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I want to trade Colin Walsh to a 2001 Baseball Prospectus author, for peak Greg Maddux. We, who belong to the Statcast and PITCHf/x age, we who can measure the manipulation and command that made second-phase Maddux so brilliant, we who can look at heat maps and matchup charts and separate the wheat in The Professor’s espoused axioms for getting batters out without top-shelf stuff from the chaff, we could do so much with Maddux. Maddux was wasted on those guys, who were still trying to fully grasp (and recognize the limitations) of DIPS theory.

Walsh is probably wasted on us, though. He’s an undersized, undertooled, switch-hitting 26-year-old second baseman. He’s a former mid-round college draftee by the one organization who briefly made that description as much a cause for interest as for skepticism (the Cardinals, in 2010). (He’ll make it four straight 13th-round picks to reach the big leagues for St. Louis, from 2007-10.) He’s been released outright at the end of spring training, and, almost two years later, he’s become a Rule 5 draft pick. He’s on his third professional organization, and other than the modest buzz one can’t help but attach to a Luhnow-era Stanford signee, there’s no reason to believe Walsh will somehow find success with the Brewers.

Oh, unless you count his .447 on-base percentage at Midland last year.

The old BP crowd would have so loved Walsh. They would have pointed, and not without good reason, to his professional batting line of .278/.395/.422, and said, “Tell me why this guy can’t hit.” They probably wouldn’t have been bothered, really, by the injury issues that stalled Walsh in 2011, nor by the rough introduction to Double-A that he suffered in 2013. I bet they’d have been only emboldened by the lack of faith the Cardinals showed when they released him on the eve of the 2014 season, and not much tempered by the injuries and uneven performance that marked his splintered season with the A’s thereafter. They’d have drooled over his 2012 Midwest League All-Star showing, and his .370 OBP in the pitcher-friendly (that’s perhaps too mild) league and stadium combination he faced when the Cardinals sent him to Palm Beach and the Florida State League the next year. They’d be positively gaga, and I’m right there with them, over Walsh’s 2015, which saw him stay healthy, play all year in one place, and post a walk rate so good his parents should have named him Eddie. Walsh also bashed 54 extra-base hits and stole 17 bases last year. He’s not exactly the next Jason Kipnis, but he’s not Daniel Descalso, either.

Alas, this wheel is worn smooth, isn’t it? In the back of our minds, we all know that the odds still remain thin for Walsh. If he were likely to translate his exceptional on-base ability to the big leagues, or to carry over even a modicum of the power he finally flashed last season, he wouldn’t have been available in the Rule 5 Draft—let alone sitting there for the Brewers when their selection came up. The industry has more faith in Tyler Goeddel (.262/.337/.403 career hitter in the minors, and not much greater shakes last year, but with a bit more speed and perhaps more pop, and fully three years Walsh’s junior) and in Jake Cave (the same as Goeddel, only worse) than in Walsh. And I’m not sure it’s cool, as it might once have been, to take the industry to task for that. We’re all pretty sure teams get the OBP thing, now, and that’s really the only thing that makes Walsh stand out as a player on whom the league might somehow be missing. It seems wildly improbable that this is really the diamond in the rough. We need the guys, like peak Maddux, who offer a lot of complex and unusual surfaces to analyze. Walsh is old school.

And yet, here I sit, captivated by that .395 career OBP. I’m captivated, too, by the fact that the three organizations we’ve seen take a chance on Walsh were, in order:

  1. The Cardinals, and specifically, the scouting department run by Jeff Luhnow and Sig Mejdal;
  2. The A’s; and
  3. The new-look Brewers, starring new GM David Stearns, formerly a Luhnow apprentice in Houston.

I can’t help wondering if this is another guy whose skill set the league has just not valued enough. There’s been an increasing pushback, of sorts, among even the teams who used to value OBP the most. It hasn’t been rhetorical, or often, even especially obvious; it’s just been there. There was a power surge last summer that brought run-scoring back to baseball for a time, but it wasn’t fueled by anyone getting on base more. Instead, for the most part, the league got more aggressive. Pitchers had been steadily putting a higher and higher percentage of their early pitches, especially first pitches, in the zone over the last two and a half seasons, and halfway through last year, the league finally made an offensive adjustment: not just more first-pitch swings, but many more, and more aggression early in counts in general.

That worked, but I’m not ready to call it sustainable, and I’m a long damn way from ready to prioritize power over OBP, as some have suggested. There will be a counter-adjustment to the one batters made late last year, and when it comes, the league is going to have to find a new way to keep offense alive. I predict that baseball won’t really find a semi-stable run-environment equilibrium again until it finds a way to make offense correlate better with OBP again, and to bring the latter number up on a systemic level.

Guys like Walsh offer the chance to do that. A generation of Colin Walshes failed, because once pitchers realized they weren’t going to punish them all that much with power, they simply started pounding an ever-growing strike zone shaped by ever-more skilled framers, and invited Walsh-type hitters to bounce the ball into ever-more optimized defensive alignments. There’s a brave future out there, though, where a hitter with exceptional plate discipline as his driving skill can once again become a solid big-league regular. It might mean adjustments, like game-planning against hurlers as well as they do against hitters, or it might mean rule changes, like a smaller, fairer strike zone. One way or another, Walsh, being a switch-hitter and a Stanford kid and a bit more of an athlete than some of his ilk, is as good a candidate for the job as anyone. I can’t jettison Colin Walsh into a simpler past (when he would have made an easier and tidier article subject), so for now, I’ll content myself with watching to see whether he can work enough counts and foul off enough two-strike offerings to be one of the men who brings OBP back into style.

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Nice article, Matthew. This would seem like a great season for the Brewers to make Walsh a mid- or late-season call-up to see what he can do. (Ditto last year with the A's.) I hope he gets a chance.
He's actually a Rule 5 pick so they have to keep him on the major league roster or offer him back to the A's.

I think there's a pretty reasonable chance he sticks around, at least to begin the season. Assuming Gennett, Villar, and Hill are the starters at 2B, SS, and 3B respectively, the only other infielders on the 40-man roster are 2B/3B Walsh, 1B/3B Garin Cecchini (MiLB opt remaining), 1B Andy Wilkins (opt remaining), SS Yadiel Rivera (opt remaining), and SS Orlando Arcia (opt remaining).

Arcia is definitely starting in AAA. That leaves Rivera and Walsh as the only middle infielders. I think it's probably reasonably likely they're both on the Brewers bench to open the season.