Patrick Ochs

His pro debut humbled him, but Walker Robbins is determined to hit in 2017

George County's Walker Robbins hits against Madison Central on May 18, 2016, in the MHSAA State Baseball Championships at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Walker will open the 2017 season with Johnson City.
George County's Walker Robbins hits against Madison Central on May 18, 2016, in the MHSAA State Baseball Championships at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Walker will open the 2017 season with Johnson City. Special to the Sun Herald

This time last year an actualized dream paved the way for Walker Robbins to have one of the more humbling seasons of his young baseball career.

Excited to hear his name plucked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft, the former George County star went out and struggled during his pro debut with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals. He certainly wasn’t alone but his first 30 games of professional baseball delivered an eye-opening experience.

A year later, as the 2017 MLB Draft winds down, Robbins has received his orders and is set to embark on his second season of pro ball, this time in Tennessee with rookie affiliate Johnson City.

It’s somewhat of a promotion as young players can repeat the Gulf Coast League. As he prepares to leave Jupiter, Florida — where he’s been in extended spring training — on Friday for Tennessee, last year’s ups and downs aren’t lost on Robbins.

Used to hitting prolific homers out of Lucedale’s Claude Passeau Field, Robbins hit just .185 with a .226 on-base percentage. He recorded 20 hits, one double and six RBIs in 108 at-bats.

“It was great getting to live the dream and play baseball everyday; not have to worry about anything else besides baseball,” Robbins said Monday. “I mean, the numbers weren’t great but you just need to put it in the past and keep moving forward. I think it helped me out a lot.

“Coming from high school, you had to be the guy but here everyone’s great. It really humbles you a lot, seeing all this other great talent.”

Whole new world

Robbins also struck out 31 times compared to five walks. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Robbins chalked up some of his early woes to the increased velocity he was facing. Where he might see a pitch in the 90s every so often at GCHS, in the pros every team has multiple guys who light up the radar guns with every single pitch.

“At first I was struggling because I’ve never seen that before, but after a while I got my timing and rhythm down,” he said. “It’s a big jump, especially for a high school kid.”

While in extended spring training, Robbins said most days the team will go through defensive drills, take batting practice and then either scrimmage or play one of the other area teams. It has given him an opportunity to really hone his batting approach. With quality will come quantity, he said.

“If you just have good plate appearances, swing the bat and make good contact you’ll be fine. You don’t have to get a hit every time you’re at bat,” Robbins said. “I need to be more selective. Last year I chased too many pitches being anxious at the plate.

“This year I’m trying to slow the game down, see the ball better and not swing at so many bad pitches.”

Moving to the OF

As if jumping from prep ball to the pro ranks wasn’t enough of an adjustment, Robbins also changed positions.

With the Rebels, Robbins split time between first base and on the mound, where the southpaw could ramp up his velocity into the 90s. The Cardinals, however, were more intrigued in his seeing how he played in the outfield after seeing him shag fly balls during their workout with the former Sun Herald Player of the Year.

It took a bit for Robbins to get comfortable in the outfield — he played all of last year at left field and has been working in right and left this year — but he said he’s thankful he wasn’t “stuck” at first base.

“I love playing in the outfield,” said Robbins, who made just one error in 248 1/3 innings while also recording two assists and 49 putouts in 52 total chances for a .981 fielding percentage. “At first it was kind of hard because I’ve never played there and just seeing the ball off the bat was difficult. But after a while it just became second nature.

“You start getting good jumps and once a ball is hit, you’ve done it so many times in batting practice that you know where your first step needs to be. Just like anything, if you practice a lot it’ll be easy to you.”

Robbins even got some instruction this spring training from Cardinals legend Willie McGee, who stopped in Jupiter to help the young outfielders.

“That was awesome getting to sit there and talk to him about stuff,” the 19-year-old said. “He helped us out a lot.”

Sterile environment

The playing experience as a whole was a bit different for Robbins. Used to playing in front of loud crowds at GCHS, most GCL Cardinals games were played on the practice fields in Jupiter, away from the spotlight of Roger Dean Stadium. No night games, no crowds, no music; just baseball and instruction. The somewhat sterile environment made Robbins additionally anxious to report to Johnson City, which will provide a more typical minor league experience.

“There was really nobody watching except for coaches, players and if somebody had their family down, but it was fun,” Robbins said. “You didn’t have the adrenaline of having fans and stuff in the crowd but it was a good first. I had fun, but I’m ready to start playing in front of a crowd, under the lights and with some music going.”

Johnson City, which plays in the Appalachian League, opens its season June 22.

More from Robbins

Robbins also touched on a number of other topics aside from the Cardinals and his pro debut:

▪  Delvin Perez: First round selection Delvin Perez was the real deal for the GCL Cardinals if you believe the numbers and Robbins’ evaluation.

“He makes you drop your jaw a lot,” Robbins said. “He makes some plays where you wonder how he can even make that play. He’s a really great player all around. He can swing the bat really good and some of the defensive plays he makes are unreal.

“You realize why he was a first round pick.”

Perez hit .294 with a .352 OBP, 12 extra-base hits, 19 RBIs and 12 stolen bases for the GCL Cardinals.

▪  Draft memories: Heading into last year’s draft, Robbins was projected as one of Mississippi’s top prep products. He ended up having to wait until the fifth round to see his name scroll across the draft ticker, but the wait was worth it.

Robbins said he got tired of watching the draft after a while and retired to his family’s couch. After a while, his dad, who unbeknownst him had just hung up with the Cardinals, politely suggested Robbins turn the draft back on.

“It was great. It was a little stressful waiting but then to finally hear your name called, it was just unreal,” Robbins said. “I’m so glad the St. Louis Cardinals picked me. They’re a great organization to play for.

“Knowing I was going to be a professional ball player was such a relief because it was a dream I’ve been dreaming since I was a little kid. It was awesome.”

▪  Bat first: Some scouts were split on whether Robbins should pitch or hit professionally. Obviously the Cardinals saw more upside in Robbins bat after he hit .477 with a .600 OBP, 1.305 OPS, three homers, 13 extra-base hits and 16 RBIs as a senior, but Robbins was also lights out on the mound. As a senior, Robbins was 8-2 with a 0.67 ERA. He recorded five complete games, three shutouts, two no hitters, one perfect game and 110 strikeouts against 18 walks in 72 2/3 innings. Despite all the success the southpaw had on the mound, he said he’s happy to be an everyday player.

“I kind of figured out that your arm will always be there. If it doesn’t work out hitting you can try to pitch,” Robbins said. “If you take four or five years off of hitting it’s hard to come back and hit.

“If something happens I can always go back and try to pitch, but I love hitting. I’m going to try to ride this out as long as I can.”

▪  MSU’s season: A former Mississippi State signee, Robbins said he kept up with the Bulldogs from afar.

“I was hoping they’d pull off the wins against LSU but it was a great season,” Robbins said. “It was kind of awesome seeing (former East Central ace) Konnor Pilkington pitch — especially getting to play against him in high school and it was always a big rivalry.

“He looked awesome the other night. I feel like he’s going to have a real good career, too.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs