Matt Wallner displays such little emotion on the baseball field that even one of his best friends and former teammates describes him as boring. Short of raising his right arm high as he rounded first base and jumping with teammates at the plate after his walk-off home run in Arizona earlier this month, the Twins rookie is largely expressionless on the diamond.
“He’s a very even-keeled guy,” former teammate Spencer Steer said. “If you just watch him play, he looks like a pretty vanilla guy.”
Wallner’s recent success is providing more opportunities for his celebrations — or lack thereof — to be scrutinized.
Along with rookies Royce Lewis and Edouard Julien, Wallner — who is batting .237/.341/.518 with nine home runs and 22 RBIs in 132 plate appearances — is a key reason the Twins have started to pull away in the American League Central standings. He’s repeatedly delivered for the Twins, including blasting a go-ahead grand slam in a win over Detroit last week, a result that required Wallner to grant the Target Field crowd a curtain call.
The outfielder says his stoic demeanor is calculated. He doesn’t like to wear his emotions on his sleeve — at least not on the field. But friends say the minute Wallner steps off it, whether it’s working in the batting cage or besting teammates in a game of PGA Tour 2K23 on PlayStation 5, his competitive side kicks into high gear to reveal a different person.
“Off the field, he loves to talk,” said Steer, who was also drafted by the Twins in 2019. “He’s a funny dude. … I always found that funny about him. People are like, ‘Oh, Matt Wallner, he looks like a quiet, low-key dude.’ And then you hang out with him off the field and he loves to talk s—.”
Asked about the subject, Wallner, who was raised 30 miles away from Target Field in Forest Lake, Minn., laughs. He’s aware of the perceptions. Wallner says his behavior is the byproduct of observing the conduct of his favorite Twins players.
“I would say I kind of always have been like that,” Wallner said. “I’ve just liked the guys who are kind of humble or kind of low-key on the field, like when I watched Joe Mauer growing up or (Justin) Morneau, guys like that. … But around my close friends like Steer, yeah, I’ll talk a little bit.”
Matt Wallner grand slam! 💥
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) August 16, 2023
There’s a bit of a joke around the Twins’ development group that Wallner appears standoffish; the man has a very serious-looking face.
Yet when it comes to learning new ways to improve, working to refine his game and doing homework, few players who have come through the system in recent years can match Wallner.
Recently, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli cited Wallner’s pregame workout and preparation as “excellent” while noting the young outfielder’s “tremendous” adjustments. While Baldelli is always one to appreciate his players, his compliments of Wallner noticeably went above and beyond the norm.
In particular, the Twins love Wallner’s pregame cage routine, which includes a session one observer described as “100 mph batting practice” against a velocity machine that can mimic the spin and angles of the upcoming game’s pitcher. Whereas traditional BP often turns into a home run derby with players belting long drives off a coach throwing 65 mph, these indoor practices often result in missed contact, foul balls and frustration.
Not many players enjoy the sessions, yet Wallner partakes every day in order to better prepare.
“He’s about as ready to go every day to face that starting pitcher as anyone could be,” Baldelli said. “I really like what I’ve seen from him. He’s a good worker. These things matter in our game. You actually see the results from guys that approach things like this. And I think Matt Wallner’s one of those guys.”
Derek Shoman knew Wallner was one of those guys before most.
The Twins’ assistant hitting coach worked with Wallner at Double-A Wichita in 2022 and was quickly impressed. Early last season, Shoman watched as Wallner struggled, opening the season by hitting 3-for-41 with one homer, four RBIs and 23 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances.
But Shoman wanted to build rapport and wait for the hitter to approach him first.
“Awful,” Wallner said of that early slump. “It was me questioning if I was good enough to even play at the Double-A level. It was just really frustrating.”
Wallner received some helpful suggestions during an April 22 meeting with Shoman, Wichita manager Ramon Borrego and then-assistant farm director Drew MacPhail. They discussed Wallner’s struggle with velocity at the top of the zone and how he could combat the issue.
Wallner and Shoman spent the rest of that day and the next flattening the plane of his swing while also addressing pitch selection, specifically focused on looking for fastballs lower in the zone. He returned to the lineup on April 24 and singled in two runs in his first plate appearance before driving in another run with an infield single later in the game.
— B/R Walk-Off (@BRWalkoff) September 17, 2022
“All the credit goes to him because of the willingness and the receptiveness,” Shoman said. “It’s not easy to hear, at times, your areas for improvement and have the willingness to show up the next day and go, ‘OK, I’m ready to attack these and I’m willing to trust that whatever you throw at me right now. … I’ve stated last year on record: You can only get as good as Matt with game prep. It’s going to be really difficult to be better than him at it in terms of the commitment to it and the environments he puts himself in pregame. They’re not easy. But he does that with a purpose.”
Wallner batted .300/.434/.585 with 26 home runs, 91 RBIs and 32 doubles between Wichita and Triple-A St. Paul following a July 14 promotion. He also reduced his strikeout rate to 28 percent before his promotion to the majors in mid-September.
“They understand that in baseball, there’s always growing pains and this happens to everyone,” Wallner said. “It’s not that you’re not good enough, it’s just part of it. And that helped me relax a little bit and get my confidence back.”
In 2016, the Twins used a 32nd-round pick to select Wallner as a pitcher in the 2016 draft with the understanding he was likely headed to college at the University of Southern Mississippi. He was rated the fifth-best prep player in Minnesota by Perfect Game and No. 500 nationally.
But it didn’t take long for Wallner to make an impact.
“He was pretty much good as soon as he showed up,” said Cleveland Guardians reliever Nick Sandlin, a teammate of Wallner’s in college and his offseason workout partner.
For the first time in his life, Wallner could play baseball outdoors year-round. He also found himself flourishing among a more talented pool of players because he wanted to compete harder than everyone else and improve.
His competitive nature well-fed, Wallner’s career took off.
As a freshman pitcher, Wallner went 2-0 with three saves, 15 strikeouts and a 1.84 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. Even more impressive, he batted .336/.463/.655 with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs for the Golden Eagles, who won Conference USA and received an at-large bid to the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
While he struggled pitching as a sophomore, Wallner hit .351/.474/.618 with 16 homers and 67 RBIs in leading Southern Mississippi to another Conference USA title and NCAA Tournament appearance. His performance was good enough to earn Wallner an invitation to the Cape Cod League in 2018.
After experiencing forearm tightness leading up to the season, Wallner, who would have been his team’s Sunday starter as a junior, ditched pitching. He batted .323/.446/.681 with 23 homers and 60 RBIs.
Suddenly, his bat caught everyone’s attention.
“They did a heckuva of a job at Southern Miss because he immediately became a dude offensively,” said Deron Johnson, the Twins’ former amateur scouting director and current senior adviser of scouting. “There was some swing-and-miss, but the tools were apparent. He could run for a big guy. He could really throw and he had tremendous raw power. The tools were dynamic.”
By the time he completed his junior season at Southern Miss, Wallner developed into a late first-round pick. Though he didn’t expect to be drafted by his hometown team again, the Twins used their competitive balance A pick to select Wallner 39th overall in 2019.
“I just think I’ve put in a lot of hard work there and that really paid off,” Wallner said. “It was pretty fulfilling. I really didn’t see that happening going into college, you know? I always wanted to play baseball, but until my senior year (of high school), I didn’t think I had a chance to play professional baseball.”
As the ball traveled into orbit, landing five rows into the third deck in right-center for a gargantuan, 450-foot grand slam, Wallner simply dropped the bat.
Some players would flip their bats as high as possible in celebration of smacking a 94 mph pitch that far for a grand slam.
Though he might have strutted out of the box, Wallner otherwise put his head down and ran to first. As he rounded the bag, Wallner just looked up to the sky and pointed.
“I knew it was gone,” Wallner said. “Not gonna toss the bat. A little simple bat drop is kinda what I’ve got.”
When he returned to the dugout, Wallner was informed by teammates and coaches he needed to deliver a curtain call to the crowd of more than 30,000 fans. It would be his first.
“I didn’t really know what to do,” Wallner said. “That was more, I guess, just run up the steps and wave your hand. I’ve only really seen it on TV.”
What made the moment even more enjoyable was that Justin Morneau was in the booth to make the call.
Two decades earlier, Morneau and Joe Mauer were two of baseball’s best hitters. Wallner paid close attention to the Twins’ “M&M Boys,” each of whom won MVP awards. They were also regarded as two of the league’s more milquetoast players, particularly Mauer.
Born in nearby St. Paul with all eyes on him, Mauer brought a low-key persona with him when the Twins selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 amateur draft. He was always mindful of being a role model, kind to anyone who met him and never rocked the boat.
Mauer’s personality irked a small but vocal portion of the team’s fan base that wanted to see fire and emotion from a player who previously received the biggest contract in team history. But Mauer never changed, and Wallner seems intent on following that model.
“I would see guys like that and try to be more of that m.o. as opposed to the flashy opposite,” Wallner said. “Baseball is just where I am most of the time.”
— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) August 6, 2023
But when he’s on the links or beating teammates in a video game, Wallner doesn’t hesitate to mix it up. He’s a pretty good golfer, citing a 76 as his lowest round. Last week, Wallner played Hazeltine with teammates.
“I can hit it far and hit the ball hard,” Wallner said, before adding he struggles to keep his drives straight when there’s not enough time to practice.
“He hits the ball farther on a golf course,” Steer said. “I mean, he absolutely mashes the drivers. He’ll let you know when you hit bad shots. And when he’s doing well, he’ll let you know about it, too.”
When Wallner belted his Aug. 6 game-winner off Arizona’s Paul Sewald, Steer was surprised to see his former teammate celebrate with third-base coach Tommy Watkins as he rounded the base and headed for home.
“He’s one of the guys that’s, I wouldn’t say he’s intense (at golf), but he’s good,” Steer said. “And if he’s close to the hole, (he talks). … (The fist bump on the diamond), that was like the most emotion I’d ever seen him show on a baseball field. It was a walk-off homer and it still really wasn’t that much. That’s just him.”
— The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Zack Meisel contributed to this story.
(Top photo: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)
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