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Thoughts on Jordan Walker’s demotion

The move made sense. The move to put him on the Opening Day roster did not.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

I kind of can’t believe how poorly the Cardinals’ season has started. That’s an appropriate response given it’s the worst start in 50 years. The Cardinals have undoubtedly not played well. But it still feels like everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The Cardinals are tied for 6th in baseball in wRC+. They are 15th in actual runs scored. For good measure, they have the 2nd hardest hit rate in baseball. They are 16th in baseball in FIP and 4th in baseball in xFIP - yes 4th. They are 21st in ERA.

The Cardinals have combined a few things - bad play, very bad luck, very bad sequencing* and a relatively tough schedule - and when you mix all it together, that’s how a team that won 93 games and added Willson Contreras can start a year 9-16. There’s a good news/bad news to this: the rest of the season, starting from now, will definitely go better than the season has started. This is most likely the most miserable it will be to watch the 2023 Cardinals. The bad news is they may have dug way too big a hole for it to ultimately matter.

*The Cardinals got eight hits last night, including two homers and two doubles, and also walked six times, and scored three times. 14 baserunners, a few extra base hits sprinkled in and as few runs as possible. How?

But alas, time to talk about the topic at hand. A couple weeks ago, I detailed the dilemma the Cardinals faced with Jordan Walker. That he was clearly not one of the four best outfielders on the team and that put them in an awkward position. One of the factors I said that may lead them to ultimately have to demote Walker was that they started the season so badly - little did I know it would get worse - and that at some point, you’d need to consider prioritizing playing the best team.

I did not know that was going to happen on April 25th. You may be wondering why the Cardinals had to make this move and if you’re wondering that, it may be difficult to convince you.

But the truth is that the Cardinals putting Jordan Walker on the Opening Day roster was very stupid. There was not a great case for it. There was very little reason to think he was ready. He had a 128 wRC+ in AA, which is unquestionably good, but not the type of good that is worthy of skipping a level. Then the Cardinals had to be at least moderately aware that Walker’s defense really did need work. His projection was below average. The argument for him making the team was spring training. That was the entire argument for making the team. That is not a good argument.

I don’t like making these arguments because I’ve made them before to Walker defenders who invariably interpret these comments as me somehow condemning Walker’s future, but it’s me condemning the Cardinals. It’s not Walker’s fault. They bought into the hype that he was the next Albert Pujols, and maybe let the draft pick sway their decision-making too much.

It was always very weird to give him the job over Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, and Tyler O’Neill. I know there are some Nootbaar is a 4th OFer fans out there, some Carlson is a bad hitter fans, and some fans who really don’t like Tyler O’Neill, but well their expected production was simply too high for Walker to beat. Walker’s 80th percentile projection was a 109 OPS+. Nootbaar’s 50th percentile projection was 113, O’Neill’s was 115, Carlson’s was 106, and Burleson’s was 105. 80th percentile for the group was 134 (Noot), 137 (TON), 127 (Carlson), and 128 (Burleson).

Then of course there’s defense. Carlson, Nootbaar and O’Neill are good corner outfield defenders, something approaching average in CF. Walker with a 109 OPS+ and the current level of his defense is not a very good player. And yeah Burleson isn’t good at defense either, but he has a .348 xwOBA (before yesterday) and generally hits the hell out of the ball. Walker’s is .303 if you were wondering.

The Walker news may have confused you, but it actually makes sense. What is actually confusing is the Cardinals’ treatment of Dylan Carlson, which is a good opportunity to defend Dylan Carlson.

I like Burleson, he’s actually on my fantasy team (40 man roster edition), but Carlson should start everyday for a while. Against both lefties and righties. Just give him a chance. He’s proven himself at the major league level. Through his first 1,277 plate appearances, he has a 102 career wRC+. With okay defense at CF, that’s been a 2.4 fWAR player per 600 PAs. That includes his poor start this year and his first 119 PAs in 2020 when he was below replacement, so he’s likely a better player than that.

More importantly, he’s still just 24. He may or may not improve as a hitter. The Cards should probably give him a chance though. Why has he been buried? The Cardinals are already giving up on him against RHP?? That’s so weird! The weirdest part of all is there’s really not much reason to think he should be worse against RHP, which is more a commentary that I think his LHP stats are super inflated and not something we should expect.

Consider: his BABIP against LHP is .398, against RHP it’s .274. He has a similar BB rate, similar K rate, and just a touch more power against LHP. Is he probably better against LHP? Sure. Is it anywhere near this extreme? Just looking at the numbers, I’m not seeing it. Seems like luck is driving his LHP stats more than him actually being way better against LHP.

As for as why Taylor Motter got promoted, that’s a bit more confusing. Him and Paul DeJong would seem to occupy the same role. I imagine it’s about being able to not play a guy on the bench, because everyone else more or less is going to play a decent amount. But might as well call up Juan Yepez. There’s not much reason to “save” him. He is most likely a bench player, so he’s going to have to learn to hit without a starter’s playing time. But it does remove an obligation to give another player a regular rotation of starts.

But yeah, Jordan Walker has just the perfect mix of stats that would fool someone not necessarily into advanced stats into thinking he hasn’t been that bad. He has a .274 average, but just a .321 OBP. Despite his power, he has only a .397 slugging percentage. His approach could use work, with a 3.8 BB% and 25.6 K%. His defense is the reason he’s going to AAA, but I also do think the K/BB numbers are as well. He has a 101 wRC+ and needs a .353 BABIP and yes he’ll run high BABIPs, but there have been 13 players total with a .340 BABIP or higher with at least 2,000 plate appearances in the last 10 years. Only two with .350 or higher (one of them is Goldschmidt). And at least by xwOBA, it suggests he’s getting lucky on the BABIP front.

But that’s okay. He’s 20-years-old. He’s 20-years-old! He had never played in AAA before this season. He had played a grand total of 29 professional games in the outfield before this year. Again, it is insane to me that the Cardinals thought he was ready, this is not a reflection on Walker. I didn’t really get a good look at him in the outfield before the regular season, but there had to be some sign that his outfield defense was an issue. And while there was good reason to think he could be a roughly league average hitter at 20 which is insane, if the Cardinals had any indication of his defense, he would need to be a much better hitter than was reasonable to expect.

But well, if they sent him down, fans would have gotten mad. I don’t really think that played a part, but I’m sure the cry of “service time manipulation” was subconsciously there. Hell, I saw some comments saying that NOW. If they wanted to manipulate his service time, believe me, he would have started the season in the minors. It would have been incredibly easy - in fact easier than what they ended up doing.

Jordan Walker was demoted. It makes sense. He will be back. Hopefully, he’ll look a little something like Nolan Gorman does right now. (And actually, in retrospect I guess, fascinating that they kept Gorman in the minors to begin last season because pretty similar situation to Walker except Gorman actually had experience in AAA - also about 40 more games experience at 2B - same rule was in place last year)