Winston-Salem isn’t currently home to the sheer volume of top prospects as it was last year, but there are three players currently with the team who seem primed to succeed potentially all the way to the major leagues.
These are, of course, Andrew Vaughn, Jonathan Stiever, and Steele Walker. Stiever led off in a three-part series talking to each of the Winston-Salem prospects. Vaughn was up next. Now it's Steele Walker's turn.
Walker, last year’s second rounder, takes care of the outfield, manning center and hitting doubles (33 total so far this year).
Walker turned 23 on July 30, a day in which he went 3-for-4, including two doubles, but not including a home run that landed fair but was called foul by the umps.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “it taught me really to be able to let go of an at-bat and move onto the next day. That’s something I had to drive home, man. You feel like it’s not fair or whatnot, but it’s part of the game.”
Walker is wearing a bright red headband around his hair and is demolishing a banana as we speak in the dugout. He talks about the triple he hit the night before.
“As a baserunner, you wanna hit first as fast as you can and have a lot of momentum going into second and you never know if you’re going to get three, but I saw it kick past him," Walker said. "I didn’t even need Jirsch [manager/third base coach Justin Jirschele], I didn’t need to look at him. It’s good to peek while you’re running bases, you know, I just knew I was going three the whole time.”
— Julie Brady (@DestroyBaseball) August 2, 2019
And he had fun doing it. Walker’s style of play is expressive and the joy with which he plays is evident.
“The spirit of the Lord is definitely a spirit of joy,” he said without hesitation. "And in a game like baseball, sometimes it’s hard to keep your joy. You know, the system, and this game wants to take all that away. But it’s almost sometimes a fight to keep it. But it’s definitely a style of play that I want to continue throughout my whole career.”
It’s been a good season for Walker, who’s batting .285/.361/.439 in 87 games with the Dash and .300/.376/.465 on the year overall. It took a couple of weeks right after his promotion from Kannapolis to get comfortable at the plate, and then he was absolutely locked in for at least a month. After a slight July slump, the bat’s been roaring back.
“It’s the ebbs and flows of the season,” he said. "I know what I can do, I know what I’m capable of, it’s just that… Gelly, our hitting coordinator, was here and it’s all about creating that same feel, that same tempo, every game. And that’s honestly what I worked on the last like several days, you know, it’s given me some success. Just trying to get to the same place every day. It puts me in the best position to have success at seven o’clock, you know?
“[W]hen you play so much, it’s hard to not ebb and flow. Even the very best do it. But the key is to get out of it, be able to get out of that hole and press forward and take it to the next game. But also a lot of the minor leagues is all about learning to be consistent.”
Like Stiever, Walker extols the importance of routine, and also what he’s been doing personally.
"I actually have tried to be more calm and more focused in the box, especially recently," Walker said. "I think that’s helped me.”
We get to the topic of doubles and power.
“I think you have about seven home runs—“ I start, before Walker corrects me: “Eight,” he says. “Really nine! But we’ll say eight.”
He talks about translating his 33 doubles this year into home runs.
"It’s just about driving the ball," Walker said. "If I hit a back side double, the worst thing you can do is the next day try to hit a pull side home run. Your swing’s in the right place, the home runs happen. The home runs, if you have enough power, my swing, the home runs will happen. Especially if the doubles are happening.”
Like the other two, Walker is conscious of the Sox rebuild and the fervor around it.
“It feels good!” he said about being on the verge of catching up to the rebuild core in Double- and Triple-A. “I’m in a process, and they have a plan.
"I don’t know how things will turn out, I genuinely don’t, and it’s not my job to worry about that. It’s just me right now being in the minor leagues, no matter what level, trying to be as consistent as I can. I know the ability’s there, I know the potential’s there, it’s just being consistent with it, and they’ll make the decision, they’ll make the moves they want to make.”
The struggles of that core in Birmingham are troubling, but Walker isn’t letting that keep him up at night when he considers his own promotion.
“[B]aseball presents challenges, new challenges every day, and I don’t know, I think moving up is one of the challenges that I’ve kind of learned to welcome with open arms, welcome the new stadiums, welcome the new fans, different community to play for, all that stuff is cool," Walker said. "I like embracing that kind of thing and eventually becoming an impact player for whatever team. That’s something that I look forward to.”
He’s looking forward to contributing in Chicago, not just to the team, but to the community.
"Give back, just become more one with the community, you know," he said. "And just, I like being able to show people that baseball players are normal people.”
Part of the lore of Walker’s minor league career will always include the cycle he hit for on June 14. He points out that it was actually a perfect reverse cycle.
"That was a special night," Walker said. "It was crazy, I went backwards, it went home run, triple, double, single. Usually it’s not like that! But yeah, that was a cool night, it was actually against the Mudcats at their place. But you know, you gotta have a little bit of luck and you’ve gotta be seeing the ball well and yeah, it worked out. It was a cool moment for me.”
I mention that last night’s triple made me think of it.
"It actually crossed through my mind,” Walker said. "But I feel like if it crosses your mind, it’s not going to happen, you know what I’m saying?”
My final line of questioning — asking about Walker’s Spanish-language walk-up song — is briefly interrupted by Bernardo Flores, in town for a few days on a rehab assignment, who warmly greets Walker.
“I think my walkups got rejected like three or four times,” Walker says after sitting back down, and laughs. "I was just like, you know what, I’m kind of done dealing with this whole rejection thing, I’m just going to go Latino, because nobody knows what they’re saying, including me.”
His first choice?
"I had a Justin Bieber in there, I had a Justin Timberlake in there, yeah, but I wasn’t vibing them," Walker said. "I wasn’t vibing them. So I switched it up."
Walker was batting around .350 in his last 10 games played at the time of this interview (something that has not significantly changed) and says that sometimes things just fall your way as a batter.
“[T]he night of my birthday, it was a pumpkin, everything is in slow motion," he said. "But the day after, it wasn’t, I had to battle, I had to fight, they threw some lefties, they threw a sidearmer down low and that’s the challenge of the game.
“[I]f the same pitchers would have pitched on my birthday, would have pitched the next day, I probably would have seen a beach ball, you know. But that’s not how this game works. It’s a lot of curveballs, a lot of changeups, in many different ways, so that’s the challenge, the best are able to do that consistently. And those are the ones who play a long time."