'I have a lot to prove': How Walls trained to rake in '23

March 16th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The differences weren’t all that dramatic. stepped into the batter’s box during the first inning of the Rays’ 5-1 win over the Braves on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field with his elbows lifted a little higher, his bat a little more parallel to the ground and a little flatter through the strike zone than it was last year.

The results didn’t jump off the page, either. After being set back by a strained right oblique since the start of camp, Walls went 0-for-3 with a popout and a pair of flyouts in his Spring Training debut as Tampa Bay’s designated hitter.

But he hopes those small changes will lead to a big step forward this year.

“Personally, I don't feel established. Defensively, I feel established,” Walls said earlier this week. “But offensively, I know that that was the worst season I've ever had since I've been playing baseball. Maybe they think differently, but for me, offensively, I didn't do anything to prove that I belonged here.”

It’s a blunt assessment of where Walls stands after last season. On one hand, the 26-year-old clearly established himself as one of the top defensive infielders in the Majors. He led the Rays with 19 Defensive Runs Saved, and his 11 DRS at shortstop tied for fourth most in MLB despite only playing 92 games there.

Offensively, it was a different story. The switch-hitter batted just .172/.268/.285 with eight homers, 33 RBIs and 120 strikeouts in 466 plate appearances. Only three players in the modern era have taken at least 450 trips to the plate while batting lower than .175 in the same season: Adam Dunn in 2011, Chris Davis in '18 and Walls last season.

Walls was hardly the only young hitter who struggled for the Rays, but he didn’t have the opportunity to work through his slump with Triple-A Durham. With Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe sidelined, Tampa Bay needed his dependable defense too much to send him down.

“I think what happened last year [happens] to a lot of young players,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He ran into a funk early on, it snowballed and he just couldn’t get out of it. … But he deserved to be here throughout all those struggles because of the impact he had on us defensively.”

Indeed, Walls still managed to be an above-average player on the strength of his superb glovework. He totaled 2.6 WAR, seventh among all Rays players last year. But he’d always been a tough at-bat who found ways to get on base, too, with a .284/.426/.400 slash line at Florida State University and a .272/.368/.418 line in the Minors.

He shows a discerning eye, with a 97th-percentile chase rate and a walk rate in the 87th percentile last season, but Walls is the first to admit he hasn’t lived up to his own standard at the plate.

“I know where I stand defensively. I know that I can play every position as good or better than anyone else,” Walls said. “But offensively, I have a lot to prove to myself and, I feel like, to prove to [the Rays].”

So, Walls went to work. His agent connected him with Dan Hennigan, a hitting analyst with the Twins who runs the Brain & Barrel Hitting facility in suburban Philadelphia. They broke down the types of pitches that he struggled against and made minor tweaks to Walls’ setup, aiming to put him in better position against the high fastballs that gave him trouble last season.

All of last year’s frustration may wind up benefitting him this year.

“I think I'm in a much better place as well, just as far as learning kind of how to approach it, how to deal with it with those failures when you feel like there's just no light at the end of the tunnel,” Walls said. “It was a good time for me to be able to try certain things and see how they play out, so I learned a lot of what not to do and adjustments not to make going forward.”

Walls is expected to begin the season at third base, where he’ll split time with Isaac Paredes, but he’ll continue to back up Franco at shortstop and Lowe at second. Whether he believes he’s established himself or not, the Rays are counting on Walls to be a key part of their infield again this year.

“We're going to see a much better offensive player,” Cash said. “I don't think you can see much of a better defensive player.”