In 2016, when the Blue Jays were coming off their first playoff appearance in decades, Walker was in the midst of his second full season with the Seattle Mariners. Late that 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 recalled in a recent interview. “I remember getting booed for picking off in my home stadium. It was so loud. I’m like, ‘OK, these fans are getting on me like that in my home park?’”
Four years later, that’s still the most vivid memory Walker has of Blue Jays fans. Even though he spent the second half of the 2020 season with the Jays, they 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 "amazing" and says he enjoyed his brief time with the team.
After a season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA over 11 starts split between Seattle and Toronto, Walker’s now officially a free agent. At 28 years old, he’s younger than most free agents, and having recently plunged into the world of pitching analytics, he believes more work on that front can untap further potential.
With all of that in mind, Walker will be in high demand once the quiet period ends following the World Series. The Blue Jays could use him, and so could a long list of other teams. As such, there’s certainly no guarantee of a reunion, but after an enjoyable finish 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 going to be good for a long time, man. Right away I connected with everyone. I had a good time and, obviously, I had success there. Being in Buffalo, they did such a great job of making us comfortable in Buffalo and I heard that Toronto was 20 times better than that. So myself being in Buffalo, I can’t imagine what Toronto’s like.
“They have really good staff, coaches, training staff,” he continued. “For me, it’s all about comfort and people. Being connected and having that family, and that’s what it felt like.”
Early on the morning of Aug. 27, when Walker first heard that the Blue Jays had acquired him from Seattle, he wasn’t exactly surprised after weeks of rumours, but he felt a jolt of excitement at the prospect of joining a team likely headed for the playoffs (the New York Yankees are also believed 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 analytics and advanced training techniques that were gaining prominence throughout the sport. A former first-round pick, he broke into the league throwing 95 m.p.h., so it’s not like his stuff was lacking.
But after Tommy John surgery cost him most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Walker was intent on getting the most out of his six-foot-four, 235-pound frame, so he visited Driveline’s training facilities last winter to familiarize himself with the latest technology and develop a more purposeful off-season plan.
“Now everyone uses it and you have to join the party,” he said. “You have to 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 two-seam fastball and an improved version of his curveball. He carried that work forward into Spring Training 2.0, but after the trade to Toronto, there was a little less room for experimentation.
First of all, Walker was going from a six-man rotation to a five-man setup, so there was less time to work on new pitches between starts. And with the Blue Jays competing for a playoff spot, Walker chose to go with what he knew rather than trying new pitches in big spots. Still, after working with pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, Walker believes there’s room for growth as he works more closely with baseball’s emerging tech.
“A month and a half is not a lot of time to really focus on all of that stuff, so I feel like there’s just a lot more that I can do 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’re talking about. I think it’d be awesome just to have a full off-season with them or even spring training just to dial all that in.”
As of Sunday at 5:01 pm ET, Walker, Matt Shoemaker and Robbie Ray will officially be free to sign with any team, creating a hole in the Toronto rotation. Since the season has ended, both Pete Walker and GM Ross Atkins have said they’re open to bringing one or more of those pitchers back in 2021. One way or another, this team certainly needs more pitching.
Ideally, Walker would sign relatively early in the off-season and start soon on a winter plan geared toward 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 back in 2016. If the end of this past season is any indication, that relationship is now trending in the right direction.
“It’s rare,” he said. “I felt like I had no negativity from all the fans in Canada. All the fans were super positive. They’re all awesome. I think playing in Toronto, it’d probably be even better.”