It’s almost difficult to decipher how Wingnuts left-hander Nick Walters isn’t pitching in affiliated baseball. He has struck out more than a batter per inning during his career and, with a low-90s fastball and plus breaking pitch, Walters is an effective matchup reliever who has also proven himself against right-handed batters.
Most of Walters’ numbers are eye-popping, but one is particularly difficult to ignore — the 5.8 walks per nine innings he has averaged during his career, which shot to an alarming 10.4 last season.
Walters is managing the walks this season while proving as difficult to hit as ever, becoming arguably the most reliable reliever in the Wingnuts’ short-handed bullpen.
"The baseball kind of thing is no free passes, and that’s a free pass," Walters said. "I don’t remember what the exact stat is, but leadoff walks score about 80 percent of the time — it’s a high-percentage number. No free passes is a big thing in baseball. It’s hard to have no walks, but you just want to minimize those as much as you can."
Walters was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and moved to the Oakland Athletics organization in 2007, a season after issuing 16 walks in 27 2/3 innings. Control issues didn’t become permanent until ’08, when Walters had 36 walks in 55 innings in Class A for the A’s.
Plenty of Walters’ traits offset his high walk rate, such as his durability — he has pitched in at least 39 games for the last four seasons and is on pace to exceed that mark this season — and his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame.
Walking has been about the only way hitters have reached base against Walters this season, particularly left-handers, who have two hits in 42 at-bats against him. Walters owns a 2.62 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 24 innings and his walk rate, 5.2 per nine innings, is half of last season’s mark.
"It’s something I’ve always worked on," Walters said. "Nobody ever wants to have a lot of walks, but that’s what I’ve had. You’ve seen the defense we’ve had, so it’s been a lot easier to throw it down the middle sometimes and get a hard groundball with the defense we’ve had behind us."
The Wingnuts have operated during the past few weeks with a five-man bullpen after losing three pitchers to injury. Walters has turned from a matchup left-hander to a reliever who often needs to pitch an inning or more to save the other relievers.
Necessity may have given Walters more frequent opportunities, but reliability has kept them coming. Walters hasn’t allowed a home run and his 3.8 hits per nine inning is tops on the team.
"I have all the confidence in the world when I pitch and I love facing righties too, just to prove that I can do it," Walters said. "I definitely want to prove that I can do either-or."
Understaffed — With Ben Graham, Nate Robertson and Jose Perez all out with injuries and the Wingnuts having difficulty finding suitable replacements, the bullpen has taken on a different look in recent weeks.
Most major league teams feature seven relievers on a 25-man roster, and in the American Association teams typically carry six relievers on their 22-man teams. Wichita has been using five relievers, potentially dangerous because they rarely get two consecutive nights off.
The bullpen allowed 10 runs in a four-game sweep by Grand Prairie this week, alternating scoreless efforts with five-run outings that kept the Wingnuts from winning in the late innings.
A potential upside to the short bullpen is allowing each reliever to have a defined role and the ability to carry momentum from one appearance to the next.
"You always want to be out there on the mound," Walters said. "When the game is close, your adrenaline starts getting going and everyone to see if their call sign is going to come up. Everybody wants to get in the game, and with a shorter bullpen, we’re all going to get in the game multiple days in a row."
In a pinch — With a shorter bullpen, the Wingnuts can use a deeper bench, and they’re carrying 12 position players. That’s a rarity with a 22-man roster, but manager Kevin Hooper is giving each player opportunities.
In Friday’s 10-4 loss to Grand Prairie, Hooper emptied the bench and three pinch-hitters combined to go 1 for 3. The Wingnuts used a pinch-hitter in every game during the series, and they were a collective 2 for 7.