Marcus Walden appears to be this year’s bullpen discovery for the Red Sox
Marcus Walden’s bio does not read like that of a player who would emerge as a key bullpen contributor for a team trying to repeat as World Series winners. He’s a 30-year-old rookie who has been waived, designated for assignment, released, and unemployed. He’s pitched more career games in independent ball than he has in the big leagues.
Moreover, pitchers who live by a sinker/slider combination — the pitches that anchor Walden’s arsenal — are viewed as something of an endangered species.
“[That type of pitcher is] not in today’s baseball, that’s for sure,” said Walden, who in the Blue Jays’ minor league system a decade ago emulated pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Tim Hudson, and current teammate Rick Porcello. “I still feel like I’m a little old-school with the way I pitch.”
There is indeed something old-school about Walden — not just how he pitches, but also the doggedness that allowed him to be a baseball survivor for long enough to arrive at a career-altering opportunity. On Wednesday, Walden entered in the third inning and blitzed through three overpowering innings, allowing one hit while striking out three Athletics in the Red Sox’ 7-3 victory.
Since signing with the Red Sox as a minor league free agent prior to the 2017 season, Walden has gone from a pitcher who never got called up to one who, in 2018, made his big league debut but saw action in just eight games while getting shuttled up and down, to one who is now forcing his way into key opportunities as both a matchup and multi-inning reliever for the Sox. He is now 4-0 with a 1.65 ERA, 19 strikeouts, and five walks in 16⅓ innings this season.
“We’re all looking for the Ryan Brasiers. Maybe we’ve got one,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie, referencing last year’s rags-to-riches story of a journeyman reliever turned key postseason setup man. “It’s awesome that our scouts go out and find these guys. He’s a big-time asset to our team — not just for 10 days. He’s a huge asset.”
To become that, however, Walden had to re-reinvent himself. The righthander had developed a slider while at Fresno City College in 2007, a pitching lifetime ago. But when he underwent Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2010 season, he ditched the pitch, thinking it was the cause of his elbow woes.
Once in a full-time bullpen role in the minors, Walden primarily threw a sinker and cutter. In theory, he might have felt cautious about dusting off the slider given its perceived health risk. But in 2017, in a full season spent with Triple A Pawtucket, Walden recognized a fork in the road.
He’d bounced between four organizations while also spending some time in an indie league. He had largely resigned himself to the idea that if he was going to make any money in pro ball, it would have to be in another country — unless, of course, something changed. So, Walden took an open-minded approach to the idea of reintegrating a slider into his pitch mix.
“I was 28 and on my way out of the game,” he said. “So, whatever it took.”
To create some diversity — something with a different velocity and shape than his mid-90s two-seamer and low-90s cutter — he started incorporating the slider. Still, he remained skeptical of the value of the pitch until spring training in 2018, when he got feedback from catchers Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon, and Blake Swihart while throwing batting practice to teammates.
“I looked at it, and I’m like, ‘That’s not that good,’ ” said Walden. “They were like, ‘Dude, we can’t see it. It looks just like the cutter.’ ”
Red Sox staffers encouraged Walden to use the pitch more frequently. He bought in. Still, the pitch required work, foremost by Walden, but also by coaches throughout the organization such as LeVangie and assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, Triple A pitching coach Kevin Walker, and pitching coordinator of performance Dave Bush. By this spring, after an offseason in which Walden emphasized the slider, the pitch had reached a next level.
“He really started to develop it, use it, and it’s become an ultimate weapon for him,” said Walker.
Indeed. Of the 31 pitches Walden threw on Wednesday, 17 were sliders, with five getting swings and misses. The pitch initially looks like a cutter but then has violent glove-side break that has resulted in some ugly hacks. In some instances against the A’s, it looked like it would start inside off the plate and swept all the way across it, resulting in righthanded hitters chasing pitches that were ultimately outside.
“It’s an incredible pitch,” said LeVangie.
It’s become Walden’s go-to, in a way that has allowed his cutter and fastball (he now throws a four-seamer in addition to his sinker in order to work up and down in the zone) to jump on hitters.
And that, in turn, has allowed Walden to become an unexpected and frankly unlikely difference-maker for the Red Sox, someone who now leads the team in victories and has been a part of several key situations.
Now in the same big league bullpen, Brasier can appreciate what he’s seeing.
“Me and him are kind of in the same boat — older guys that don’t have a lot of time [in the big leagues],” said Brasier. “It’s always fun seeing guys like that do well.”
For Walden, it is more than just fun — it is a reward for the 12 years of persistence, for believing that an opportunity like this remained within reach even when there were few precedents to suggest as much. Given Walden’s path, he does not take for granted the opportunity that he has worked so hard to realize.
“There are times, like today after I pitch, you look up and you’re like, ‘This is the best job in the world,’ ” said Walden. “You’ve got to appreciate it and not take it for granted after grinding it out for a couple years — like 12 of them. It will make you appreciate it a lot more, that’s for sure.”