Walker Lockett pitches for the El Paso Chihuahuas vs the Oklahoma Dodgers in game 1 of the Pacific Coast League Championship Series at Southwest University Park, Tuesday, September 13, 2016, in El Paso, Texas.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Ivan Pierre Aguirre for the El P
Coming into the 2016 season, Walker Lockett’s future was not at all certain.
A fourth-round pick out of high school in 2012, the big righty with a power sinker had logged only 100 total innings in the previous three years, and had finished the 2015 campaign back in the Arizona League following a curfew violation in Tri-City.
With a collection of young arms coming behind him, if he wasn’t ready to claim a rotation spot in Low-AFort Wayne, a full season club, out of spring training, there might not be a place for Lockett in the organization.
But the Jacksonville native had a strong camp and was the TinCaps’ opening day starter. He threw five scoreless innings to open the year, and never really looked back.
By mid-May, he was promoted to High-A Lake Elsinore, where he was hit hard in his first game, but then turned in ten impressive starts. That earned him a ticket to Double-A San Antonio, and after six starts with the Missions, he joined Triple-A El Paso for their final playoff push in late August.
From Peoria to El Paso in just under 12 months.
Across those levels, Lockett put together a 2.96 combined ERA with an impressive 124:24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 164 innings. In the upper minors he was even better, posting a 2.90 ERA and only allowing four walks among 58 total baserunners in 52.2 frames.
In all, the performance was enough to be earn him recognition as our MadFriars 2016 Pitcher of Year.
We talked with Walker about the improbable run.
MadFriars: We talked just about a year ago, and I think it’s safe to say things have changed just a bit since then. Can you talk to us about what it means for you to have gone from where you ended the 2015 season to where things sit today?
Walker Lockett: It’s really cliche, but things just started to click for me. Once I was able to get on a roll, the rest is history. I’m the kind of person that once I can find the right place and I can just be comfortable and go out there and do my duty, that helps me. I finished up, I feel like, pretty well the year before, but there was that up-and-down rollercoaster thing, and this season I was able to keep it even keel and keep it more consistent.
Was there any carry-over from the incident that got you sent down last summer?
Walker Lockett: That was in the past after it happened, to be honest with you. I talked to those guys and I wanted to make sure that they knew I was ready to hit the ground running and put that behind me.
In 2015, you opened with a strong start in Fort Wayne, and then things went sideways for you. So after you went out with that great opening day performance this year, how did you build on it start-to-start?
Walker Lockett: It’s always — especially having those years before when I’d have a good start or two and then things would start to go south — that’s always in the back of your head. But I think just growing up and being more mature, I was able to not really worry about that. And once I was able to put together a couple of good, quality starts, I just kept it going.
Anything in particular Fort Wayne pitching coach Burt Hooton asked you to focus on as you went back out to him?
Walker Lockett: It was just trusting my stuff. He told me early on that [I] have the stuff to skip levels. I remember one afternoon after a good bullpen, he said, ‘if you translate that into games on a consistent basis, you’ll skip High-A and go to Double-A, and you’ll do well there.’ I think that was one of the bigger things â when I started to believe it, it started to transpire in games.
Last year, you worked your four-seam back in more. As you work with both more evenly now, where are you with your velocity.
Walker Lockett: The last game, I hit 95. But anywhere from 90 to 94, 95. Especially with the sinker, when I start to ramp that up and throw it harder, it flattens out. But throughout the year, I maintained velocity pretty well. I actually started, in the first couple games at Fort Wayne, I was 89 to 91, but once I got things going, it picked up a little bit.
When you got out to LakeElsinore, a higher level in a much bigger offense environment, you started putting up even better numbers. I’d assume that had to be a big confidence boost?
Walker Lockett: No doubt. That jump between the Midwest League and California League, everyone knows it’s hard for pitchers because the ball flies. I talked to a couple of other pitchers when we got there, and you can’t really buy into that to be honest. You’re going to give up some cheap home runs, but I think it’s just not even buying into it. When I made that jump, I was a little nervous, but after that when I started moving up, honestly, the nerves were there a little bit, but it wasn’t too drastic.
As you look back at the season, anything that stands out as a piece that you really took out of your time at LakeElsinore in particular.
Walker Lockett: I try to pick up at least one or two things from each coach. [Glendon Rusch at Lake Elsinore] helped me â my sinker was working, and he said [I] don’t have to try to be too fine with it all the time. We’re trying to pitch to both sides of the plate with it and hit our spots, but he said, as long as you can keep it down, you’re going to get a lot of groundballs. I think it was just about attacking hitters and not giving in and not being too fine.
People talk about the jump from High-A to Double-A as the biggest in the minors, and yet, you went in a short time from Fort Wayne to San Antonio â and just blew through. What did you take away from that success?
Walker Lockett: Things really didn’t change for me that much. Obviously, I was going up against better competition, and my first outing I pitched really well through four innings, and then I had one inning when I gave up three on a couple of home runs. It was really just trusting it, and I just continued to do what I do and stick to the same game plan of attacking hitters and trying to get quick outs.
I’d think that trying to hone how you work back and forth between the sinker and four-seam, incorporate in the slider and use the change more, and do all of it while going through multiple levels and all the changes this year, that would be a lot to try to integrate all at once?
Walker Lockett: It’s funny, the slider actually turned into a curveball this year. I’d watch video with some of my buddies, and the velocity would be around 79 to 81, and it was like â that’s turning into a curve. So when I got to Double-A, I was talking to [pitching coach Jimmy Johnson] and I said ‘I need a slider, man, and I used to be able to throw a good one.’ So I worked on that with him and got a pretty good grip, and started playing around with it at the Double-A level â I guess you’ve got to start again somewhere. The slider, toward the end of the year, it was flashing pretty good, but that’s something I need to work on. But the curveball was pretty effective.
Was it just a change in feel for you?
Walker Lockett: It was just coming out of my hand different. This year, I really found my arm angle. Before, I would really try to manipulate my change or manipulate the sinker, but I think this year, I was pretty consistent with keeping that arm slot, and that really turned it into a curve.
You finished with a few appearances at El Paso. What did it mean for you to know that, a year ago the organization was sending you back out to the Peoria complex, and now they’re sending you into a pennant chase at Triple-A?
Walker Lockett: That was huge. It was the cherry on top for the season. Like I said, when all that happened, we squashed it, but you never know going into spring training the next year to see where you’re at. That was a huge confidence booster â that they felt I could get the job done up there, in that type of atmosphere. We were all-in on winning that thing up there, and for them to have the confidence in me that I could go out there and help the team win was awesome.
Coming into the year, it wasn’t at all clear where you might fit in the organization. And then you went out and put together a stellar year from beginning to end. What does the success of this year mean for you?
Walker Lockett: I had a goal this year that I wanted to end up in Double-A. You know, it was time to put up or shut up, and really get this thing going. It’s just a big motivator, ending up in Triple-A. It’s an eye-opener. It makes you more motivated and want to work even harder.