Walker to Memphis: Do I Really Feel the Way I Feel?

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve become increasingly convinced that a lot of the subtle roster construction hacks some teams use to get the most out of their prospects — service time manipulation, extremely restrictive pitcher workload management, drafting by bonus demand rather than picking the best player available — are too cute by half. Sometimes it pays off, but in most cases, players are going to be good, or they’re not. They’re going to stay healthy, or they’re not. And fixating on the externalities is ultimately self-defeating.

Consider Jordan Walker. The St. Louis Cardinals, to their immense credit, brought Walker north from spring training last year. The no. 12 global prospect that offseason, Walker was only 20 at the time, and hadn’t had so much as a sniff at Triple-A. But he was athletic for his 6-foot-5 frame, which promised so much power the question was whether scouts could accurately report it before they ran out of pluses.

Did it matter that the Cardinals had an extremely crowded outfield at the time? No. Did it matter that if Walker lived up to his potential, he’d hit free agency at age 26? No. The only thing that mattered was whether he’d sink or swim.

Thirteen months later, Walker is being demoted for the second time since his big league debut. The first demotion, which came almost exactly a year ago, was arguably undeserved. Walker had started his major league career with a 12-game hit streak; even after a 5-for-26 slump that included just two walks and one extra-base hit, the big man was hitting .274/.321/.397.

Nevertheless, seven weeks in Memphis did Walker good; after his return, he hit .277/.346/.455 with 14 home runs in his final 97 games. And he was still hitting the ball hard; 6.0% of Walker’s batted balls went out at 110 mph or more, placing him one spot ahead of anthropomorphic bicep Yandy Díaz on the leaderboard. It wasn’t always pretty, but a 116 wRC+ over 465 PA, with a strikeout rate of 22.4% — you’d take that from a rookie corner outfielder in his age-21 season, wouldn’t you?

This winter, the outfield logjam cleared out a little, with Tyler O’Neill being shipped up to Boston and utilityman Tommy Edman recovering from offseason surgery. Also, Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals’ other talented but frustrating young outfielder, is currently on the IL. (I know — more on that later.)

So how did Walker, after a promising 2023, play his way off the roster in four weeks?

Well, suffice it to say, hitting .155/.239/.259 as a starting corner outfielder will get just about anyone benched, no matter their prospect pedigree.

When a player like Walker — a big, long hitter with plus raw power but relatively little major league experience — struggles, the logical thing to assume is that he’s not making enough contact. Certainly that was the first thing I thought. But that’s not really it. Compared to last year, Walker is swinging less outside the zone and swinging more in it. He’s making slightly more contact, and insofar as his K% has risen, it’s done so by the equivalent of roughly one strikeout every 10 days.

What about quality of contact? Well, Walker is hitting the ball nearly as hard; his barrel rate is up to almost 12%. If you look at Sports Info Solutions’ soft, medium, and hard contact buckets, Walker is running the exact same Soft% as Mookie Betts, with a better Hard%. And even though there had been previous drama over how many groundballs Walker was hitting, his GB/FB ratio has actually gone down.

That last point, however, is not actually good news. See, Walker was actually hitting more grounders than before, but his GB/FB ratio went down because he’s hitting almost no line drives — just two liners in 67 plate appearances. At the time of Walker’s demotion, 233 players had batted at least 60 times this year; Walker is 232nd in line drive rate. (Poor Parker Meadows, God bless him, is still looking for his first liner of 2024.)

Now, I don’t care if you’re Christian Yelich or Aaron Judge — every hitter needs line drives to survive, no matter if he’s a ground-and-pound guy or an elevate-and-celebrate guy. They’re the best kind of batted ball, and if Walker’s not getting any, it’s no wonder he’s hitting .155. Baseball Savant defines a “Sweet Spot” launch angle as being between eight and 32 degrees. Of his 15 hardest-hit balls this year — starting at 98.7 mph — Walker has gotten into that launch angle range just three times. He’s hit more balls in that velocity band (four) with a launch angle between minus-8 and minus-32.

Walker’s exit velocity numbers have been good (though by no means great — after Monday’s action, he’s 78th out of 279 qualified hitters on Baseball Savant’s EV50 leaderboard). But he’s gotten comically little out of his hard contact. Here are Walker’s numbers on batted balls of at least 90 and 100 mph, and where that production ranked at the time of his demotion:

Jordan Walker Is Getting Zero Buck for His Bang
EV>=90 BA xBA SLG xSLG
Value .261 .379 .435 .706
Rank* 181st 148th 173rd 124th
EV>=100 BA xBA SLG xSLG
Value .364 .500 .727 1.042
Rank** 185th 178th 170th 146th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*Minimum 25 batted balls (188 players)
**Minimum 10 batted balls (195 players)

It beggars belief, frankly, the extent to which Walker’s hard contact has been unproductive. And add on that even within that context, he’s been unlucky.

So the Cardinals have a corner outfielder who’s hitting .155 with little power, whose launch angles would look better if he came to the plate hanging upside-down from his ankles. And he hasn’t made much of a case to remain in the majors based on his defense. In his most recent Friday column, Ben Clemens gave Walker props for a full-extension diving catch to rob Jackson Merrill of extra bases. But that catch is a historical outlier.

Last season, Walker posted a WAR total of 1.0, despite that aforementioned 116 wRC+. Which seems awfully low, even for a corner outfielder who didn’t quite qualify for the batting title. Sure enough, he was horrendous defensively; his OAA was -14, placing him dead last among qualified outfielders. It was a real question of whether this 21-year-old with plus sprint speed was a worse defender than Kyle Schwarber last year.

And now feels like a good time to revisit how, exactly, Carlson came to be on the IL. During the last week of spring training, Carlson and Walker converged on a gapper in right-center. Walker dove, either to catch the ball or to avoid his onrushing center fielder, and in the process accidentally went all Darius Kasparaitis on Carlson’s legs. Carlson, tumbling ass-over-tea-kettle, landed badly on his shoulder and is only now preparing to embark on a rehab assignment.

Obviously it’s too early to give up on Walker in the broader sense. All the skills that made him a top-15 global prospect are still there, and he’s still a month shy of turning 22. And as bad as his offensive results have been, there’s a credible argument that he’s suffered a tragic smiting by the BABIP gods.

Nevertheless, this is a textbook case of a player who needs to spend some time in Triple-A, where the wins and losses don’t matter and his failures — rather than being fodder for national baseball columnists — will be between him, his coaches, and the malevolent all-seeing eye that inhabits the Bass Pro Shops pyramid in Memphis. Something has gone seriously wrong, and neither team nor player is served by pretending otherwise.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Greg in Baltimore
26 days ago

It’s a solid reference, that Marc Cohn one.

Barney Coolio
26 days ago

Ah, good catch, I thought it was an odd title.

How does one get better at defense? Just more repetitiions and practice?

jasonl
26 days ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Yes, but I think for most guys there’s a limit to what that gives, there’s an instinct. Ben laughed at a question I asked about whether Walker might be better served moving to 1B after Goldschmidt is gone; since he came up a 3B he should be able to handle it, a la Albert Pujols, and I’ll stand by that. He’s athletic enough to play OF but sure doesn’t look good doing it

Barney Coolio
26 days ago
Reply to  jasonl

I don’t understand how that is a laughable suggestion.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
26 days ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Honestly thought last year that they should have traded Goldy to a contender and moved him to first.

Last edited 26 days ago by Cool Lester Smooth
Chris Reitsma
26 days ago
Reply to  jasonl

His defense in right has been fine at worst this year

jasonl
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris Reitsma

It’s also been 25 games, and it is currently dead average and trending down as the sample gets bigger

shampain
26 days ago
Reply to  jasonl

I’ve suggested this in other forums and people haven’t been enthusiastic about it anywhere. But I agree. The thinking seems to be that his footwork is bad and it would be a fast of his arm, but neither of those are fully prohibitive IMO.

Famous Mortimer
26 days ago
Reply to  shampain

Are there a lot of 1B guys as tall as him?

Lanidrac
26 days ago
Reply to  jasonl

Yet, there’s no guarantee Walker will be able to play 1B, another position he’s never played before. They’ll at least need to try him out there in the Fall Leagues first.

In the meantime, they can’t hamper their early moves next offseason while they wait to see if it pans out. If there’s a good opportunity at the right price to resign Goldschmidt or sign someone like (Christian) Walker or Hoskins early in the offseason, they should take it.

belkiollemember
14 days ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Goldy looks done. If he doesn’t improve drastically I expect him to retire at the end of the year. Christian Walker would be a good fit but expensive. I’d rather see them move Gorman to first and allow Walker to continue growing in the OF.