Matt Wallner had one of the most challenging stretches of his career immediately before the Minnesota Twins called him up on May 23. He had struck out 15 times in 25 Triple-A at-bats against the Columbus Clippers. Wallner only registered six hits and had a .240/.269/.320 slash line in the St. Paul Saints’ six-game series.
Things only got weirder from there. Wallner played a rare majors-minors doubleheader on May 23. He went 0-for-1 against the San Francisco Giants, then hit 1-for-4 with a double against the Omaha Storm Chasers in St. Paul. It’s something that can only happen now that Minnesota’s Triple-A team is across the river. Another benefit? They immediately recalled Wallner when injuries struck. Wallner went 1-for-4 in the finale against the Giants and had a 4-for-4 day against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday. Ironically, the Twins will send him down to make room for Royce Lewis and Max Kepler after he reached base in eight straight at-bats.
“The (coaches) here are so great,” said Wallner. “They help me out not only situationally before the at-bat but just in the cages to get my swing right. I mean, I had one of the worst weeks of my life last week, and then just being here and working with [Derek] Shomon and Pop (David Popkins) and just simplifying it. Just keeping it simple is really the No. 1 thing for me. … I was in Columbus and struck out as many times as you can. It was impressive.”
Ironic, perhaps, given that Wallner calls Columbus home. Columbus, Minnesota, not Columbus, Ohio, of course; the city of 4,000 across I-35 from Forest Lake and home to Running Aces. But the former Mr. Baseball Minnesota faces unique pressure with the Twins. Not only is he playing 35 minutes from where he grew up, but he filled a necessary hole in the roster in his most recent stint. Minnesota needed left-handed hitting and outfield depth. Wallner can put a charge into the ball and throws runners out with ease.
“[Wallner has] got a pretty good idea of what he’s trying to do when he steps up to the plate right now, and he’s executing that well against some good pitchers,” Rocco Baldelli said after Wallner went 4-for-4 against and threw out a runner at second Toronto on Saturday. “He can have a big impact on a ballgame. Then he makes the tough play kinda up against the wall, gets the ball in his hand from a dead stop, really, and makes that throw, too, to second base.”
Wallner’s tools are loud. The ball makes a sonic boom when it leaves his bat. The noise in the park starts to peak as it ascends, then hits a crescendo when it lands in the seats. Wallner also has an elite arm defensively. He was a pitcher in a high school and grew up playing quarterback. There’s an undeniable wow factor with his hitting and throwing. The former first-round pick out of Southern Miss evokes feelings that he can do things few other players can.
“I think he likes it because he likes to throw it hard every time,” said Edouard Julien, who the Twins also drafted in 2019. Wallner and Julien played summer ball together and came up through the minor leagues at the same time. “It was a pretty great throw. I’ve seen it for four years now. I know he’s got the best arm in the outfield in the league, I’m pretty sure. I guess they need to keep running on him. They’ll learn quickly.”
The Twins drafted Wallner out of high school and again out of college. Wallner lives in the South during the offseason but cherishes his time in Minnesota during the summer. His parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles drive down for each of his games, and he gets to spend time at home on off days. But Wallner will have to fill the empty spaces to stick in the majors. He must work on his quieter actions in St. Paul. He has to strike out less and walk more. Take better routes in the outfield so he can throw more runners out. Brush up on his baserunning.
All are expected improvements for young players, and Wallner, 25, looks the part of a first-rounder. Wallner initially was going to play at the University of North Dakota, but they canceled their baseball program. Instead, he went down to Southern Miss, where he had an OPS over 1.000 in the three years he played there while breaking Brian Dozier’s records. Wallner is a left-handed hitter on a righty-heavy roster, a power-hitter in a lineup that’s suffered an outage. He has an opportunity to fill a need, but he has to capitalize on it.
On Saturday, Wallner showed signs that he’s trending in the right direction. He stayed on Chris Bassitt’s 0-2 fastball. He misplayed a ball in right but recovered to throw out the runner at second and hit one into the bullpen. Wallner displayed his deceptive speed beating out an infield single. He has been more patient at the plate and continues to work on his outfield routes and baserunning. His loud tools will always be there, but what he does in the silent moments will determine his longevity in the majors. Quiet mistakes can be loud. Wallner needs to master the sound of silence.