Modesto, Calif. —— Last summer, when Donnie Walton was away from his Modesto Nuts teammates and busy rehabbing a broken hand back at the Seattle Mariners complex in Peoria, Arizona, he decided to make a major change to his career: it was time to stop switch hitting.
The Dallas native didn’t come to the decision lightly. Walton had switch hit nearly his entire life, first learning the craft from his father before eventually attracting the attention of scouts when he flourished from both sides at Oklahoma State University. The middle infielder even enjoyed some success doing double-duty in the pro ranks after the Seattle Mariners selected him in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft, quickly earning high marks from the organization for his versatility there and across the infield.
But deep down, by the middle of his first full season last summer in Modesto, Walton knew he had more offensive production within him than he’d thus far shown in pro ball. The Seattle Mariners did, too. And after a few conversations within the organization — and back at home, with his dad — Donnie Walton decided to drop his right-handed swing and focus on just one side of the plate for the first time since childhood. By the time he finished rehabbing the broken hand and returned to the California League for the Nuts’ championship run at the end of last season, he was just a left-handed hitter.
“It really came down to the fact that I can do more damage from the left side,” Walton told me before a Nuts game ahead of his promotion yesterday to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. “I talked a lot with the head guys here [with the Seattle Mariners], and they thought I might take off if I stuck with the left side. And I went to my dad with that — that’s who I really go to, my father — and we decided to try it out. So when I was rehabbing the broken hand, I saw as much left-on-left as I could. I would stand in for bullpens and things like that, which helped a lot. And then it went pretty well in the second half last year.”
Fully healthy again now and buoyed by a strong offseason workout regimen heading into this season, Donnie Walton has proved himself—and the Seattle Mariners—right in his decision to focus only on the left side. Before his promotion to Arkansas this week, Walton was lighting up High-A to the tune of a .309/.402/.433/.835 slash line in 57 games with Modesto, ranking seventh in the Cal League in hitting and fifth in on-base percentage at the time of his departure. Further, in 256 plate appearances this summer, Walton cut his strikeout rate to 14.5% (it had been 18.0% in Modesto a year ago), while walking at an 11.7% clip (compared to 9.9% last summer).
Seeing the ball better, he’s now up for a new challenge in the Double-A Texas League — and he’ll stick with what’s been working.
“I do miss switch hitting, but it’s definitely less stressful just thinking about one swing,” he admitted, laughing. “Getting into pro ball, it had started to become tougher to really get both swings down before games. And I know, plenty of guys have done it, but this is working right now, so I think I’ll stick with it.”
It’s a little ironic to lead off with Donnie Walton’s offensive approach, if only because his carrying tool into pro ball has thus far been his glove. Ask teammates or opponents about the middle infield prospect, and everyone is quick to talk about Walton’s ability to change games at shortstop more so than at the plate. As important as his offensive changes have been, then, it’ll most likely be Walton’s glove that gets him to the big leagues—and helps him stick there.
“He’s one of the best infielders that I’ve ever played with, and that’s from high school, college, pro ball, any level,” fellow Seattle Mariners farmhand Logan Taylor told me when we spoke earlier this season during a Modesto road trip down to Lancaster.
A little skeptical over that being nothing more than an overly nice filler quote about a teammate, I pointed out to Taylor that his background playing in the Southeastern Conference with Texas A&M surely must have exposed him to some other exceptional young infielders—and yet Donnie Walton really still makes that list?
“Yeah, I saw some great ones, and he’s among the best,” Taylor doubled down. “Period. I really believe that. He’s got a cannon, and he’s really valuable that he can play anywhere on the infield at a high level. He knows the game well too, so it’s fun to practice with him and watch him prepare for the game every day.”
Collin Theroux knows Donnie Walton better than most people, having played with him at Oklahoma State before Theroux was drafted by the Oakland Athletics. This summer, the catcher and the former switch-hitter faced off against each other every time Modesto played Theroux’s Stockton Ports — and Collin was sad to see his friend leave the Cal League this week when Walton’s promotion to Arkansas became official.
“I know this is a crazy thing to say, but in my eyes, he’s Derek Jeter,” Theroux told me about Walton last month before a Ports game in Rancho Cucamonga. “He’s the captain. He’s vocal, he’s intense, he’s the most competitive, and those aspects alone are impressive enough, but then he’s also got the range, and the arm, and the game plan, and the instincts to play shortstop. I saw it at Oklahoma State, and then I really saw it when we played against him here [with Stockton].”
“You know, it’s different seeing that as an opponent,” Theroux added, starting to smile. “I came up to the plate one time last month and I smashed a ball right at him. He’s shaded in the six-hole for it because he knows I’m a pull hitter, and he fields this rope one-hopper and turns a double play on me. Anybody else, that’s a base hit. But he remembers everything about every hitter, and he knew me well enough to play me right. That’s who he is, that’s the kind of stuff he brings to the table. It’s not just the tools, it’s the other stuff that makes him such a great player.”
Come to think of it, after that story, maybe Theroux isn’t so sad about his friend getting promoted out of Modesto after all.
But if Taylor and Theroux are the hype men for Donnie Walton, certain he’s a future big league shortstop and ready to tell the world about it, the Seattle Mariners prospect himself downplays his glove work. Unassuming and quiet, Walton shrugged off his well-earned reputation as a defensive whiz, instead citing his upbringing and work ethic as his most marketable skills.
“I think it helped that I played multiple positions growing up,” Walton offered about his advanced defensive feel. “I was at third, short, or second, so I was familiar with each one. In college, I played second in my first year, and the next couple years I was at short, so I became well aware of what I needed to do at each one. And then when I got drafted, they told me I’d mostly be at second and short, but not to be surprised if I spent some time at third.”
Walton took a beat, and laughed again.
“I’ve taken a lot of ground balls in my day,” the 24-year-old said, dryly. “But you have to do that, you have to take as many [ground balls] as possible, because they more you get, the more routine it’s going to feel, and I have to keep with my routine.”
Theroux can confirm those routine-driven tendencies.
“We roomed together this offseason, and we trained together, hit together, did everything together,” Theroux said. “And it’s just… man, it’s every rep, whether it’s in the weight room or the cage or whatever, that guy gives every ounce of what he’s got. That’s just how he runs. He runs at 110 percent all the time, and he knows himself really well. And when you put that with his athleticism and his competitiveness, it just takes over.”
So where does that leave Donnie Walton, then? Do the Seattle Mariners have an underrated prospect on their hands here — maybe even a shortstop of the future destined to over-achieve beyond the utility man assumptions made convenient by his versatile defensive past? Can his new offensive approach further push him towards being productive enough to play in an everyday capacity in the big leagues?
“I can’t obviously tell you what the Mariners think about him,” Theroux said, “but for me, there’s no question that guy is a shortstop. I really think he’s a shortstop.”
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