NEW YORK — Taylor Walls? What?
New York WFAN sports radio host Evan Roberts put it that way in his recent rant suggesting there was something “very suspicious” about the Rays’ strong start, tossing out Walls’ name and a few others in noting “all those crappy players and how they’re all having amazing years.”
Others in the media have been more innocent but just as interested in asking how, given that Walls was one of the worst offensive players in the majors last year — hitting .172 with a .268 on-base percentage and a .285 slugging percentage for a .553 OPS — and through the first quarter of this season has been one of the better players.
Walls went into the weekend with a better OPS (.904) than Angels star Shohei Ohtani, and an OPS+ (adjusted for ballparks and based on 100 being league average) of 152, better than Toronto standouts Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.
Walls’ .548 slugging percentage was just under the .551 posted by Houston standout Yordan Alvarez. His .358 on-base percentage was better than teammate Wander Franco. He had hit more homers (seven) than Minnesota’s Carlos Correa. His .269 batting average was higher than that the White Sox’s Tim Anderson.
Add in his usual stellar defense at three infield spots and, per baseball-reference.com’s all-encompassing WAR metric, Walls was one of the top seven position players in the American League.
Taylor Walls? What?
“I mean, how is it not a surprise for everyone?” Walls said. “Like, I surprise myself sometimes. It’s not saying I’m doing things I’ve never done before, but at this level it is. So I wouldn’t say that it’s not a surprise.
“I can’t be mad at people for assuming I’m this type of player when I had 500 at-bats last year, and that’s who I was before. But I think it’s more so of not understanding that players grow, players figure things out, they become better players within themselves through experience.”
Walls did all that and more in the offseason, a transformation somewhat in two parts.
Physically, he made a series of “slight mechanical adjustments” — things like the placement of his hands, how his arms lift off his body and the angle of his elbow — designed to tweak his swing to produce more/better/harder contact.
He went outside for that help — at the suggestion of his agent and with the blessing of the Rays. He visited the Philadelphia-area facility run by Twins hitting analyst Dan Hennigan and came back more confident in what he was doing hitting right- and left-handed, and with the proper tells and drills to adjust when he didn’t feel right.
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Change is not always good
Mentally, there was more of a makeover.
Walls, 26, realized he was too reactive last season, both in what he was doing at the plate as well as the process he used to get there.
“Just through the experience of failing last year, experimenting as much as I did, and kind of being on that downward spiral day in and day out of trying to change,” he said. “Worried about an 0-for-4 or a bad series, now I’m changing my swing to try to do something else and just never giving myself the real opportunity to just play and not really overthink things.”
So he developed a set routine for pre-game work and a commitment to his base approach in the box for this season. Then came the hard part of convincing himself to stick to it.
“On the mental side, the biggest factor was just understanding that although that routine may be the best routine for me, not every day is going to be three-four hits, or two or one,” Walls said. “So even though I have 0-for-4s or a bad series or something like that, I’m just trying to keep in stride, stick to what I’m doing. Trust the process, trust that the routine I built this offseason is the right one and it’s going to work, and then allow myself to make adjustments whenever I feel like I need to.
“And it’s really that. Just accepting the lows and the highs and understanding that is part of the process. I can’t really control the result, but I can control what I do every day and how I approach it.”
That concept is pretty standard, but Walls has had a tendency to make a lot of changes. In the minors that worked, as he hit .304 with an .821 OPS at Class A in 2018, .270 and .825 after he moved to Double A in July 2019 and .247 and .831 at Triple-A in 2021 around his first two stints with the Rays.
“He is a smart guy and sometimes I think when he has one day that doesn’t go his way, he tries to over-analyze, but, I mean, who doesn’t?” said Josh Lowe, a minor- and major-league teammate. “The success that I’m seeing him have now is no different than what I saw when we played together at Double A.
“So it’s not surprising. Not to us. It’s a testament to his work ethic and who he is. How mentally strong he is to not let one year of failure beat him down and just go out there and play hard every day.”
Walls said it helped to draw on his past, acknowledging he needed some time to adjust from college ball at Florida State and each step through the minors, figuring he would eventually figure it out in the majors.
So did his bosses.
“We knew there was more in there,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said.
And other teammates.
“Honestly, I thought it was just more of a matter of time versus if it was going to happen or not,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.
Walls said he is too driven a person for failure to be an option.
“It was never a concern of whether I could do it or not,” he said. “It was more of a concern of why am I not doing it.
“So I never questioned my ability to perform here offensively. It was more so what am I not doing right now or what am I doing wrong that’s limiting me from being able to be the player that I know I can be, or that I’ve been at every level before.”
And for those, especially behind a microphone, who do question him?
“It is what it is; those guys don’t really mean anything to us,” Walls said. “Stuff like that, I guess you could use it as a little motivation here and there. But I have zero clue who that guy is.”
Taylor Walls, so far? Wow!
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