School still in session for Angels' young closer
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Reliever LaTroy Hawkins, a recent addition to the Los Angeles Angels, has a role model in mind for his new closer.
Jordan Walden, meet John Axford.
“I’m looking for Walden to do the type of things that Axford did last year,” Hawkins says, referring to Axford’s success with the Milwaukee Brewers. “He’s got the stuff to do it.”
Walden, though, tied for the major league lead with 10 blown saves as a rookie, and some view him as a weak link on a team loaded with offense and starting pitching.
Don’t be so sure.
From talking to Walden and his two new mentors, Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, it’s clear that the second-year closer is taking the proper steps to become elite.
Walden, 24, did many good things last season, earning 32 saves, striking out more than a batter per inning, finishing with a 2.98 ERA.
He had the fastest average fastball in the American League — 97.5 mph. And he actually performed well under pressure, striking out 27 percent of his hitters overall, 33 percent with a runner on base and 40 percent with a runner on third, according to Baseball Prospectus.
As Walden describes it, the whole thing was a whirlwind. When he talks about his season, he doesn’t reflect upon the highs or lows. He just talks about the novelty of it all.
“Lot of learning,” says Walden, the Angels’ 12th-round pick out of Mansfield (Texas) High School in 2006. “It was my first year in the league. You’ve got to go to a lot of clubhouses and stadiums for the first time.
“It was just learning. Learning hitters, knowing hitters. Just a great learning experience. Now I know what it takes.”
And he’s putting his knowledge to use.
Walden faded after making the All-Star team, his ERA rising from 2.84 in the first half to 3.22 in the second. So he hired a personal trainer in the offseason and worked out with him three to four times a week.
Equally important, Walden is refining his mental approach, speaking with Hawkins and Isringhausen this spring about their preparations, their routines, everything.
The Angels signed both veterans as free agents, agreeing with Hawkins on a one-year, $3 million deal and Isringhausen on a minor-league contract that reportedly will be worth at least $700,000 if he makes the club.
Hawkins, 39, is entering his 18th season. Isringhausen, 39, is entering his 16th. A third Angels reliever, left-hander Scott Downs, 35, is entering his 11th.
“There are some years right there,” Walden says, smiling. “I’m trying to learn things, all kinds of things that they’ve done that have worked for them.
“When do you come out (to the bullpen)? When do you stretch? Every one of them is different. It’s kind of cool to hear what each one of them did.
“I’m picking their brains every day.”
And, in a sport in which young players sometimes think they know all the answers, the veterans appreciate Walden’s curiosity.
“He listens to everything and tries to use it,'' Isringhausen says. "It’s easier to listen than do it. But that’s why we’re in spring training.”
The main thing Isringhausen wants Walden to do is slow down; Walden works so quickly, even in bullpen sessions, “it’s like rapid fire,” Isringhausen says.
Isringhausen also is trying to teach Walden the importance of a routine, explaining that a pitcher controls everything in his day until the moment he releases the ball.
For Walden, so much of this is new.
He was a late-season callup in 2010, then became the Angels’ closer in '11 after right-hander Fernando Rodney faltered less than one week into the season. Really, Walden is still a baby.
Thus, Hawkins knows he’s asking a lot when he talks about Walden following the path of Axford, who led the NL in save percentage in his first full season a year ago, converting 46 of 48 opportunities with a 1.95 ERA.
Axford, 28, is a good bit older than Walden, and far more experienced in the game’s ways. “Ax” attended Notre Dame and then Canisius, underwent Tommy John surgery, pitched in an independent league before signing a minor league deal with the New York Yankees — and getting released.
“The difference between them is that Axford is mature,” Hawkins says. “It helps that he is a couple of years older. People say, ‘No,’ but it helps.
“He’s one of those guys as a rookie you didn’t have to worry about. I’m not saying we have to worry about Jordan, but we have to get him to that level.”
So the education of Walden continues, right down to the smallest of details.
“When we’re doing our drills, I want him to go last,” Hawkins says. “I want him to always be the last guy out there.”
“Because when he goes out there and does his job, gets the last three outs, he’ll be the last guy out there,” Hawkins adds, as if there is any question.
The Angels expect that will happen more often that not. They view their bullpen not as a looming weakness, but a potential strength, particularly since their starters figure to pitch deep into games.
Right-hander Kevin Jepsen looks ready to contribute again coming off knee surgery. Hawkins and Isringhausen are expected to play major roles from the right side. Downs will be the principal lefty, and a number of younger, hard-throwing candidates are in the mix.
Then there is Walden.
“You can focus on some of the negatives, but he threw the ball very well for us last year,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia says. “He’s carrying some confidence. He feels like he’s ready to get after the role he wants as a closer. He’s adapting.”
Will he be Axford? Maybe not. But say this for Walden — he is doing everything he can to make the comparision valid.