By virtue of who Red Sox fans are and the passion they have, most of the team’s top prospects are well known long before they get to Fenway Park.
But there is one Minor Leaguer slipping through the cracks who you might want to pay closer attention to.
The organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2021 -- as awarded by MLB Pipeline -- was left-hander Brandon Walter.
The reason you likely don’t know much about Walter -- Boston’s No. 15 prospect as rated by MLB Pipeline -- is because he’s taken an unlikely path to get to this point of being one of the true players to watch in the system going forward.
For example, Walter was taken by the Red Sox in the 26th round of the 2019 Draft out of Delaware.
That 26th-rounder looked more like an earlier-round selection in his stellar ’21, when he displayed a significant uptick in velocity that helped him hold opponents to a .199 average over 89 1/3 innings. Walter had a 2.92 ERA on the season in 25 outings, 14 of them starts. He had a 0.97 WHIP, splitting the season between Low-A Salem and High-A Greenville.
But getting there was hardly a straight line.
Early bump in the road
Typically, players who get the big offseason awards like the one Walter recently received are either high-round Draft picks or top international signings.
Walter’s stock dipped heading into the Draft mainly because of Tommy John surgery that ended his 2017 college season after just nine starts. He didn’t pitch at all in ’18, robbing the scouts of anything to look at what would have been a crucial junior season toward raising his stock.
He did come back to make 14 starts in his final college season of ’19, posting a 3.86 ERA and striking out 106 over 86 1/3 innings. It was enough for Walter to get drafted, but not as high as he once expected.
“I was able to pitch the whole season, I was used a lot. I did OK, but I didn't have a great senior year,” said Walter. “I was able to strike out a lot of guys. But my velo and stuff wasn't really where I knew it could be, so going into that day was a little weird for me.”
The Red Sox made it less weird when they showed faith by using that 26th-round pick on him.
“I just know he had the general profile of a left-hander that had multiple pitches he could throw strikes with and spin the baseball,” said Red Sox director of player development Brian Abraham.
Lesser known was what he could develop into -- particularly coming off Tommy John surgery.
Starting slow -- as a reliever
The Red Sox started slowly with Walter by sending him to the Gulf Coast League affiliate in Fort Myers, Fla., shortly after he signed in ’19.
Walter was 22 years old at the time and playing and pitching against a lot of guys in their teens.
“I ended up being in the GCL the whole summer,” said Walter. “I threw well, obviously, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was kind of a swing man, coming out of the pen in the GCL, at 22 after playing four years of college. You know, the age there is usually 18, 19, high school guys, the international guys that are young. I didn't really have much of a role there. I had [a 2.70] ERA but the stuff wasn't where I wanted to be.”
It was the first time Walter had ever pitched as a reliever, leaving him to wonder which direction his future was going.
“For me, the relieving thing was new,” said Walter. “My whole life, obviously through high school and college, I’m starting games and going six, seven innings if I can. The one or two innings at a time was new to me.”
Taking advantage of shutdown
Walter didn’t know it at the time, but maybe the best thing that happened for his career was the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020 in which all players were sent home in March. In Walter’s case, because he wasn’t viewed as a top prospect at the time, he wasn’t invited to Summer Camp.
He remained at his home in Delaware for a year before reporting to Spring Training in ’21 as someone who started turning heads immediately.
So what did Walter do during the shutdown?
“I just used that whole time [to my advantage],” said Walter. “I wanted to add on some weight. I put on 15 pounds of muscle during that time to try to make myself a better athlete. I kept the arm going, I kept throwing. I just trained. I mean luckily for me, there was a bunch of Minor Leaguers from my area that were in the same situation. So we all just kind of looked at it as a time to get better.”
Walter’s training ground during those months was the Titus Sports Academy.
“It's a big open area. You can long toss. Good lifting programs there, a lot of good equipment,” Walter said. “Trainers there are great. So we all just trained there. I just kind of tried to get as good as I could for whenever it was they were going to tell us to come back. That was huge for me.”
Bringing the heat
As Walter got closer to reporting to Spring Training, he had built a quiet confidence about how much he progressed during the lost season and couldn’t wait to display it in camp.
“Every bullpen I had at Titus was with the radar gun and everything,” said Walter. “We were throwing with the Rapsodo, and getting those reports back and a lot of that stuff helped too, just getting the visual feedback. It was good for my confidence coming into camp throwing in the mid 90s. That feels a lot better than throwing in the high 80s. That whole time after the COVID [shutdown], I never stopped throwing, and it was just kind of a gradual thing and I constantly kept throwing and it was like I was gaining one mph at a time and kept ticking up.”
Walter started ’21 at Low-A Salem in the bullpen. On June 25, he got his first pro start. By July 6, he was at High-A Greenville and stayed there for the rest of the season, used exclusively as a starter -- his preferred role.
“I think the easy route sometimes is to transition guys into the bullpen and allow them to stay there and do really well but he deserves a lot of credit for the work he's put in,” said Abraham. “And to me, one of the things that makes someone a starting pitcher is when one thing doesn't work, you’re able to get guys out another way. He’s able to do that with multiple pitches. He’s able to get guys out with his fastball, he’s able to get guys out with his slider and change. And I know, certainly from an internal perspective, we're very excited about where he is and where he's going.”
At 25 years old heading into the ’22 season, Walter will try to make up for lost time and get to Double-A and beyond. His key developmental step next season will be proving he can get more advanced hitters out than the ones he has faced so far.
“Definitely,” said Walter. “I mean, the end goal is to play in the Major Leagues where you’re going to be facing the best hitters. The sooner I can get exposure to better hitters that aren’t going to chase the same pitches that guys in Low-A were, I mean, it’s just going to make me better as a pitcher.”