It’d be cliché to say Rob Walton has the magic touch. Then again, there’s a reason his players at Oklahoma State refer to their pitching coach as “The Wizard.” They even had t-shirts made up with Walton’s head on Dumbledore’s body, the wizard from the Harry Potter series, “because he can fix any pitcher on the staff,” according to Walton’s son Donnie, a four-year starter in OSU’s infield from 2013-16.
Walton has a long track record of developing talent on the mound, but 2016 was his finest hour, as his Cowboys pitching staff was the backbone of the team’s first run to the College World Series since 1999. For those reasons, Walton is the 2016 Baseball America/ABCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
Taking a staff that had to replace two weekend starters, including the 2015 Big 12 Conference pitcher of the year Michael Freeman, Walton guided the Cowboys to a 3.21 ERA for the season, the third time in his four years in Stillwater they finished in the top 25 nationally in team ERA. Righthander Thomas Hatch emerged as the second straight Big 12 pitcher of the year winner from OSU after going 9-3, 2.14 and was drafted in the third round.
As good as they were in the regular season, the Cowboys were on another level in the postseason.
The Cowboys won their first seven NCAA tournament games, during which they allowed a total of six runs and pitched three shutouts. After sweeping through Clemson and South Carolina in regionals and super regionals, respectively, the Cowboys became the first team ever to win back-to-back 1-0 games in the College World Series before finally giving way in a pair of losses to Arizona. Instrumental was Walton’s decision to flip-flop Tyler Buffett and Trey Cobb after the Big 12 tournament, moving Buffett from closer to starter and putting Cobb in the back of the bullpen, where he had experience from the previous season. Buffett, who’d scuffled late in the year, posted a 0.82 ERA in three NCAA tourney starts, while Cobb had four saves in the tournament, including both super regional wins.
“It was one of those times it all kind of fell into place,” Walton said, “where we thought that the body of work Buffett had, and with Cobb’s experience closing, it allowed us to take Buffett and put him in that role and try to get him back to form. Because if he got back to form, I thought we could make a really good run.
“I was just proud of the guys as a whole. Those guys really carried us a long way. They threw the ball at a major league level there the last month of the season.”
Walton generally stays quiet whenever he’s watching one of his pitchers throw a bullpen for the first time, after which he’ll review film of the session and develop a game plan—he keeps a binder on his desk filled with notes on each pitcher in the program. The key, OSU head coach Josh Holliday says, is Walton’s feel for identifying one or maybe two adjustments each pitcher needs to make, rather than overloading them with a laundry list of changes.
While Walton does have bedrock principles about pitching he stresses—command the ball and be able to pitch inside are at the top of the list—as he himself puts it, “we don’t have a pitching system.”
“Some coaches prefer only one style, or they only know how to coach a kid that’s similar to how they were,” Holliday said. “But Rob knows how to get righthanders, lefthanders, big guys, small guys, power guys, finesse guys—he’s always been of the mindset that there’s definitely a way to get this guy right, or there’s definitely a way to get this guy to where he can contribute.”
For proof of Walton’s coaching flexibility, look no further than the two Big 12 pitchers of the year he’s produced in Freeman, a low-slot, pitchability lefthander, and Hatch, a more traditional power righthander. Freeman in particular was a success story for Walton, as the southpaw came to OSU as a lightly-regarded junior college transfer and emerged two years later as a seventh-round draft pick of the Astros.
“The skill level is the biggest thing that you have to develop because there’s just not a lot of it,” Walton said. “Kids that come in your program are normally guys that’ve done a lot of showcases and things like that. They’ll go out and throw two or three innings and try to light the gun up, which is fine. It’s just, the problem is it has nothing to do with pitching. So, hammering home the ability to have touch, feel, command, control—those are the things that have to be addressed every single day that you touch a baseball.”
Walton, then the head coach at Oral Roberts, was a candidate for OSU’s head job when it came open after the 2012 season. An OSU alum, Walton pitched for the Cowboys during the program’s glory years in the 1980s and was a part of four straight CWS teams from 1983-86. At ORU, his teams dominated the Summit League, winning the conference in all nine years he was in charge. But the Cowboys went with Holliday.
Had OSU hired anyone else, Walton admits, it’s doubtful he would’ve agreed to leave Oral Roberts to come to Stillwater as an assistant. But his ties to the Holliday family run deep. Josh Holliday’s uncle Dave and father Tom recruited and coached Walton as a player at OSU. After Walton’s own pitching career was cut short by a shoulder injury in 1988, Dave Holliday helped him get back in the game as a scout with the Cleveland Indians.
“I was a little kid when he was here playing,” Josh Holliday said. “He was here at a time when Oklahoma State baseball was going to Omaha every year and winning at the highest level. Those guys are kind of like heroes to me. As a young boy, Rob was one of the guys that was always kind and had time for my brother (big leaguer Matt Holliday) and I and was kind of an extension of our family.
“It just worked (to hire him as an assistant). We both had a desire to be here together. I tell people all the time, Rob doesn’t care what his title is and I really don’t care what mine is. We work together for the betterment of our kids.”
It also worked that with Rob came Donnie, who’d committed to play for him at Oral Roberts and quickly changed to OSU once Rob took the job in Stillwater. The younger Walton emerged as OSU’s most valuable position player, making first team all-Big 12 three times and hitting .337/.428/.447 as the starting shortstop for OSU’s Omaha team this spring.
“He’ll be tough on you, but he’s always got your back,” Donnie said. “He’s a team guy. He treats every one of his players the same way. When I was at OSU, he treated me the same as he would a Corey Hassel or Ryan Sluder. He treats them as their own kid. Seeing him work with the pitching staff, they’re all like his sons out there.
“It was just pretty special, hearing guys on my team come up to me after practice and say, ‘Your dad fixed me up right away. It took like five minutes of work with him and I was right on track.’ Hearing that stuff—I heard it all the time—it’s unbelievable and it’s pretty special what he’s doing.”
That’s why they call him “The Wizard.”