His general approach is to only swing at pitches he can really smack. And the stats bear this out. Look at his batted ball distribution:
Based on his experience in baseball purgatory, he cautions frustrated players who tinker with the idea of release.
"I talk to guys, people who get frustrated or say 'hey, I'm going to ask for my release.' I say 'guys, you don't know whether or not there's going to be an available spot for you. It's a cold world out there. If you're not a prospect or a guy, you really learn the business side of professional baseball."
Walsh has learned not to take it personally. Unlike amateur sports, Professional baseball is different in that you're competing against your very own teammates. Everyone's goal is to make it to the major leagues. And, while guys don't necessarily ‘check boxscores,' Walsh says, virtually all players routinely consider how they fit into the organizational puzzle. Middle Infield happens to be strength in the A's organization, and Walsh knows it.
He says the RockHounds' staff does a good job at fostering cohesion despite varying agendas. In many ways, it sounds as if pro baseball is like any other workplace: some players get along, others don't, some players are more selfish, some care more about the team.
As a Stanford grad and someone who grew up in a family that deeply values education and rationality, Walsh doesn't find the ‘dumb jock' label particularly amusing. It's treated as a novelty when someone like Doug Glanville, for instance, has a successful major league career while earning an Ivy League degree in Engineering in addition to publishing a book and writing articles for the NY Times. Baseball player stereotypes, Walsh says, are among the more annoying things he deals with on a personal level.
"I understand there are stereotypes for a reason, but I've had more people assume I'm stupid because I play baseball... it's probably my biggest pet peeve in the world," he explained. "If there's anything I can do to quell that myth, then I go out of my way to do it. As an intellectual baseball player, I want people to at least understand that there are smart people who play baseball, dumb people who play baseball, and everything in between. We're not all just one person."
Walsh is an intelligent guy. He (essentially) finished Stanford in three years -- he didn't graduate until the fall after his junior year because he needed a few more credits. During his first two major league offseasons, he obtained a masters degree in engineering by taking a double load. He faxed his finals from Spring Training in Jupiter, Fla. to complete his winter quarter.
He doesn't go out of his way to use ten-dollar words, so when people learn he's packing undergraduate and graduate degrees from one of the world's most prestigious institutions, he's greeted with surprise. In the clubhouse, his smarts have mostly earned him the role as the resident encyclopedia, fielding inquiries like, ‘Hey Walsh, is the moon a planet?'
The only negative of his impressive educational rapsheet is that sometimes he runs into a different stereotype, that because he has options he's less hungry to make the big leagues. "Some just assume I want it less as a baseball player, because if it doesn't work out I'm okay, I can get a job somewhere. That's something I can't stand. Just because I've set myself up for a post-baseball career, doesn't mean I want it any less."
This offseason, Walsh plans on doing work all over the diamond to increase his versatility. As an older prospect, he's willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the big leagues. In the minors, he's spent time at second base, third base and outfield. This winter he wants to do get some reps at shortstop, if only to be a serviceable emergency option.
"I'm very comfortable in a utility role. If I want to make the big leagues, I think it's going to be as a player who can play multiple positions, who can come off the bench to pinch hit as a switch hitter and to be able to do the little things like that. So that's my current goal. The A's have their own plan -- I'm not sure how exactly I fit into their puzzle, the piece that I am."
Life doesn't distribute opportunity evenly, a truth Walsh is fully aware of. He doesn't know whether his big chance will come in the form of an injury, a trade, or even something obscure like the Rule V draft. He also knows: there may be no opportunity. However, it could be Walsh's uncompromising pragmatism that lands him an eventual shot in the majors.
He's certainly making himself as attractive an option as possible. "Really, anything I can do. If you need me to pitch left handed, I can try and do that," he laughed. "As long as I'm in the big leagues: I don't care."
Given his performance in 2015, it seems Midland will soon enough be in the rearview mirror.