Jordan Walker Tries To Get Off the Ground

Jordan Walker
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Say this for Jordan Walker: He knows how to put together a hitting streak. The 21-year-old rookie has only played in 39 major league games, and in that brief amount of time has recorded two streaks — a career-opening 12-gamer and now a 15-gamer — that together account for more than two-thirds of that run. His bat has suddenly become a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating season for the Cardinals.

Indeed, the reigning NL Central champions remain a hot mess despite winning five of their last seven games and salvaging a split in the London Series against the Cubs after being spanked 9–1 in the opener. The Cardinals have nonetheless been worse in June (7–13) than May (15–13), producing their lowest monthly rate of scoring runs (4.05 per game) along with their highest rate of runs allowed (4.88 per game), and falling from five games out of first place to 8.5 back. That’s hardly been Walker’s fault, though.

Recall that Walker, who ranked 12th on our 2023 Top 100 Prospects list, hit his way onto the roster in spring training, bypassing Triple-A Memphis, and opened the season as the regular right fielder, a situation that was somewhat surprising given the team’s apparent outfield depth. The move guaranteed that Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar would all get less playing time than expected — not the worst thing in the world given the subpar performances of the first two last year. The presence of fellow rookie Alec Burleson only added to the crunch. Yet Walker turned heads by collecting hits in each of his first 12 games, batting .319/.360/.489.

Once the hitting streak ended, however, Walker didn’t get a very long leash as the league adjusted. He went just 5-for-26 over his next eight games, four of which featured multiple strikeouts. Meanwhile, his poor jumps and bad throwing decisions served to remind that he was still a work in progress on defense as well; a converted third baseman, he had just 51 previous professional games in the outfield, including in last year’s Arizona Fall League. Still, it felt odd when, on April 26, the Cardinals optioned him to Memphis, with club president John Mozeliak deciding that the outfield of the 9–15 team was suddenly too crowded. “[G]uys just aren’t getting into rhythm, [with their] expected playing time,” he told reporters, adding that he and manager Oli Marmol envisioned less playing time for the rookie in the near future and figured it made little sense for him to idle on the bench. More understandable was the team’s desire for Walker to work on his approach and hit the ball in the air more often to take advantage of his 70-grade raw power.

So Walker went down to Memphis, where he didn’t exactly put up impressive numbers overall (.239/.348/.398, 90 wRC+), though he did hit the ball in the air more often and strike out less. Most notably, he heated up after a slow start, batting .312/.403/.541 in 72 PA from May 14 to 31. Meanwhile, he missed quite a clown show in St. Louis, where Mozeliak and Marmol suddenly decided that Willson Contreras, the team’s top offseason signing, was somehow no longer fit to be the regular catcher but would become an outfielder, then quickly realized that plan was every bit as stupid as it sounded in terms of the team’s alternatives at catcher and the existing crowd in the outfield.

While toiling at Memphis, Walker nonetheless caused a stir in St. Louis in late May when he told a TV reporter, “There’s no point if I try to hit the ball in the air if I’m not hitting the ball at all.”

As with so much in life, the quote makes more sense and is less inflammatory in context:

“I was told to start hitting the ball in the air and that kind of got to me a little bit, about trying to force the ball in the air a little bit too much. I forced myself to do things that I usually don’t do,

“Right now, I’m not too worried about getting the ball in the air more and I’m starting to drive the ball a lot better now. I think it’s just being more relaxed and not thinking about it at the plate.

“There’s no point if I’m trying to hit the ball in the air if I’m not hitting the ball at all. I might as well hit the ball hard. If it’s on the ground, it’s on the ground. Trying to find the hole. Maybe drive a run in. I feel like as I go through the season, it’s going to get more in the air just like I did last year. So I just have to trust myself and trust how my swing has been in the past three years within the organization. That’s just what I have faith in.”

It’s not as though Walker wasn’t adjusting his mechanics, however. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Guerrero summarized, “Some of [the adjustment] includes avoiding overloading and over-rotating, which created some issues with seeing the ball. Recently, Walker has placed a focus on trying to make contact with pitches when he’s ‘more out front’ on his swing, which he said leads to more loft.”

The video was from May 29; the Cardinals recalled Walker four just days later after placing Nootbaar on the injured list for the second time this season, this time due to a lower back contusion (he missed 10 days in early April after jamming his left thumb while sliding). Walker arrived just as the team began a five-game losing streak, collecting just two hits in the first four games. A solo homer off the Rangers’ Dane Dunning, in yet another loss, kicked off his latest hitting streak, during which he’s batted a sizzling .385/.458/.673 with four homers in 52 PA. For kicks, the Cardinals squeezed a six-game losing streak into Walker’s tear, but he helped them snap it by homering on back-to-back nights against the Mets on June 17–18.

So how does Walker 2.0 stack up compared to his predecessor? He’s certainly more productive, with much improved plate discipline:

Jordan Walker Production and Plate Discipline
Split PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ O-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr% BB% K%
Mar/Apr 78 .274 .321 .397 101 40.4% 55.4% 84.4% 16.4% 3.8% 25.6%
June 75 .333 .413 .561 170 33.2% 47.9% 88.2% 12.6% 10.7% 20.0%

Where Walker had 20 strikeouts and just three walks before being sent down, he’s had 15 strikeouts and eight walks since returning. Not shown in the table above is the extent to which pitchers have gotten skittish, throwing him fewer strikes. Where 45.7% of the pitches he faced before demotion were in the strike zone, just 35.7% of them have been in the zone since he returned, a lower rate than even the majors’ qualified leader, Yordan Alvarez (36.4%)

A closer look shows that Walker is seeing more four-seam fastballs since returning than before (26.6% versus 20.8%), and fewer sliders (22% to 29%); the mix has otherwise not changed appreciably. He’s doing significant damage against both offerings, batting .296 and slugging .630 against the four-seamers and .378/.556 against the sliders, and since the demotion he’s cut his whiff rate on the latter from 39.1% to 33.3%. The only pitch he’s really scuffled against is curves (.154 AVG/.154 SLG), but he’s seen them just 7.7% of the time and is only whiffing on 13.6% of his swings at them; his .289 xBA and .423 xSLG against the curve suggest he’s due for some positive regression.

In addition to showing better plate discipline, Walker is making better contact, though perhaps not exactly in the way the Cardinals envisioned:

Jordan Walker Batted Ball Profile
Split BBE GB/FB GB% FB% Pull% EV LA Barrel% HardHit%
Mar/Apr 53 2.67 60.4% 22.6% 37.7% 90.0 2.7 7.5% 47.2%
June 51 2.50 58.8% 23.5% 45.1% 95.3 2.3 9.8% 62.7%

Earthworms, beware! Walker has gone from hitting the ball hard but mostly on the ground… to hitting the ball even harder, but still mostly on the ground. His average exit velocity has increased by over five miles per hour, and his barrel and hard-hit rates have improved as well. Even so, his June barrel rate would only place in the 61st percentile among qualifiers. He’s pulling the ball with greater frequency but still not elevating much; his average launch angle has barely budged, his June groundball rate is still higher than the highest qualifier (Masataka Yoshida at 55.9%), and likewise for his groundball/fly ball ratio (Christian Yelich at 2.06).

That’s less than ideal, but Walker is hitting the ball so damn hard that even his expected stats show significant improvement:

Jordan Walker Statcast Profile
Mar/Apr 53 90.0 103.6 .274 .256 .397 .366 .316 .298
June 51 95.3 107.1 .333 .317 .561 .519 .419 .398

Walker has added 153 points of xSLG and 100 points of xwOBA in his return. As you’ll note, there’s one column in the table that may be unfamiliar. Best Speed refers to a batter’s average exit velocity for the top 50% of his hardest-hit balls, a metric that MLB Advanced Media’s Tom Tango likes to remind the public is more useful than the easier-to-find average EV because it filters out the noise — all of the bad contact that weighs down the averages without telling us much. Unfortunately Baseball Savant doesn’t make it easy to find this; it’s not on the Statcast player cards, and it’s not on our pages either, but Tango helpfully put together a custom table for this. The column “Best Speed” is that average, and for the big hitters, it’s above 100 mph. Lower the qualifying threshold to 100 plate appearances and voila! Walker ranks fourth:

Statcast Best Speed Leaders
Rk. Year Team xBA xSLG xwOBA Avg EV Avg LA Barrel% Best Speed
1 Aaron Judge NYY .302 .761 .476 97.2 20.6 30.4% 107.7
2 Giancarlo Stanton NYY .221 .476 .320 94.0 8.9 15.6% 107.3
3 Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL .354 .659 .460 94.9 7.7 15.3% 106.9
4 Jordan Walker STL .284 .438 .346 92.6 2.5 8.7% 105.7
5 Juan Soto SDP .268 .501 .399 93.4 4.7 12.6% 105.4
6 Matt Olson ATL .237 .537 .376 94.1 17.4 18.8% 105.4
7 Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR .311 .547 .399 94.2 8.7 13.3% 105.3
8 Joey Gallo MIN .172 .461 .325 93.8 28.2 21.5% 105.0
9 Yandy Díaz TBR .310 .495 .395 94.8 7.3 9.6% 105.0
10 Corey Seager TEX .341 .635 .440 94.8 11.8 19.4% 104.6
11 Shohei Ohtani LAA .289 .620 .417 93.4 13.4 17.5% 104.6
12 Yordan Alvarez HOU .279 .596 .420 93.4 16.3 18.8% 104.5
13 Mike Trout LAA .272 .521 .391 92.0 19.0 16.3% 104.4
14 Tommy Pham NYM .291 .528 .386 94.3 6.8 15.1% 104.4
15 Christian Yelich MIL .287 .472 .369 93.0 5.5 10.3% 104.4
16 Christopher Morel CHC .259 .545 .365 91.3 11.6 16.7% 104.3
17 Jake Burger CHW .251 .525 .351 92.5 13.8 20.3% 104.3
18 Julio Rodríguez SEA .267 .441 .335 92.6 9.0 10.0% 104.2
19 Matt Chapman ATL .252 .508 .362 93.8 17.6 18.3% 104.2
20 Rafael Devers BOS .272 .541 .375 92.6 13.0 13.4% 104.1
Minimum 100 plate appearances.

Even if he has the lowest average launch angle and barrel rate of the group, not to mention the fourth-lowest xwOBA, Walker is in good company. It’s quite a difference from his tied-for-22nd ranking in average exit velo using the same 100-PA threshold.

All told, Walker is hitting a robust .302/.366/.475, and his 135 wRC+ ranks second on the team, four points behind leader Paul Goldschmidt and 18 above third-ranked Nolan Gorman. That said, his defensive metrics are jaw-droppingly dreadful: -10 DRS, -6 RAA, -5.0 UZR, all in just 303.1 innings in the field (213.1 in right field, 90 in left field), though that’s still a small sample and worth taking with a grain of salt. Taken at face value, they offset his offense to the point that Walker has -0.1 fWAR and -0.4 bWAR. He’s at least trending in the right direction, with 0.2 fWAR this month compared to -0.3 before.

Even so, that equates to just a DH-caliber impact over the course of the season, and the Cardinals, in addition to their myriad other flaws, have a logjam at DH due to the presence of Gorman (26 starts there), their ambivalence about Contreras’ defense (17, including nine in a row during his exile from the tools of ignorance), and their desire to rest Goldschmidt (nine) and Nolan Arenado (seven). As with the 21-year-old Walker, the Cardinals themselves are a real work in progress, though right now I feel much better about the former’s prognosis than the latter.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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CC AFCmember
10 months ago

I thought his promotion and demotion was pretty poorly handled by the org. He was rushed to the majors after a good spring training. It was an overreaction to a small sample. He would have benefitted from more time to cook in the minors and they should have had the patience to let him get that time.

But then once they decided the majors was the best place for him, it was pretty freaking predictable that he was going to struggle out of the gate at his age, with his limited exposure to the upper minors, and changing positions. If you’re gonna promote that guy, then have the discipline not to overreact to predictable struggles and let him work through it.

I’m glad he’s having some success now. I doubt he’s reached his final form, still. But very glad for him that he seems to be adjusting well to being jerked around.

10 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

That was a mess but I thought the Willson Contreras thing was handled far worse.

That said, the Cardinals’ outfield situation, if taken as a unit, might be worse collectively. That would take into account the drama of the “open competition” in Spring Training, handing Tyler O’Neill the center field job only for him to fall on his face, the manager throwing O’Neill under the bus, and then for them to return to the original alignment after all the drama…oh, and the Walker drama.

10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It feels weird to say but the Cardinals are a mess. As a Brewers fan I’ve watched for years in begrudging admiration for their organization, but this year is just weird.

How does Marmol still have a job?

10 months ago
Reply to  airforce21one

No idea, he should be fired. He wasn’t good last year either, he was just able to hide behind Goldy and Nado having MVP seasons. Their regression can’t hold the fort down anymore and his awful decisions hurt them a lot (even outside of how bad the pitching is to lose close games anyway)

Cool Lester Smoothmember
10 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I thought the demotion was because of his unspeakably awful defense, more than anything.

He needed more OF experience, and in a place where he wouldn’t be hurting the MLB team.