Wiedmer: Walker big hit so far for Braves

Wiedmer: Walker big hit so far for Braves

February 15th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

From left, Atlanta Braves Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and hitting coach, Greg Walker, sign autographs as fans line up outside at the Atlanta Braves Caravan held at Taco Mac in downtown Chattanooga.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

As president of the Douglas (Ga.) Chamber of Commerce, JoAnne Lewis asked Douglas native and new Atlanta Braves hitting coach Greg Walker to speak to the organization a couple of weeks ago.

"Normally the program lasts an hour and everybody's ready to go," Lewis said Tuesday afternoon. "With Greg, the program lasted an hour and a half and nobody moved. We had 450 people there -- our largest crowd ever -- and they were kind of mesmerized the whole time."

It's safe to say that with pitchers and catchers reporting by the end of this week, all the Braves Nation is hoping to soon be mesmerized by the improvement in their baseball heroes' bats.

After all, despite a pitching staff that ranked among major league baseball's five or six best, Atlanta was hindered all season by an offense that ranked in the bottom third in almost every offensive category and finished in the bottom 20 percent in on-base percentage and batting average.

In fact, among 30 major league teams, the Braves finished 22nd in runs scored, 26th in batting average and 26th in on-base percentage.

Walker worked with the Chicago White Sox, who were 15th in both on-base percentage and batting average and 18th in runs scored.

"I thought I'd spend my whole career with the White Sox," said Walker, who hit 113 career homers and drove in 444 runs during his nine-year playing career. "But this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

Much of it was personal. Though two of his three daughters remain in Chicago, Walker and his wife Carman have been together since they were students at Coffee High School in Douglas. He remains a huge Georgia Bulldogs football fan. He's always gotten home as often as possible in the offseason.

"My parents are still in Douglas," Walker said of the town of 11,500 located 40 miles east of Tifton. "A lot of our friends and family are still in the area. I imagine a lot of them are going to want tickets almost every game now."

But once at those games, will they see a big improvement in the Braves' bats?

"I'm pretty much in a monitoring process right now," Walker said. "But we've got a nice mix. There's strong veteran leadership with guys like Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Then there's a lot of good, young talent, guys like Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman."

Heyward and Freeman accompanied Walker to Chattanooga last week on the Braves Caravan tour.

Injured for much of last season, Heyward admitted to much frustration at the plate as his batting average slipped from a rookie mark of .277 in 2010 to a .227 average last summer.

"It's a humbling game when you're healthy," Heyward said. "When you're not healthy, it's much worse."

He said his new hitting coach has not suggested significant changes.

"He's been awesome," Heyward said. "He keeps telling me, 'You had it. You were picture perfect. We're just going to get you back to the swing you had in 2010.'"

Said Walker of Heyward: "He's healthy, he's happy and that makes me happy. It's good to see him have a big smile on his face again."

Freeman has been similarly impressed.

"Greg hasn't changed anything, really," Freeman said. "And he's told me he won't change anything until he thinks something needs to be changed, until it's clear something I'm doing right now isn't working."

Yet Walker already has given Freeman some drills to help him hit inside pitches better than he did last year, when he batted .282 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs.

"Just some stuff to help me not spin off the ball," the player said. "Really good drills. It's been great working with him."

The work will intensify in the weeks ahead. The Braves must not only hang with the National League East champion Phillies but also fight off the Marlins and their new commitment to buying enough talent to challenge for the division crown.

"I grew up a huge Braves fan," Walker said, "and nothing I've seen since I've joined them in October has changed what everybody in baseball told me when I was deciding whether or not I wanted the job: This is a great organization."

Back in Douglas, Chamber of Commerce president Lewis said, "It's nice to know Greg's who he's always been -- so real, so touchable, so humble. We're all so proud he's a part of our Georgia baseball team."

If he really can get Freeman to hit the inside pitch and Heyward to return to his 2010 form, Walker also just might return a big smile to the Braves Nation for the first time since the 1995 world championship.