ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly five years after the Milwaukee Brewers made him a second-round draft pick, Max Walla is right back where he started. Except now, the former Albuquerque Academy star is basically starting his career over.
Walla, who was known for his prodigious power but also pitched while at Academy, is at the Brewers spring training complex in Phoenix and is in the process of converting from outfielder to pitcher.
“They told me the last week of spring training,” Walla said. “Initially, I basically said give me a little bit of time to think about and pray about it. And that’s what I did. I went back to the hotel for a few hours and decided that it was a good opportunity and called them and told them I’d be there tomorrow as a pitcher.”
Walla, who was the 73rd pick of the 2009 draft, hadn’t thrown a pitch in a game since tossing a complete game in Academy’s 2009 state championship win but said he’s had no troubles yet in his return to the mound.
“It’s going really well,” Walla said. “It’s different, obviously. I haven’t done it in a few years, so I’m down here getting my arm back in shape. I’m trying to relearn the feel and everything, but it’s like riding a bike.”
Walla hit 16 home runs in 2008 and, according to the NMAA, finished his career with a state-record 34 homers (which Volcano Vista’s Andre Vigil broke last year) – but his professional career has been plagued by injuries and struggles at the plate.
Walla suffered a broken ring finger in 2010, a broken index finger in 2012 and broke the same hand twice during spring training in 2013.
In his five seasons in the Brewers organization – none of which was played above Class A – Walla hit .246, with 15 home runs, in 1,201 at-bats.
“I missed a lot of time in the last few years due to injury,” Walla said. “It’s never easy when you go through something like that. It’s easy to fall into the thought of being short-changed. But at the same time I realize that everything happens for a reason, and I’m extremely blessed to have been given this opportunity. Honestly, my feelings have been mostly excitement and happiness and joy that I still get to play and chase my dream. My dream is just a little different now.”
That new dream is beginning in Phoenix but will most likely continue in Helena, Mont., the home of the Brewers’ rookie league team.
“I’m listed on their roster, so my guess is I’d go there but ideally I’d go to (Class A) Wisconsin, hopefully soon,” Walla said. “But they’ve already told me they’re going to take me pretty slow. There’s a pretty high injury rate for position players who convert to pitchers, so they’re going to take me as slow as necessary to keep me healthy.”
While Walla was known for his offense at Academy, he wasn’t too bad while toeing the rubber, either. According to the NMAA, Walla’s 13 wins in 2009 are a single-season state record and he ranks sixth in career wins with 23.
That ability to pitch turned out to be a Plan B for the Brewers organization.
“Our scouting department that scouted him as an amateur thought that if it didn’t work out for him as a position player, we could move him to the mound because he threw in the 90s,” Reid Nichols, Milwaukee Brewers director of player development, said. “So we’re just taking it slow, getting his arm in shape and making sure he’s prepared for the rigors of throwing every day as a pitcher.”
The 23-year-old Walla, who throws a fastball, change-up and curveball, is looking forward to seeing what he can do now that he can focus solely on pitching.
“That’s another exciting thing; I’ve never devoted all of my time to pitching,” Walla said. “I’m really excited to see what kind of results I can produce.”
And despite the reboot on his career, Walla believes that if he does produce, he’ll be on a fast track to Milwaukee.
“Everyone’s career path is different,” Walla said. “But I think if I go to Helena this year and succeed, I don’t think that they will have any compunction about moving me quickly. It’s still early, I haven’t thrown a game yet, but we’ll see.”
If Walla is looking for a similar career path to follow to the majors, he doesn’t have to search too far.
Farmington’s Mike Dunn, who was drafted as an outfielder in the 33rd round of the 2004 draft by the New York Yankees, eventually reached the big leagues as a pitcher in 2009 after converting in 2006.
Dunn posted a 2.66 ERA in 75 games last season for the Miami Marlins.
Los Angeles Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen was a catcher from 2005-09, including an eight-game stint with the Albuquerque Isotopes in 2009 where he went 5-for-27, before being converted to a pitcher.
In 2011, Jansen broke the all-time record for strikeouts per nine innings when he fanned 96 hitters in 532/3 innings (16.1 strikeouts per nine innings).
Helena’s season begins June 18, and Walla will be pitching in relief this season as he builds up his conditioning and arm strength. Walla played four games with Helena in 2009 and spent the entire 2011 season there.
“In some ways it feels like I’m starting all over again. But at the same time I’ve been on the other side for the last five years and I feel like that will give me an advantage,” Walla said. “Starting over is a good word for it, but I feel like I’m a little bit ahead of the curve. I will definitely benefit from my previous experience.”