Rookie right-hander's decision to attend Oral Roberts under renowned Walton paying dividends
By Cody Stavenhagen
ARLINGTON -- Five years before he was mowing down hitters with names such as Pedroia, Hosmer and Puig, Rangers right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez was a kid 1,400 miles from home, throwing his first bullpen session as a college pitcher.
Gonzalez -- who tossed 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Red Sox in his Major League debut -- has always had a way with first impressions.
Rob Walton, head coach at Oral Roberts from 2004-12 and now pitching coach at Oklahoma State, was watching that bullpen. He saw the slick command and natural movement on Gonzalez's ball. He thought he had struck gold.
"I thought after the first bullpen, if I'd do an average job with his guy, he'd be worth $350,000," Walton said. "But if I do a good job, I think he'd be a millionaire.
"I was kind of wrong on the bullpens because now he's a multimillionaire."
Gonzalez's talent, paired with Walton's tutelage, turned him into the Rangers' 2013 first-round pick and landed him a $2.2 million bonus. It was the first time Texas took a college pitcher in the first round since 2004.
Gonzalez came to Oral Roberts -- a private school of 3,200 students in Tulsa, Okla. -- almost by chance. Justin Timmerman, Gonzalez's coach at Boca Raton Community High School in Florida, was a former volunteer at ORU. When Gonzalez emerged as a dominant high school arm, he told Walton that ORU might want to take a look.
Walton sent an assistant, Ryan Neill, to watch Gonzalez. The report showed an 86-88 mph fastball with excellent command and clean arm action. He had work to do on his breaking ball, but Walton likes a project.
Walton -- a former pitcher in the Orioles' organization who is considered a pitching genius in college baseball circles -- coached 12 conference pitchers of the year in his 14 seasons at ORU as an assistant and head coach. He also managed the 2008 USA Baseball National Team, which he coached to a 30-0 record and a FISU gold medal with a pitching staff that included Stephen Strasburg and Mike Minor.
Despite never seeing Gonzalez pitch in person, Walton offered Gonzalez a full-ride scholarship.
Gonzalez, the son of Cuban immigrants, didn't come from a lot of money, but he passed on getting drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round in 2010 and made the journey to Oklahoma.
"How are you going to say no to [a full scholarship]?" Gonzalez said. "He had never seen me pitch, but he was going to risk that so I was going to be able to play right away my freshman year. He was going to challenge me, and that was the best part."
Walton went to work polishing Gonzalez's mechanics. Gonzalez had a tendency to lean back when he reached the top of his delivery. That was causing his lift leg to move out and left foot to be aligned under his chest.
After Walton helped Gonzalez craft a strictly linear, downhill delivery, Gonzalez drastically cut down on east-west misses and became an even more commanding pitcher.
"He refined me," Gonzalez said. "Just putting pieces of the puzzle together. He would explain to me. He was like a scientist. He would ask me, 'Why? Why this? Did you like this?' He always wanted to communicate and give feedback."
The most crucial course in the Gonzalez's mound education was pitch development.
By the first game of Gonzalez's freshman year, his fastball was consistently hitting 92-93 mph. As Gonzalez's velocity increased, Walton did away with the loopy slurve and showed Gonzalez a hard slider that turned into a capable out-pitch in a matter of weeks.
Gonzalez also came to understand the reasons behind the natural movement on his ball and developed a lethal cutter he could throw at 88-92 mph.
"Guys in college, honestly, they have some good sliders, but that cutter -- people don't have that," Walton said. "They just don't have that pitch. It's Mariano Rivera-like. It's so hard and late. It's moving six inches at 92 mph."
As a freshman, Gonzalez earned conference Pitcher of the Year honors. And he continued to get better and better.
Midway through his sophomore season, Gonzalez had also worked on a changeup he would later improve in the Rangers' farm system. He started working on a curveball. He could spot all of his pitches on either side of the plate, and he had a confident mound presence to tie it all together.
"He just started to become the whole package," Walton said. "Middle of his sophomore year, I thought he was a first-round pick."
Walton left for Oklahoma State, his alma mater, before Gonzalez's junior season, but the two kept in touch. Gonzalez went on to learn more about attacking hitters under ORU pitching coach Sean Snedeker and learned from Jeff Andrews, another esteemed pitching coach, with Double-A Frisco.
"All those guys that helped me out from when I was little until now, when I play, I play with them," Gonzalez said. "I use what they taught me and I put it in my game."
Gonzalez, though, is a Walton product in every sense. From his slow, smooth, meticulous mechanics to his ability to remember every pitch and break down every sequence from a game, the Walton zen is apparent.
He's started his career with a 2-1 record and 0.90 ERA in four Major League starts, pitching in a fashion so dominant his name has been mentioned in the same sentence as Fernando Valenzuela.
That hype might be unfair for the 23-year-old, but Gonzalez is showing the makings of a pitcher capable of staying around for a long time.
"He's earned it," Walton said. "He's a guy who can take instruction and apply it and maintain it. … It couldn't happen to a better kid. He's the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. The parents are first-class people. I'm just proud to say I was a part of it."
Cody Stavenhagen is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.