Colin Walsh might be the best story of the spring. Yesterday, it was announced that the 26-year-old infielder/outfielder will be on Milwaukee’s opening-day roster. His path to the big leagues has been both uneven and unique.
A Rule 5 pick this winter from the Oakland organization, Walsh began his career with the Cardinals, who selected him in the 13th round of the 2010 draft. He hit well in short-season ball, but began the following year in extended spring training after failing to earn a spot on a full-season club. When he did reach low-A, he failed to impress.
Walsh returned to low-A in 2012, where he initially served as the designated hitter. As he put it, “They didn’t have a position for me; I was just kind of on the team.” Eventually splitting time between second base and left field, the switch-hitter went on to slash .314/.419/.530 in 425 plate appearances.
In 2013, he backslid. He put up so-so numbers in High-A, then hit just .220 after being promoted to Double-A. The following spring, he was released and picked up by Oakland. After putting up solid-but-nothing-special numbers between three levels, Walsh went into last season wondering if it would be his last in professional baseball.
That didn’t turn out to be the case. Playing for Double-A Midland, he hit an eye-opening .302/.447/.470 with 39 doubles and 13 home runs. Displaying elite plate discipline, he drew 124 bases on balls. In December, the Brewers selected the Stanford grad — Walsh has a masters degree in civil engineering — in the Rule 5 draft.
Walsh talked about his circuitous road to The Show, and the specificity of his hitting approach, late last week.
Walsh on being cut by the Cardinals two years ago: “I came to spring training assuming I’d be going back to Double-A and starting every day at second base. That didn’t happen. On the last day, I got called in and was told I was no longer in baseball. They said it was a numbers game — there were too many guys for too few spots — and I was the last guy out.
“I was shocked. You don’t expect to go from playing in the Fall League, to having a pretty good year in high-A and getting promoted, and then get released the next spring. I thought I had earned at least another year. But I don’t hold any ill will. This is a business. Me getting the short end of the stick wasn’t a personal vendetta; the Cardinals just liked other guys better.
“It was still tough. Spring training had just ended, so everybody’s rosters were full. There was a two-week period where I didn’t have a job. You can’t help but think, ‘Am I done with baseball? Is my career over?’”
On being picked up by Oakland: “ I wasn’t too surprised that, of the 30 teams, they were the one to pick me up. I was kind of Oakland-ish in terms of getting on base. I think they liked my skill set, although I don’t think I was looked at as, ‘This guy is going to contribute at the big-league level.’ I was more of a backup and a utility guy. I guess you could say I was more of an organizational guy.
“Through a series of fortunate events, a spot opened up for me in Double-A. There were some freak injuries and I got to play every day. After about month, we had a bunch of guys come off the disabled list, and I was asked if I’d go down to Low-A. That was the only place available. Luckily, something happened in Triple-A and they sent me there instead.
“For the next four months, I was in Triple-A, playing once or twice a week. I was kind of the last guy on the roster. Every time there was a waiver move, I was affected. A couple of times, I was in High-A kind of just waiting while some stuff went through. I’d be in a holding pattern, then I’d go back to Triple-A.
“The following year  I was back in Double-A and starting every day at second base. I got regular at-bats all season and ended up having the best year of my career. That obviously caught [the Brewers’] attention.”
On turning a corner and his disciplined approach: “I added a little leg kick. My swing has always been pretty similar, so that hasn’t really changed. I’ve always walked a lot, but last year I was even more disciplined. What I was trying to do at the plate was very clear. My approach became a lot more specific.
“I don’t swing at pitches before two strikes that I can’t do damage with. That’s not to say I never get fooled or swing at a bad pitch. But I don’t care about strikes. I care about pitches that I can hit really hard. I want something I can hit for a double or a home run. If he throws a fastball right on the black, a changeup on the black, and then a back-door curveball on the black, good for him. I’ll probably take all three and strike out looking. But pitchers don’t do that consistently. They make mistakes.
“My strike zone is smaller than the actual plate. Compared to most people, I probably treat an 0-0 count like a 2-0 count. I have this little circle, and if it’s in that circle — it’s the pitch I’m looking for — I’m going to swing. If it isn’t, I’m not going to swing, even if it’s a strike. On a 3-2 count, I’ll probably take a borderline pitch. There’s a a 50/50 chance the umpire won’t call it a strike, and if I swing at it, I’m probably not going to hit it hard. If I swing at 20 of those, I’m probably going to go 2 for 20.
“I actually love swinging 3-0, as funny as that may seem. A lot of the stuff I do is kind of counter-intuitive to walking a lot. I swing at the first pitch all the time. I’ll swing 3-0. But when I do, I really zone up. It has to be the perfect pitch. That’s my general approach for all pitches, but my zone is the smallest when it’s 3-0. How big my zone is alternates on what the count is, and what he’s throwing me.”
On hitting for more authority: “Last year I kind of stopped going to the opposite field. I wanted to pull doubles and home runs. That was my approach before two strikes, and I had no problem with being 0-2. I had a pull approach from both sides, and that allowed me to zone up even more. I didn’t go up there and think, ‘OK, here’s a fastball away that I can slap to left field.’ Maybe it was a pitch I could handle for a single, I didn’t want to settle for a single to the opposite field.
“Midland, and most of the Texas League, isn’t good for left-handed power, but I still hit for pretty solid power, especially for a second baseman. Pitchers knew I was patient, but they also learned they couldn’t just throw me a 2-0 fastball down the middle. If they did, I could make them pay, so to speak
“I’ve always had a really good eye, which is part of the reason I’ve always walked a lot, and being even more selective increased my walk total by another 10%. It’s not that I’m a passive hitter. On the first pitch of an at-bat, if you throw me the pitch I’m looking for, and it’s something I can hit hard, I’m going to swing at it every single time. I’m not a guy who wants to see a pitch, or take until I get one strike. The other day, I had three at-bats and saw four pitches. I was getting pitches I wanted to swing at.”
On switch-hitting: “I have the same approach from each side, but my swings are a little different. I probably see the ball a little bit better right-handed, in terms of my plate zones. My discipline is a little better right-handed, while my swing is probably better left-handed. I’d say I walk more right-handed and hit for more power left-handed.
“My right hand kind of dominates my right-handed swing, so I have to really work on swinging underneath the ball. My right hand is my dominant hand, so it kind of wants to take over. Left-handed, my top hand is a little weaker, so my barrel can basically drag through the zone a little longer. It’s a smoother swing. Basically, it’s easier for me to have a slight uppercut left-handed than it is right-handed.”
On his defensive profile and his manager: “Last year I played about 120 games at second and maybe 10 in left. I think I played well defensively at second. I’ve also played third a good amount in my career, although this spring is the first time I’ve been over there in a few years. I’m just now starting to feel more comfortable and confident at third, because it’s a different kind of ground ball; it’s a different aspect.
“I’m a better hitter than I am a fielder, but it’s not as though I’m a liability with the glove. It’s not as though I’m bad. My bat carries me, but I have to be solid defensively if I expect to play. I also need to be versatile. Especially being on a National League team, being able to switch-hit, pinch-hit, and play multiple positions is valuable. Coming off the bench, that’s a good skill set to have.
(Craig Counsell) was similar to me in terms of having been a utility guy and having to work really hard at certain aspects of his game. That’s kind of where I’m at, so it’s nice to have a manager who has done what I’m trying to do. He understands how it is to come off the bench and not being the biggest, strongest guy, how to maximize the ability you do have.”
On pondering his future: “Before the start of last season, I thought it would probably be my last year if I didn’t play well. Had I struggled, I’d probably be done right now. I’m not sure I’d have gotten another chance.
“I don’t think any of us are playing to be in the minors, but even if things don’t work out this year, I want to stay in baseball as long as I can. I went to Stanford for a reason — I’ll eventually have a career in another field — but playing baseball for a living is more enjoyable than working 70 hours a week in an office. Everybody I know in the real world has told me, ‘Keep playing baseball.’
“[Making it to the big leagues] would be awesome. My career has taken a bunch of turns. For some guys in the minors, playing in the majors is inevitable. For me, it’s been a harder road. When you look at my career path, going up and down, up and down, and being all over the place — this is my third organization — it hasn’t been the easiest path. Last year gave me the confidence to believe that I’m a major-league-quality player.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.