Through three games this spring, the most impressive hitter has been Zach Walters. Sure, he has received more playing time than others and it is early, but Walters has looked strong at the plate and in the field throughout camp. He is 5 for 5 with two doubles and a triple, and has made the routine and the tough plays at shortstop and third base. And with the last few spots on the Nationals bench still unclear, Walters, perhaps a dark horse candidate, is impressing.
Asked what has stood out about 24-year-old Walters to him this spring, Manager Matt Williams said everything: “He’s doing everything that he’s asked to do and swinging it from both sides of the plate and playing great defense. Couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Hitting coach Rick Schu also singled out Walters as a hitter that has impressed him.
“He’s been really loud,” Schu said. “Swinging the ball good from both sides. Good placement and really aggressive on fastballs in the zone. And making some loud sounds. He’s had really good BPs since he’s been here and he’s taken it into the game.”
Last spring, former Nationals Manager Davey Johnson challenged Walters, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound infielder, to improve his power. And in 134 games at Class AAA Syracuse, Walters led the International League with 29 homers. He earned a September call-up last season and notched three hits in eight major league at-bats, including a triple.
“For Davey to say that, I took that chip on my shoulder and kind of ran with that last year,” Walters said. “That was my main focus. Now I’ve got Matt who’s got a different dynamic that, I’ve heard him talking about hitting for average, being a little more simple, playing the game more simple. And that’s something I’m trying to focus on.”
And Walters can certainly improve in that area. He posted a .253/.286/.517 triple slash line and struck out 134 times.
“He has power and has always had power,” Schu said. “He needs plate discipline and needs to understand what he’s gotta do to have success. When he gets a ball over the plate, he’s going to do his damage.”
Earlier in spring, Williams also challenged Walters to improve his defense. Walters is known for his strong arm — Baseball America rated him as the best infield arm in the Nationals’s minor leagues — but he committed 31 errors in 104 games at shortstop last season and seven in 27 games at third base. Williams asked Walters recently what he thinks about when he is out in the field on defense, and he admitted it was offense.
“(Williams) said, ‘I just want to see you extend yourself in that area, make the routine play, start being a consistent fielder,'” Walters recalled. “So I took that to heart. Like Davey, now it’s Matt.”
And with all the defensive drills the Nationals have taken in the past few weeks of camp and before games, there has been plenty of opportunity for Walters to fine-tune his defense.
“I don’t know if it’s improved, I just know that I’m getting worn out with groundballs,” deadpanned Walters. “You’ve got early work, you’ve got in-between work, then you’ve got groundballs, then you’ve got late work. I’m like, ‘How many different works are there?’ But just reps is the main thing there.”
Walters has known Williams longer than most in the Nationals spring clubhouse. He played baseball at the University of San Diego, where he was roommates with Nationals pitching prospect Sammy Solis. Williams’s son, Jake, was also on the team and Walters would see the future Nationals manager at games.
“Rumor has it he’s the one who told the Diamondbacks to draft me (in 2010),” Walters said. “He saw me every day. So I knew the Williams family for a while and when I went to the Diamondbacks, I had Matty breathing down my neck.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Win the first inning and keep that momentum.”
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY