Chad Epperson, new manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, spent the previous twelve seasons as the receiving coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. He traveled throughout the organization’s farm system and worked with recipients at all levels.
Not every moment was focused on their development as receivers of the ball.
Epperson listened intently when catchers spoke of the challenge presented by certain pitchers, even during bullpen sessions. Every once in a while, he’d hear, “Oh man, it’s a tough game.”
That’s when he first noticed Brandon Walter, a 25-year-old left-hander who was making his Double-A debut Sunday at Hadlock Field.
“He’s going to challenge a receiver to be on his ‘A’ game,” Epperson said, “because his talent is electric.”
Few minor leaguers make their debut on top prospect lists when they’re the age of Walter, who entered the pro ranks without much fuss. In the 2019 draft, he was overlooked for two days before the Red Sox selected him in the 26th round, 797th overall.
Delaware isn’t known as a hotbed of baseball talent, so growing up there and pitching for the University of Delaware made it harder for Walter to get noticed. An arm injury early in his sophomore season led to Tommy John surgery, which ended the rest of 2017 and all of 2018.
He ended up starting 14 games for Delaware as a redshirt junior in 2019. The Boston Red Sox took a chance and signed him for $35,000. He hoped to join his more advanced short-season club in Lowell, Massachusetts, but instead was sent to Fort Myers, Florida, to pitch in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
“I was in the 26th round,” he said this week after training at Hadlock Field for the first time, “so I knew I wasn’t going to be treated like royalty.”
After making 37 starts in college, Walter pitched exclusively in relief to finish out his 2019 season with Fort Myers. He put up solid numbers — 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 33 1/3 innings while holding hitters to .208 — but his year “wasn’t one that projected to be very successful,” he said. “I knew I had to make a lot of changes.”
Then came 2020, when the pandemic wiped out minor league baseball. While others lamented that they missed the opportunity to get more flavor, Walter took the moment to develop his body and improve his mechanics. He added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2, 5-mile-per-hour frame to a two-seam fastball he had been in in the high 80s.
“That’s a significant jump for me,” he said. “I’ve always been the guy who can throw strikes, so I’m happy with the jump in speed and the uptick in things that haven’t changed.”
Walter also throws a slider and changeup, both in the low 80s, from an arm slot somewhere between three-quarters and a full-side arm. Call it five eighths. That movement gives his pitches considerable lateral movement, which is why receivers can’t be complacent.
He began 2021 in the Low-A Salem bullpen, moved into the rotation in late June and after two starts earned a promotion to High-A Greenville. He made 12 more starts with Greenville and in his last nine struck out 65 of the 179 batters he faced, a rate of 36.3 percent. Throughout the season, opponents hit .199.
He enters this spring ranked among the Red Sox’s top 10 minor league players according to FanGraphs, MLB.com and SoxProspects.com. Due to the lockout, he also spent time this spring with Red Sox major league personnel, including Boston pitching coach Dave Bush and manager Alex Cora. It was Cora who watched a bullpen session and told Walter that he would hold his glove differently before throwing a changeup.
Reed Gragnani, a former Sea Dogs infielder and current traveling hitting instructor, was the Red Sox scout who shadowed Walter in college and hired him. Gragnani, speaking from his home in Virginia, said the two times he saw Walter pitch at Delaware, only one other scout was present.
“The constants are still his ability to throw punches and his changeup has always been good,” Gragnani said. “The speed has increased and he’s committed to a slider that he didn’t have as a fan. It’s become an above average pitch for him.”
They still talk, most recently at spring training in Fort Myers.
“I saw him quite a bit this spring,” Gragnani said, “because he threw out a lot of my hitters.”
The Sea Dogs take Hadlock Field for the first workout of the 2022 season