Angels first baseman Jared Walsh had a breakout rookie year in the shortened 2020 season, but now it’s up to him to prove that it was no fluke and that he can do it over the course of 162 games.
Walsh, 27, comes from an atypical background as a 39th-round Draft pick in 2015, but he’s proved his doubters wrong along the way with strong Minor League numbers that finally translated to the Major League level last year. On the strength of a torrid stretch in September, Walsh batted .293/.324/.646 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 32 games, finishing seventh in balloting for American League Rookie of the Year.
That success earned Walsh the primary first baseman job heading into this season -- ahead of future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols -- and he’s eager to build off of his impressive rookie campaign.
“It was definitely one of the more locked-in times I’ve ever felt, so hopefully I’ll be able to recreate [that] again this summer,” Walsh said via Zoom on Tuesday. “I just try not to get too high or too low. I’ve had times where I’ve struggled and thought, ‘Is this it? Am I done?’ And times where I’ve had good ABs and felt like Ted Williams. So I just want to stay in the middle because baseball is humbling.”
Despite being a late-round Draft pick, Walsh thrived in the Minors, batting a combined .301/.375/.538 in 462 games, including hitting .307/.396/.620 with 44 homers, 43 doubles and 123 RBIs in 145 games at Triple-A Salt Lake.
But numbers can be inflated at Salt Lake given the altitude and the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, so Walsh had to earn his playing time in the Majors. He was also late to camp last year after testing positive for COVID-19 and was 0-for-13 at the plate in 10 games through Aug. 31. But then he had one of the best months by a rookie in club history, batting .337 with 15 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs in 22 games, earning AL Rookie of the Month honors.
Walsh said that he worked hard in the offseason to try to bottle that up by keeping the mechanics of his swing sound, while also emphasizing pitch recognition and plate discipline.
“I talked to the hitting coaches often this offseason and it was just about understanding what I did and what adjustments I made to get some pitches that I hadn’t prior,” Walsh said. “I watched a lot of video. So I feel like I’m in a pretty good place right now and I’m excited.”
Angels manager Joe Maddon acknowledged that Walsh’s success came in a small sample size, but he liked the way the left-handed hitter controlled the zone and showcased his raw power. He mostly hit Walsh second in the lineup ahead of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, and that could again be the case this season, although Maddon is still tinkering with his lineup construction.
But either way, Walsh figures to be in a critical spot in the order and will get most of the starts against right-handed pitching, while Pujols will serve as his backup and likely see most of his time at first base when there’s a lefty on the mound.
“It’s hard to just put stock in one month,” Maddon said. “But I also believe if he had three or four more months, he really would have made some noise like with the Rookie of the Year and that kind of stuff. I know he has that kind of ability. I know it was for only one month, but look what he did at Triple-A and his Minor League seasons.”
Pujols was also happy to see Walsh fare so well last year and insists that he has no hard feelings about Walsh being set to be the regular first baseman in Pujols’ final year of his 10-year contract.
“I hope he tears it up because it would help this organization win,” Pujols said. “I’m not competing with Jared Walsh. I’m not competing with anybody. My job is to help this organization win. There’s no selfishness here, and if there’s somebody that feels like, they shouldn’t be in our organization because that’s not how you build a championship roster.”