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System Sundays 16th May 2021: Walker’s Hot Start, Lefties Abound

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The first day of rest roundup of the minors of 2021.

Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

That’s right, everyone. It’s time for the first official installment of System Sundays for 2021. And, in fact, the first official System Sundays since 2019, seeing as how there was no system, and therefore no need for these weekly-ish check in posts, during the nightmare year that was 2020.

So let’s kick off the year with a look at last year’s top pick and his hot start, then comb through a few players in the unusually well-populated demographic of left-handed pitcher in the Cards’ system.

Walker’s Career Off to a Grand Start

When the Cardinals made Jordan Walker their first round draft pick last June, a lot of people were surprised. I admit to being among that number; in a draft so heavily tilted toward pitching, especially college pitching, I really expected the Cardinals to come away with a slew of experienced arms to repopulate the top of the system with near-term assets. Instead, with their first three picks — fully half he selections they had in the truncated draft — El Birdos went for raw talent, picking three high school kids, all of whom possess extremely high ceilings but also substantial questions of one sort or another.

Tops among that group was Walker, an incredibly gifted physical specimen of a player, but one whose ability to stay at third base long term, and propensity for swinging and missing, were both real issues when evaluating his draft stock. There aren’t a ton of 6’5” and above third basemen in baseball history, and while Walker’s raw power rates as highly as any player you’re likely to see, that natural pop, and the long levers that make it possible, come with a swing that got long at times in high school, and a tendency to cheat on fastballs, making Walker extra vulnerable to breaking and offspeed pitches.

Well, it’s worth pointing out, and keeping in mind, that 50 plate appearances is not much of a sample size. Even worse than 50 plate appearances is 44 plate appearances, which is the exact number of times Walker has come to the dish in his professional career thus far. (Officially, that is; he did play at the extended camp last summer, but we have no actual numbers for that.) It’s important to keep in mind how small a sample we’re talking about here, because if we don’t, one might be tempted to do something crazy, like conclude Jordan Walker is the best prospect in the Cardinals’ system, or project Dave Winfield’s career on to the young slugger, or something equally ridiculous.

With that caveat fixed firmly in our minds, here is Jordan Walker’s batting line through his first 44 professional plate appearances: .382/.523/.706. He has hit two homers, three doubles, and a triple through his first ten games. Even more impressively — and more important for the future — Walker is currently running a walk to strikeout ratio of better than one, with a 22.7% walk rate and 20.5% strikeout rate. As I said, Walker’s natural physical abilities, including the ability to put an unholy charge into a baseball on any given swing, were never in question. This level of plate approach is, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise from a player who has yet to turn nineteen years old — to be fair, he did show one of the more intelligent, mature plate approaches of any high school hitter in the 2020 draft, but he was still a high school hitter — and is probably the single most encouraging development so far this spring in the Cards’ farm system.

It’s also worth pointing out that Walker has been hitting the ball incredibly hard in general, which shows up in his slugging stats and all those extra base hits, but also in a very measurable way via a groundout, of all things, that prompted Baseball America’s JJ Cooper to tweet the following:

Now, how predictive is a minor leaguer hitting one ground ball very, very hard? Tough to say, honestly. I think we can assume it doesn’t guarantee him a trip to Cooperstown or anything. Still, less than a dozen games into his professional career, Jordan Walker has already hit a baseball harder than nearly anyone else in the game and is showing a batting eye leagues better than other players his age, not to mention absolutely dominating Low A pitching in general. It is worth mentioning his batting average on balls in play is an absurd .478, which could be seen as an indication there is a lot of luck built into his results. On the other hand, back in 2011 we saw the late Oscar Taveras torch Midwest League pitching to the tune of a .440 BABIP en route to a 190 wRC+, and those in-play results were not luck. Rather, Taveras was simply too good for the competition at that level, and one of the ways that can really manifest in the minors is in a BABIP that looks like a mistake at first, or an extreme run of lucky bounces, or some other kind of anomaly. (Nolan Gorman did a similar thing in his first taste of pro ball, posting a .411 BABIP in rookie ball after being drafted in 2018.) Maybe those Kris Bryant comps I’ve had in my back pocket for Walker aren’t so outlandish after all...

Yes, it’s only 44 plate appearances, and we should absolutely keep that in mind. Still, I would hazard a guess that it won’t be too very long before we see Jordan Walker moved up a level, because to my eye he is simply too good for Low A competition. There is an interesting little sidebar to this story, which is that Low A ball is now the Florida State League, which is where the Cardinals’ Palm Beach affiliate plays, meaning that the Cards’ Roger Dean complex, essentially the capital of their minor league system, is now a Low A park, rather than High A. Whether that would lead to the Cards keeping Walker down there, where he can work most closely with the minor league braintrust, or not, remains to be seen.

Early Returns on Lefties

One of the strongest demographics in the Cardinals’ system right now is left-handed pitching, specifically of the starting variety, with two of their top three or four prospects being lefty starters.

  • Matthew Liberatore is the crown jewel of the Cards’ pitching pipeline right now, either the number one or number prospect in the system, depending on how you view him versus Nolan Gorman. After being acquired from Tampa Bay in the 2019-’20 offseason, Liberatore became the victim of some really unfortunate timing, seeing his first season with a new organisation more or less erased by the Covid pandemic, preventing him from making any sort of positive impression. Even so, he was reported to have had a very good turn in summer camp last year, and more or less hit the ground running this spring. He’s made two starts so far in 2021, one very good, and one fairly rough. In his first start, Liberatore threw six innings of two-run ball, striking out six and walking no one, being dinged for a home run. His last time out, things didn’t go so well, as the tall lefty gave up five runs on seven hits, striking out four against a single walk. It’s worth noting that Liberatore is both working on his slider in games and also, I’m told, experimenting with a high fastball to complement his curve better. Whether anything comes of that or not remains to be seen, but it’s interesting that such a highly thought of prospect is doing so much experimenting in-season. It’s definitely a positive Liberatore is looking to improve; we’ll just have to wait and see if expanding his already-strong repertoire will ultimately bear fruit. The early reports on the slider’s development are extremely positive, I should point out.
  • Zack Thompson has had a little less encouraging a start to the season than Liberatore, but it’s certainly still very early on. Thompson has actually only started one game, then came into a contest in relief of Bernardo Flores Jr. his last time out. Flores, you’ll remember, is actually a lefty reliever primarily, who has already appeared with the big club this season. I haven’t asked anyone, but I would assume he was making a start just to get some work in, and Thompson made the relief appearance to stay on schedule. Overall, Thompson has thrown 7.1 innings so far this season, and is pitching to a 7.36 ERA, having been bitten by the home run bug and some control issues, to the tune of five walks and just seven strikeouts in his two appearances. The stuff has been good, but the locations and results have not been strong so far. It’s too early to worry, obviously, but given the Cardinals’ near-term pitching outlook at the major league level, Thompson’s development could be very, very important as they try to line up what the rotation is going to look like in 2022 and beyond.
  • Finally, Levi Prater, the Cards’ third round pick in last year’s stub of a draft, looks like he should be with the major league club already. No, not because he’s been so amazing in Palm Beach that he looks like a big leaguer, but because in eleven innings over three starts he’s already walked eleven batters. He and John Gant should get along really well, I would think. On the upside, Prater has also struck out fifteen hitters in those eleven innings, showing off both the deception in his crossfire delivery and the quality of his stuff, the slider in particular. That 30%+ strikeout rate is certainly encouraging, but for a college starter who came with the label of being very polished, it’s worrisome to see Prater failing to find the strike zone. Then again, quite a few minor leaguers seem to be searching for some purchase right now, the effects of last year’s long layoffs and unsettled schedule seeming to show up not in reduced stuff, but rather just general rust. Ultimately, I think Prater’s delivery has him destined for bullpen work, but I’m sure the club will keep pushing him as a starter until he proves that is untenable, and his strikeout punch could make him an impact reliever down the line.

A Sleeper, But Not for Much Longer

Coming into the season, my picks for sleeper prospects or prospects who could see a big jump in their stocks over the course of the 2020 season were Ian Bedell on the pitching side and Alec Burleson on the position player/hitter side. Both were selected in last year’s draft, and both came from well-respected college programs (Bedell from Mizzou, Burleson from East Carolina), as high-level performers whose baseball skills outstripped their baseball tools. Bedell so far has been another of those pitchers who is struggling to nail down his command (though he’s also showing some very strong strikeout ability, similar to Levi Prater). Burleson, meanwhile, was maybe the breakout story of the first couple weeks of the season. Then again, I kind of wish I had written this column last week, because at that time his numbers were much more impressive.

Overall, Burleson’s numbers are still outstanding, as he is posting a .939 OPS and 168 wRC+ through the same 44 plate appearances Jordan Walker has, though Burleson is playing in Peoria for the High A Chiefs. The bad news? Over the past four games, Burleson has collected just four hits (and only one extra-base hit, a double), in nineteen plate appearances, while striking out nine times and drawing but a single walk. A week ago, Burleson’s OPS was over 1.100 and he was running a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (20% walks and strikeouts both). Now, his strikeout rate for the season has spiked to over 30%, while his walk rate has fallen to 13.6%. On the upside, his isolated slugging percentage for the year is still .263, which, given that power was really the one thing I was unsure of regarding his offensive profile coming out of the draft, is an extremely encouraging number.

The real takeaway here, of course, is that we’re talking about fewer than 50 plate appearances, and following a crazy hot start, Burleson is dealing for the first time with opposing pitchers getting reports on him and working him with the kind of care that middle of the order hitters generally warrant. The question is how long it takes Burleson to adjust to the new approach teams are taking against him, and how well he’s able to pivot to tweaking his own approach to get back on top. Long term, Burleson may not have a really good position or path to the big leagues, but I thought he was one of the cannier selections the Cardinals made in last year’s draft, nabbing a player with top shelf contact skills and plate discipline with a mid-round pick, and so far it looks like he has the bat to make an impact.