A New Appreciation: An interview with Walker Weickel
It was a long fall for Walker Weickel from first-round stardom to his release five years later. The native of Orlando, Fla, Weickel was taken as the 55th overall selection by the San Diego Padres out of Olympia High School. With a 6-6 frame that had room to fill, the right-hander presented a 91-94 fastball with a curve. With seasoning in the minors, Weickel would likely land at Petco Field before too many years. At least, that’s what he thought.
He went through a tough, first full-season in 2013 and took some poundings at Low-A Ft. Wayne (IN), as many pitchers do. But the rough outings continued the next season and he finished the 2014 season at short-season Eugene (OR).
The Padres challenged him with an assignment to high-A Lake Elsinore (CA) before six weeks into the season he heard the three words feared by every pitcher: Tommy John surgery. After a little over a year at rehab, he made pitched ten innings at the Padres short-season and rookie affiliates with mixed results. This spring, he was released.
Sitting on the sidelines and rehabbing gave Weickel time to think about how his career had gone to that point, and consider how much effort he had put into his development. Not just effort, but honest effort.
With time to reflect, Weickel adjusted his attitude and recaptured his love for the game. Weickel took on his release from the Padres as a matter-of-fact business decision and dedicated himself to the next opportunity. That door-knocker came with the Texas Rangers, with whom he signed this April.
Since joining the Crawdads on June 3, Weickel has gotten deeper into games and, in the process, dominated South Atlantic League opponents. His OBA is currently at .170 with a 0.89 WHIP. Over the last two starts, Weickel has allowed five hits, walked two and struck out 12 over 13.2 innings. He threw a two-hitter over seven innings against Kannapolis on July 4 in front of a packed house. Weickel’s outing was punctuated with an emphatic fist pump after fanning the final two hitters in the seventh.
Below is part of his story.
First question for you: the first thing I noticed when you came off the mound after the last strikeout was a huge first pump. Reading your story a bit about your Tommy John surgery and then you get released by the Padres, and then you pitch well before a big crowd here, how much of that was the moment itself or you’re finally getting some things going in your career?
Weickel: I think it was a culmination of things. July 4th has always kind of an interesting day for me in my career. I’ve been scheduled to pitch July 4th two times, but it’s been rearranged for numerous reasons, and this prior to surgery. So, now in my first complete season from Tommy John and with a new team an having an opportunity to pitch on July 4th, it’s always been kind of a career checkpoint for me to pitch. Growing up as a kid and watching The Sandlot, you see the scene where everyone’s playing baseball under the fireworks; it’s something I’ve always wanted to experience and definitely wanted to get a win out of.
I was feeling good on the fourth, and yeah, that last strikeout, it was a culmination of all that. It was also their number four hitter (Kannapolis rightfielder Micker Adolfo). He had kind of given me a little bit of a tricky out the first two times before, so I finally got him on that third at-bat. It felt like a nice little way to end off the outing.
It looked like you had all four pitches going: fastball, change, curve and slider. Did I read that right?
Weickel: For me, I heavily run a two-seam fastball and try to sink the ball a lot and then pitch a changeup and curveball off of that. I change speeds on my curveball, so sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s tighter and gets mistaken for a slider. I was pretty pleased with how my pitches were working. Ricky (Valencia) had a good game plan going into the outing and I was able to stick to it. Ricky did a great job calling pitches all night and kept me comfortable and kept me fluid.
I think I had seven flyouts and six ground outs. So, it definitely helped that the hitters put the ball in play quick and let the defense make plays quickly and get back into the dugout and back to the bats. I was pleased with the overall efficiency and quickness of the game.
I’m guessing the answer to the next question might take up the rest of the interview. Describe how good it feels for you finally to get back into a rotation and you are taking the ball every six games.
Weickel: It’s tough to put into words. It almost feels like my career is starting over again. I was a starter out of high school and then my first couple of years in pro ball. I’ve definitely had some battles and some ups and downs. Then the Tommy John was a big point in my career and I really felt that allowed me to mentally collect myself and figure out who I was as a pitcher. It allowed me to craft my process for off the field, in terms of preparation and in terms of how I go about my business.
So, it’s been really rewarding getting a chance here and I’m so thankful the Rangers gave me an opportunity to put all that work into play and to see where it goes from here.
What was the journey like going from first-round pick to Tommy John and then your release essentially four seasons after your selection?
Weickel: It was ups and downs and a lot of emotions. It was definitely not something I planned for, that’s for sure. I think everyone has the grand idea of signing and then maybe a couple of stops in the minors and then right up to the big leagues. I would say that’s not quite the path, but at the same time there is no set path for anyone. Everyone kind of has their own journey and battle.
Even though I’ve had quite the ups and downs, and I’ve dealt with injuries and I had to sit out a year-and-a-half for recovery, quite frankly, I don’t think I’d put it any other way. It’s really allowed me to develop, I think, at the right time and it’s allowed me to really enjoy certain aspects of my career and different opportunities. But now to be back playing, to be fully healthy, knowing that my arm is secure and stable, knowing that I’ve had these past 24 months of just hunger and preparation to get back on the mound and prove that I’m still able to get out there and do the job, I couldn’t be more excited.
You talk about how everybody has their own path. There are guys that get into the game and realize that it’s much more of a mental game. You guys are growing up, especially if you’re drafted out of high school. There are some guys that are arrogant; there are some guys that are still little boys in many ways. Maybe the question I have to ask is what is the adjustment mental-wise or lifestyle-wise that you had to make?
Weickel: It’s easy to get caught up into the day-to-day activities of being at the park and spending 12 to 16 hours a day, roughly, at or on the baseball field and then essentially your home, your apartment or hotel to sleep and then back to the field. So, it’s easy to kind of fall into a rep versus routine.
You do the rep thing, you show up and kind of go through the motions. You play catch, or you take batting practice, whatever it might be. You actually physically do the practice, but you might not have definitive points that you’re working on or things you’re trying to get out of it. You might not necessarily be challenging yourself at practice. I thought I fell victim to that a little bit. I fell victim to potentially practicing some mechanical adjustments that weren’t quite right for my body, and for how I pitch in my game as a pitcher. So, over the course of time, failure definitely teaches you a lesson; it’s whether or not you want to listen to it.
When I actually had the surgery, and had to sit there on the sidelines, it really gave me nothing but time to think about all the things I’ve practiced, all the things I’ve done, the approaches to the game that I had taken, and really narrow down what was really working and what really wasn’t. I felt like I was able to sit down and craft a new approach for when I finally got healthy and was able to get back out there. So far, it’s been a much more efficient and a much more manageable process for the day-to-day grind.
What’s the biggest appreciation you have for the game now that you maybe didn’t have before?
Weickel: Just the fun that comes with playing baseball. I think a lot of guys, when you get into pro ball, it immediately becomes this business. There’s obviously that aspect to it, but it’s a game.
If you can’t get joy out of showing up to the baseball field and playing the game and putting on a uniform and getting excited about fireworks and pitching in front of fans, just the camaraderie with the guys in the clubhouse, or the jokes, or being around batting practice, the competition on the field and the childish fun that you get from this game, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not getting the full value of the game. Coming back and getting a second chance, it’s definitely been a lot more enjoyable and a lot more fun playing.
What was the bigger reality check, getting released or having the Tommy John surgery?
Weickel: I would definitely say Tommy John. Like I said, baseball is a business. At the end of the day, teams they have plans and you can’t take it personal. It is what it is.
For the injury, that was something I could control. I could really buy into my rehab and buy into my time down and get something out of it, or I could just go through the motions. When I had the surgery, my mentality towards a lot of things, not just baseball, but my approach in general of how things could change unexpectedly. It really kind of gave me more of an appreciation for game activities, to interactions, friendships, time available with family and friends, and time to work.
I feel like that really was to me was the greatest challenge and greatest test of my willpower and my dedication to the game, to sit through all the rehabs, to sit through maybe the minor setbacks and discomforts and negative thoughts during the rehab process and come out victorious on the other side.
Tell me about the Rangers contact and how that all came together.
Weickel: I was let go the last week of spring training. I had some calls out and was looking to see if any teams had any interest. It’s a tough time right then and there because a lot of teams are looking to finalize rosters and it’s tough to make additions.
I actually went home for a couple of weeks and never once had a doubt that I was going to be out of baseball. I felt like that after all the work that I had put in rehab and the work I had done to come back and prove myself – and I felt like I was at a stronger point than in my previous years before surgery. So I was able to actually get home and work a little bit and continued throwing bullpens, and stay sharp and stay strong.
I was able to finalize a workout with the Rangers scout back home. It was great because immediately he was excited and pumped and full of enthusiasm. To see that from the team really made me excited that they would give me an opportunity. When things finalized and came together, I was able to get out to Phoenix and join the club at extended spring for a couple of weeks and get my feet wet and adjusted to the organization. It was just all positives from the get go.
I feel like I was able to jump right in and continue my work and continue getting better with the coaching staff and the training staff down there, and really get a strong foothold into getting myself ready to come here and give the Crawdads a shot at winning some ballgames.
When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?
Weickel: I can’t imagine. I really can’t imagine it. It would definitely be surreal. I honestly don’t even know what I would say on the phone to my parents, or my girlfriend or my parents or anyone. I guess it’s going to have to be an in-the-moment experience.
But, I got carried away early in my career trying to think too far into my future. And now, I think about the next hour, the next two hours, the ballgame that night, and then go to sleep and wake up and try to do it all again tomorrow. I pitch from inning-to-inning, start-to-start and then go from there and try not to get too ahead of myself.
You have you, you have (Matt) Smoral, who was a former first-round pick with the Blue Jays who’s come here. You’ve got (Michael) Matuella, who was going to be a potential first-round pick, but then had the Tommy John and dropped to third. You’ve got (Jake) Lemoine, who battled injuries. Do you guys trade stories, in the sense that you have similar experiences?
Weickel: Yeah, it’s actually kind of funny, because all four of us are roommates. I feel like between the four of us, we definitely have a collection of experience and knowledge in just about every aspect, in terms of struggles and triumphs and things going not the way we’d planned for them to go. But, I’ll tell you what, I’ve never met a more positive group of guys. Guys that are willing to come out and give everything that they have each and every day, for their hunger to be better each and every time on the mound.
And that goes for the whole team. I think it’s exemplified in some of our performances this second half. They’ve really bought into the process. We have a fantastic team here – the pitching staff and the infield and outfield. It’s impressive.
If you get here during b.p. and watch some of the batting practice that goes on and some of the infield work, flashes of it are here in the game, but there’s some serious talent on this team. It’s enjoyable to pitch and to have solid defense behind me – guys that are going to bust their butts and do whatever it takes to win a ballgame. Our bullpen and coaching staff wants the exact same thing. So, it’s really refreshing being here with a winning team and a winning environment and a winning organization.