How a 2005 Manny Ramirez home run led Marcus Walden to the Red Sox

Rob Bradford
May 02, 2019 - 7:49 am

Marcus Walden's existence with the Red Sox is becoming tough to ignore.

The Red Sox pitcher has become one of his team's most relied-upon relievers this season, as was evident in Wednesday afternoon's win. Three innings. Just one baserunner. More dominance.

The story of Walden has been surfaced before, particularly after making the 2018 Opening Day roster. He was the career minor-leaguer who almost quit baseball before finally finding his path to the big leagues thanks to perseverance, the commitment by a new organization and a revamped slider. (For more on that pitch, read Alex Speier's article on the evolution of the offering.)

But through it all what might be the most eye-popping aspect of Walden's existence is how he actually landed with the Red Sox. For that, he can thank a home run hit by Manny Ramirez on April 20, 2005.

"I don’t think there is any possible chance that I’m here," said Greg Rybarczyk of the blast. "I never would have thought to really go do this. I think without that home run I keep on doing what I was doing. I would have been happy doing it, living in Oregon, but it would have been something else. It was just one of those events that turn your fate in a different direction. I feel like I haven’t worked a day since I got this job. I feel really fortunate, really blessed Manny hit that home run."

For the sake of the Walden story, it's important to recognize how Rybarczyk ended up where he is, working in the Red Sox' analytics department. If not for that twist of fate this fairytale might not exist.

Before being hired by the Red Sox the Ayer, Mass. native was going down a distinctly baseball-free career path, working in the Navy (helping operating nuclear power plants on ships) before joining General Electric and then Xerox. And while the jobs took Rybarczyk across the country to Oregon, he still religiously followed his hometown team, including that day in April when Ramirez cleared the Fenway Park light tower.

It baffled the engineer that nobody could -- or dared to -- guess the accurate distance of the home run. So, Rybarczyk set out to find some answers on his own. Soon Home Run Tracker was born.

"That’s what inspired me to find out how far home runs can really go," he said. "That was the first step to getting involved with the Red Sox."

Rybarczyk was first introduced to Red Sox' analysts Zack Scott and Tom Tippett in 2008 after presenting his Hit Tracker technology at a SportVision conference in San Francisco. But it wouldn't be until just after the 2013 season that an offer was ultimately made by the Sox immerse the former Naval engineer into the world of baseball on a full-time basis. And even though he would have to move his family from Oregon, the decision wasn't a difficult one. "I thought about it for about 100th of a second," noted Rybarczyk.

Nearly three years later Rybarczyk was sitting at his desk, digesting information on potential minor-league free agents, when an intriguing name jumped off the list: Marcus Walden.

"One of the things I was doing at the time was looking at what we call pitch scores," he explained. "Essentially what this is, it’s an analytical model created using the pitch tracking and technology we have which is radar-based tracking, such as StatCast. We built some models which allow us to take a look at pitch-tracking data for a pitcher without even having to look at them initially. We can form an opinion on the quality of their pitches against major league competition. It’s especially useful for guys who are low in the minors. We can identify a guy who has a breaking ball or fastball that has the potential to perform at the major league level. We can tell the difference also with a guy whose fastball who will play at the major league level. Sometimes we find guys who are getting people out at the High-A or A-Ball level and we can look at their pitch tracking and it see his pitches might not be particularly strong as we predicted it would be against major league season.

"So we built a list of guys who are potential acquisitions. I put this list together and Marcus Walden was one of the guys who popped on the list. He was a guy who had some really good pitches that could do well for us. I went to his numbers and he had performed pretty well also."

So Rybarczyk took Walden's name to the director of pro scouting Gus Quattlebaum. There was one problem: The two discovered the Red Sox didn't have a single report on the pitcher.

Walden had been pitching professionally since 2007, but not a single Red Sox scout had offered a specific breakdown of the pitcher. So with the minor league season already over it was determined that a trip to Venezuela to watch Walden pitch was worthwhile. Videos and radar gun readings were taken, and finally, a report was filed. It led to the offer of a minor-league deal to the then-26-year-old.

"We not only liked his pitches as is but we thought in a bullpen role it was pretty likely he would tick up and be a little bit better," Rybarczyk said. "I think he’s definitely better than what we saw. He’s throwing a little bit harder, which not only benefits the fastball but also the secondary pitch. And I believe his command is better in 2019 than it had been for us. What he's done is a testament to his hard work and the coaches who have helped along the way."

It has been a story 14 years in the making, starting with one huge Manny Ramirez swing.