Equipped with thundering 80-grade raw power and a missile launcher for an arm, Cardinals star rookie Jordan Walker made headlines this Spring, slashing .424/.424/.788 for a 1.212 OPS through March 23, which at one point led all of Grapefruit League play. A shoulder injury hampered his production, but Oli Marmol was nonetheless pleased with his performance and perseverance while battling adversity, as he was granted the opening day starting right field spot.
That moment when your dream becomes a reality. pic.twitter.com/lHU7tiZBn3— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) March 26, 2023
Walker’s first handful of games in the show captivated Cardinals fans as he went on a historic twelve-game hitting streak to begin his career. This feat, however, is just a gilded surface concealing a much more nuanced profile. He’s slashed .278/.321/.397, good for a .318 wOBA and a 101 wRC+ through 78 plate appearances. In Layman’s terms, he’s been a league-average hitter so far whose production has been carried by his elite exit velocities. Let’s take a deeper dive into his season and evaluate what Jordan’s done well and what he needs to improve on going forward.
Batted Ball Profile
While he’s not expected to be a .300 hitter, scouts have always been optimistic that Jordan would eventually match barrel accuracy with his existing bat speed. He’s hit very well as a professional, but Walker could still stand to make some adjustments to his swing.
Jordan’s always posted some of the highest exit velocities at any minor league level, but he’s had difficulty generating lift. He’s never run a groundball rate lower than 42.9% anywhere, so a tweak to elevate more consistently could be in the works to better leverage his power. The same has reigned true at the big league level, where Walker has run a 60.4% GB rate to the tune of a 2.7° average launch angle (53 batted ball events).
Despite his loud toolset, it’s scary to think that he could be far more dangerous if he hits line drives and flyballs at a higher rate. He slugged a jaw-dropping .648 at the pitcher-friendly Florida State League in 2021 but hasn’t notched a value above .510 in the high minors; not what you’d expect from a guy capable of crushing 40 homers a year.
Through just twenty games, Jordan has seen a steady diet of offspeed pitches and breaking balls, having few heaters thrown his way (less than 50%). Walker has fared well against breaking balls and fastballs, registering a .291 xwOBA and .351 xwOBA, respectively. Teams have pitched him very aggressively but he’s more than held his own on breaking balls thanks to his advanced spin and wrist angle recognition.
Jordan’s struggled mightily against offspeed pitches, mustering a grueling .210 xwOBA on 30 changeups seen this year. He’ll have to adjust his approach by better recognizing that initial 2-8 movement before the pitch falls off the table. Here, Pirates starter Vince Velasquez slams the brakes and fooled the rookie low and inside.
His xWOBA heatmap backs this up; Jordan does most of his damage against pitches up in the zone and down the middle but struggles against the lower third. He’s excelled at extending the barrel of the bat against pitches away but struggles to drop the hammer against those pesky changeups that have haunted him as a professional.
Young hitters are eager to make a splash, which usually comes at the expense of a more disciplined approach. Jordan’s paid for his league-average slash line so far by running a mere 3.8% BB% and one of the more aggressive metrics in the league. He’s swinging 55.4% of the time, allowing him to run a fringy Z-Contact% of 84.4%. Although he’s chasing (O-Contact%) 40.4% of the time, this is largely attributed to an overall high number of swings in general. With added restraint will come improvements in this department, although a value this high is alarming nonetheless.
As aforementioned, Walker does a great job of extending to attack pitches up and away, but his large frame and long lever will always call for high swing and miss rates. He’s still whiffing badly in the zone and when he does make contact, his power doesn’t play the way you’d want it to (as explained above). Altering his approach to better barrel pitches in his wheelhouse will be key as the season continues.
Walker’s raw athleticism is an interesting case. Even though he’s posting an 89th-percentile sprint speed, his 4.45 HP to 1B time would’ve ranked 257th out of 529 eligible players last season, placing him just below the league average. At some point down the road, I think Walker will wind up a 40-grade runner simply due to physical maturity, though he’s capable of swiping 15 or more bags a season throughout his late 20s.
Jordan is a perfect case study of why fans should be wary of using sprint speed as a proxy for a player’s athleticism. Sprint speed is just the measure of a runner’s maximum velocity at any point while on the basepaths. This latter part is key because it can take some players longer than others to get going at full steam, but this could happen beyond a runner reaching first base. We only care about the first 90 feet because he needs to reach base safely before he can worry about rounding the bag and digging for extras. Therefore, the runner would ideally be making efficient use of their quickness to reach their top speed before they reach first base.
Think of it this way. A Tesla Model S and a Mercedes S Class both have a top speed of 155 MPH. However, the Tesla is going to reach 0-60 MPH much faster because of the instant torque induced by the electric motor, whereas the petrol engine in the Benz is going to accelerate the vehicle more slowly. Both will reach 155 MPH eventually, but the Tesla will beat the Mercedes off of the line.
In an ideal world, we’d have a direct measure of a runner’s acceleration. Unfortunately, sprint speed is just a motion-captured velocity value, so no equation can be derived to then arrive at acceleration (which would be represented by ft/sec^2). While not perfect, HP to 1st time is a better proxy for true runner quickness than sprint speed itself. Even though it’s not a measure of acceleration, it essentially acts as a 0-60 time for runners.
Jordan took reps at shortstop throughout his career at Decatur High before settling in at third full-time. He stayed there as a young professional and has profiled better than when originally drafted.
Fast forward two and a half years, and with the presence of one the best defensive third basemen in league history blocking his path, Walker has been forced to right field. It’s been a rocky start to the season, but overall feel for the position will come with time. He currently ranks in the 4th percentile in OAA, and while his route-running has been strong, Jordan’s initial reads aren’t the cleanest as he reacts poorly without much acceleration. The former shows that while he’s inexperienced, the outfield isn’t alien to Jordan, and he has a feel for tracking already.
More positively, Walker has boasted a 70-grade cannon in right field. A 100.2 MPH throw earlier this year ranks in the 94th percentile leaguewide, combining for a total package that I think will keep him at the 9 as a solid defensive outfielder overall. Playing the position cleanly might not come easily to Walker, but runners should ultimately expect the worst should they decide to test him.
It’s clear that Jordan’s been pushed early on, but his handling of major league growing pains and advanced skillset as the league’s youngest player is the reason he made the team out of camp. He’s battled well having his raw power play for him as he continues tuning his swing, but he’ll need to overhaul his approach if he wants to reach his full potential as a batter. Hitting balls at a more optimal launch angle while improving his plate coverage will go a long way in seeing his production numbers skyrocket. Walker will likely never be a burner on the basepaths nor a perennial Gold Glove winner, but there’s every reason to believe that Jordan will be one of the most lethal hitters on the planet if he can fully optimize his scathing toolset.