By IAN WILSON
After starting his professional coaching career in Medicine Hat in 1996, Bruce Walton quickly rose through the ranks of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, serving as minor league pitching instructor, bullpen coach and pitching coach with the Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise.
The Calgarian, originally from California, worked with a lot of talented pitchers in his time with the Blue Jays, including Roy Halladay, Pat Hentgen and Chris Carpenter.
A stint with the Iowa Cubs followed his departure from Toronto in 2013 and Walton now finds himself working as a pitching coach in the Miami Marlins minor league system.
The 56-year-old – who pitched briefly for the Oakland Athletics, Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies, and suited up in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) for six seasons – took part in a recent Sidearm Nation pitching camp at the Coyote Den, alongside MLB sensation and fellow Calgarian Mike Soroka.
We caught up with Walton and picked his brain about Marlins prospects, coaching techniques, and the legendary Derek Jeter. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You’re just coming off a season of coaching with the Double-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Did you ever think you’d be a member of the Jumbo Shrimp?
A: No. I don’t know if you ever think where baseball will take you, but yeah I was with the Jumbo Shrimp and had a good year in Jacksonville.
Q: After 17 years of coaching in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, and a couple seasons as the pitching coach of the Iowa Cubs of the PCL, you were out of professional baseball for a little while. How did you end up coaching in the Miami Marlins organization?
A: Gary Denbo – he was with the Yankees and he was the hitting coach with the Toronto Blue Jays at one time, when we first met – he’s in charge of player development with Miami, and he’s been there for two years and they’re trying to turn that club into a championship club. They traded a lot of their premier players for prospects. He called me up and said he wanted me in Jupiter and I ended up in Jupiter.
(Jupiter, Florida is home to the spring training facilities of the Miami Marlins, as well as their High-A affiliate, the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League. Walton was named pitching coach of the Hammerheads in 2018).
Q: Tell me about the season. How did it go?
A: The season was great. We had a lot of prospects. We had Sixto Sanchez from the Phillies, who we traded J.T. (Realmuto) for, just a premier pitcher. Jorge Guzman and Sanchez … all these guys that I got are all pitchers that we got in trades and that’s the nucleus of our rebuilding system right now.
Q: The Marlins took a lot of flack for some of their trades and there was some suggestion they didn’t receive enough in return for star players. You’re on the inside looking out with them. Is that criticism warranted or do you just look at what you have and work with it?
A: We just look at what we have and we know what we have. Our premier players and our prospects and the players and pitchers that are going to make a difference for the Marlins, no one has really seen yet … unless you go to Jacksonville, unless you go to Jupiter, unless you go to New Orleans (home of the Triple-A Baby Cakes of the PCL). You go watch two, three, four, five players on those clubs and then you put them all together one day and the Marlins are going to be pretty good. Right now in Miami, yeah, it’s tough going but that’s kind of how it goes.
Q: Was it tough getting back into things after taking a hiatus from coaching at that level?
A: No, not really. I went to Iowa for a couple seasons with the Cubs there and had a little experience with Kyle Hendricks and getting guys ready for the major leagues. Then I took a couple years off and this sounded really fun, building something from the ground up, something that hasn’t been started yet, bringing new philosophies in, bringing in Gary Denbo. Derek Jeter, being our captain, was something that was very intriguing for me and I did it.
Q: I understand you know Marlins CEO Derek Jeter quite well.
A: Yes, well, he’s my boss … prior to that, I was on the other side for his whole career. For 15 years I was either the bullpen coach or the pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. We played him 16 to 20 times a year, so I knew him and competed against him. He’s very respectful to baseball, to the other side, but he wanted to beat you every night, so, prior history and I knew that he was going to go for it the right way.
Q: Talk about that. We’re coming off a World Series where everyone has an opinion about how the Dodgers should’ve done and the Astros should’ve done, and the Nationals seemingly came out of nowhere to win it all. What do you view as the right way of governing this game at this point?
A: I’m more or less talking from a player development side, so when I say Derek’s going to go about it the right way, he understands player development. Derek Jeter made 60 errors in A ball (fact check: Jeter made 56 errors in 126 games with the Single-A Greensboro Hornets in 1993).
He understands how important each level is, how important the coaches are at the minor league level, how important it is to go from A ball to Double-A ball to Triple-A, how that system works. It’s more or less that I know he’s not going to take shortcuts. I know he’s going to be patient … if one of our prospects makes 50 errors, he’ll understand it. He’ll expect him to get better but he understands the process of development.
Q: How excited are you for the 2020 season?
A: Very excited. This’ll be my third year (in the Marlins organization). Everything is starting to take shape. A lot of the kids I had in Jupiter will now be in Triple-A. This wave is coming. We’re a couple years away … what I’m going to be really proud about and hopefully everything goes well, in two or three years all those kids in the big leagues I’ll have had my hands on a little bit.
Q: Miami isn’t necessarily on the map for baseball fans in Alberta, where a lot of people still cheer for the Blue Jays. What names should people be looking at, in terms of some of the players that you might be working with that have a lot of promise and could surprise people some day?
A: Sixto Sanchez, Jorge Guzman, (Edward) Cabrera … those are three pitchers. You’ve got (Jordan) Holloway, you’ve got (Trevor) Rogers, we’ve got Braxton Garrett. We’ve got so many names and so many guys throwing the ball well that we either acquired through trades or some of the draft picks that we got lately. Player wise, we’ve got Lewin Davis, we got Jazz Chisholm – he’s a nice shortstop.
We’ve got a lot of exciting players that haven’t got there yet. If you look at our prospect list and just go on there, if you’ve got time, the prospects in the Miami organization are up there.
Q: Can you compare and contrast coaching at that level, as opposed to coaching at the major league level? I assume there are some real positives about working with players of those ages, rather than full-on major leaguers.
A: It’s a big difference. The level I’m at now, sometimes we sacrifice results to get better. It’s not all about the results, it’s not about throwing a shutout every time. It’s about going out there and trying new things, in more of a development facet than to win.
When you’re at the big league level, you’re pretty much developing to win. Winning is a big part of the development. You can’t just sit down and say, “Well, we’re working on this, we’re working on this, don’t worry about it.” Pretty soon, they’ll start worrying about it.
We have a little bit more time.
Q: Switching gears, you’ve attended Geoff Freeborn’s Sidearm Nation pitching camps before. What keeps you coming back and interested in working with kids?
A: Geoff does a great job and I really like what Geoff does here. I like everybody here at the Coyote Den. They really care about the kids. They care about them having fun, getting better and becoming better men, really. And I like coming out and working with the kids. I think that I’ve got a little bit of knowledge. I’ve been in it for about 35 years now, so if I can just shed a little light on how simple it is to improve … then I want to show them that. I can’t give them everything, obviously. Some of them are 12, so I keep it simple. But at the same time, my 25-year-olds at Jacksonville I teach like they’re 12, too.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because you’ve got to keep it simple and you’ve got to keep repeating yourself … don’t assume that they know what they’re doing … never assume that they understand anything.