In 2016, as the Blue Jays came out of their first playoff appearance in decades, Walker was in the midst of his second full season with the Seattle Mariners. At the end of the year, when Toronto visited Seattle, so many Jays fans flocked to Safeco Field that it became a de facto home game for the visitors.
“It was all Blue Jays fans,” Walker recalls in a recent interview. “I remember being booed for choosing my home stadium. It was so strong. I’m like, ‘OK, these fans take me like that in my park?’ ”
Four years later, it’s still Walker’s most vivid memory of Blue Jays fans. Even though he spent the second half of the 2020 season with the Jays, they have played their home games in Buffalo this year and no fans were able to attend. Still, he describes his virtual interactions with Blue Jays fans as “incredible” and says he enjoyed his brief time with the team.
After a season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts split between Seattle and Toronto, Walker is now officially a free agent. At 28, he’s younger than most free agents, and having recently immersed himself in the world of pitch analysis, he believes more work on this front can unlock more potential.
With all of that in mind, Walker will be in high demand once the quiet period ends after the World Series. The Blue Jays could use it, as could a long list of other teams. As such, there is certainly no guarantee of a reunion, but after a pleasant end to the season, Walker is intrigued by the possibility.
“Look, the team is really good,” he said from his off-season home in Arizona. “They’re gonna be good for a long time, man. I immediately connected with everyone. I had a great time and obviously I was successful there. Being in Buffalo they did a great job making us feel comfortable in Buffalo and I heard Toronto is 20 times better than that. So myself being in Buffalo, I can’t imagine what Toronto is like.
“They have a very good staff, coaches, training staff,” he continued. “For me, it’s all about comfort and being human. Being connected and having this family, and that’s what it feels like.
Early in the morning of August 27, when Walker first learned that the Blue Jays had acquired him in Seattle, he wasn’t exactly surprised after weeks of rumors, but he felt a burst of excitement at the prospect of joining a possibly managed team. for the playoffs (the New York Yankees were also said to have shown interest in Walker this summer before the Blue Jays acquired him).
At the same time, it was an adjustment. For most of Walker’s career, he competed without giving much thought to the analysis and advanced training techniques that were gaining prominence throughout the sport. A former first-round pick, he’s burst into the league throwing 95 mph, so it’s not like his business is running out.
But after Tommy John’s surgery cost him most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Walker intended to get the most out of his six-foot-four, 235-pound frame, so he toured the training facilities. from Driveline last winter to familiarize yourself with the latest news. technology and develop a more focused off-season plan.
“Now everyone is using it and you have to join the party,” he said. “You must take advantage of it.”
After learning more about slo-mo cameras and spin rates at Driveline, Walker set to work on a slider with more depth, a new double-stitched fastball, and an improved version of his curveball. He continued this work in Spring Training 2.0, but after the exchange in Toronto there was a little less room for experimentation.
First, Walker was going from a six-to-one rotation to a five-man setup, so there was less time to work on new ground between starts. And with the Blue Jays competing for a playoff berth, Walker chose to go with what he knew rather than try new pitches in big places. Still, after working with pitching coach Pete Walker and relieving box coach Matt Buschmann, Walker believes there is room for growth as he works more closely with emerging baseball technology.
“A month and a half isn’t a lot of time to really focus on all of this, so I feel like I can do a lot more to unlock my full potential. (The Blue Jays) have so much technology and so many resources that I would love to go back and dive into that with them, ”he said. “Because they’re so smart. They know what they are talking about. I think it would be great to have a full offseason with them or even spring practice just to put it all together.
Beginning Sunday at 5:01 p.m. ET, Walker, Matt Shoemaker and Robbie Ray will be officially free to sign with any team, creating a hole in Toronto’s rotation. Since the end of the season, Pete Walker and general manager Ross Atkins have said they are ready to bring one or more of these pitchers back in 2021. Somehow this team definitely needs more. launches.
Ideally, Walker would sign relatively early in the offseason and soon begin a winter plan geared towards 2021. But regardless of the timing, he’s “excited” to be a free agent again. And who knows, maybe he’ll finally get the chance to play in front of those Toronto fans who booed him at Safeco in 2016. If the end of that last season is any indication, that relationship is now moving in the right direction. .
“It’s rare,” he says. “I felt like I had zero negativity from all of the fans in Canada. All the fans were super positive. They are all awesome. I think playing in Toronto would probably be even better.