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Walker & Burleson Are Improving. Can They Be Plus Contributors in 2024?

A long answer to a question I’ve kind of obsessed over the last week.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

A question came up during the most recent Viva El Birdos Podcast that captured my attention. We addressed it briefly – you can listen or watch right here – but I felt the subject deserved a closer look. Here’s the question.

From cdb: What is Jordan Walker’s WAR ceiling as an outfielder?

That one innocent question sparked a week’s worth of obsessive internal (and sometimes external) dialogue from me. It seems so straightforward. But it’s not.

Because Jordan Walker, despite having a solid rookie bat for a 20/21-year-old, still has a negative fWAR – Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement – on the season.

He’s not alone. On the other side of the outfield is another rookie getting regular playing time and also providing below replacement level production. Alec Burleson hasn’t hit quite as well as Walker – 99 to 105 wRC+ – and hasn’t been quite as bad in the outfield by cumulative metrics – -11 OAA for Walker and -5 OAA for Burleson. But his combination of bad defense and mediocre hitting from a position that demands plus offense hasn’t been up to MLB standards. Burly is at -0.1 entering Tuesday’s game.

That’s a combined 527 plate appearances and 860 outfield defensive innings from Burleson and Walker that have provided -0.8 fWAR worth of production to the Cardinals.

Let’s put those numbers in context.

For all the complaints about Dylan Carlson’s hitting this season and Tyler O’Neill’s persistent injuries, both are positive producers at 0.3 fWAR each.

Last year, Corey Dickerson managed 0.5 fWAR.

In 2014, the year that he was benched and shipped to Boston, Allen Craig had a -0.6 fWAR.

Since 2000, only six Cardinals players have received 200 PAs and performed worse than Jordan Walker. Alec Burleson comes in 25th on the list.

Despite these depressing current realities, the vibe I get about both players from the team, broadcasters, reporters, bloggers, and our readers is generally positive. We’ve talked a lot about outfield “depth” around here. There were rumors galore about the Cardinals’ willingness to trade from their outfield “surplus” to acquire pitching at the deadline. We all seem to expect the front office clear the hitting “logjam” in the offseason to create space for these youngsters to play.

Positive vibes. Negative production.

That’s what has kept me coming back to cdb’s question. Or something like it.

He wanted to know what is Jordan Walker’s ceiling. What I want to know is how much offensive and defensive improvement it will take for either player to become a plus contributor for the Cardinals next season and beyond. Is such a level of improvement even possible? And how does that affect both players’ long-term ceilings?

Let’s start by looking at both players, digging into some of their season stats, skills, struggles, and splits. Then we’ll look at some league comps and render a verdict.

Here are the core season-long stats for both Walker and Burleson. Both entered Tuesday’s game as around league-average offensive producers. Neither walks often and neither has a strong history of doing so in the minor leagues. Burleson is very good at limiting strikeouts. Walker has been able to maintain a higher BABIP.

If you look beyond these numbers, both players excel at generating exit velocity. Walker is in the 79th percentile in average exit velocity and 93rd in max. Burleson is 73rd in average and 64th in max.

Hit ball hard good. Hit ball weak bad.

That’s a simple approach to hitting evaluation, but there’s some truth to it. I think much of the relative optimism surrounding each player stems from that concept. Burly and Walker hit the ball hard. Hitting the ball hard is good. Burly and Walker will be good!

The results aren’t quite there yet, but both players are young. Rookies. With more time and exposure to the league, both players should be able to translate those hard-hit balls into runs on the board. Young players learn and they get better!

Recency bias and their corresponding narratives help reinforce this kind of optimism. Both Walker and Burleson struggled to begin the season and both have made significant strides.

Walker’s ground ball troubles – around 60% – were so pronounced early in the season that he was demoted to AAA. Three weeks in Memphis “fixed” his problems and, when he returned, he rode a heat wave (171 wRC+) through June. That, along with a noticeably improved ground ball rate, is enough to keep the good vibes flowing, even though his production has nosedived since the break.

Since June 1st, including his 171 heater, Walker has 202 PAs, a .255/.322/.424 slash line, and a 107 wRC+. That’s only a bit better than his season line. But how he’s getting there is more encouraging.

Burleson’s surge is happening now. He has an insane 297 wRC+ in August. That followed an encouraging 117 wRC+ in July. What’s changed for him? Fangraphs has his hard% rising from 27.6% to 44.4% over that span. It’s not surprising that his HR/FB rate has increased from 8.5% to 21.4%. Hit ball hard good. Hit ball hard in air better!

Since June 1st, Burleson has just 102 PAs and he has a .274/.317/.474 slash line and a 116 wRC+. That’s quite an improvement over the 88 wRC+ he had over the season’s first two months.

One of the things that we tend to do as fans is erase sections of a player’s history because of what we’ve seen in their more recent performance. This “what have you done for me lately” approach to player evaluation is especially true of young players or rookies who don’t have an established performance baseline.

Since young players are supposed to improve over time, we assume that when we see those improvements, they’re more real and more indicative of a player’s true talent.

Dylan Carlson is a good example of why I’ve become increasingly wary of that approach to player evaluation. For the last two seasons I’ve pulled lengthy samples out of Carlson’s stats to demonstrate what kind of hitter he can be when he is not a) playing injured or b) suffering through a terrible but brief slump. For his first three full seasons (counting 2020), Carlson routinely had between a 110-130 wRC+ during his healthy/happy stretches. These samples were sometimes as long as 200-250 plate appearances. With no historic baseline to compare against, it was easy to argue that the 110-130 wRC+ version of Carlson was the real player and the Cardinals would see more of that from him when he got healthy and more consistent. After all, he’s just 21/22/23 years old!

His performance this season has made a lot of those arguments feel contrived. Carlson has nearly 1500 MLB PAs in his career now – a PA threshold where performance should stabilize – with a perfectly average 101 wRC+. Despite positive gains in exit velocity and an xwOBA (expected performance) quite a bit higher than his actual performance this season, the 110-130 wRC+ stretches have become increasingly rare.

Carlson’s not alone. Not even in the Cardinals’ outfield. If O’Neill can just stay healthy, he should be able to replicate his MVP-contending 2019 production! How often have we heard that? How often have I written that around here? Now O’Neill is 28 years old and in 4 of his last 5 seasons, he’s maxed out at 383 PAs and a 103 wRC+.

These lessons should be instructive for us with Walker and Burleson. An even, smooth curve of improvement from young players is not guaranteed. Far from it. And the good we’ve seen lately might not be any more predictive than the bad we saw before.

Burleson and Walker have some intriguing offensive skills. They also have all-too-obvious warts.

Walker chases way too many pitches. That shows up in his low – and dropping – walk rate. It also shows up in the quality of his contact (beyond average or max EV). Walker’s barrel rate is in the 41st percentile. It would be surprising for a player in the top 21% of exit velocity and the top 7% of the league in max EV to generate such a low number of barrels. It’s not as surprising when you factor in his 22nd and 24th-percentile whiff and chase rates. Yes, Walker makes a lot of loud contact. But loud contact on pitches sitting on the edge or out of the zone don’t typically lead to barreled balls. His low walk rate and high chase rate give pitchers the confidence to pitch him out of the zone.

It sounds counterintuitive, but Burleson’s problem is that he just makes too much contact. During his recent hot streak, his BB% is just 4.9%. His K rate is an impressive 11.8%. That’s a lot of balls in play. He also chases everything – 21st percentile. But unlike Walker, he makes contact with everything – 95%th percentile in whiff rate. Even though they get there a little differently, I can just copy and paste the same statement as above. Yes, Walker [Burleson] makes a lot of loud contact. But loud contact on pitches sitting on the edge or out of the zone don’t typically lead to barreled balls. And his low walk rate and high chase rate give pitchers the confidence to pitch him out of the zone.

That’s a long way of making a very simple point. Walker and Burleson are likely to improve with more exposure to major league pitching. The exit velocity data and contact ability both point toward that. Hit ball hard good. But their ceiling is limited by a swing-at-everything approach that pitchers with MLB command/control can exploit.

Both are probably above average hitters right now in the majors regardless of where their results end up this season. Both have a lot of things to work on before they reach their career potential. That could take a while.

Meanwhile, both players are corner infielders – Walker a natural third baseman, and Burleson a first baseman – who have been re-assigned into corner outfield spots because of roster demands.

Walker, with his -11 OAA, is among the worst fielders in the sport. His OAA is in the 2nd percentile. His Outfielder Jump is 9th. That despite elite arm strength (96th percentile) and well above average sprint speed (77th). Walker does have the tools that he needs to be an acceptable MLB outfielder. Eventually. But he’s so raw and underdeveloped in the outfield that even becoming an average defender in the next few seasons seems like a herculean feat.

Burleson’s OAA doesn’t look as bad as Walker’s, but it is. And it might be overall worse. He’s at -5 on the season in just 313 innings. If you extrapolate that number over Walker’s innings totals to make an even comparison, Burly lands at -9. If he actually played those innings, that number would likely be lower. He doesn’t have enough innings to qualify for the leaderboard, but his Outfield Jump rating of -3.9 feet vs. average would place him behind Walker and just barely ahead of catcher-in-the-outfield Kyle Schwarber.

That unfortunately tracks with the eye test. Scouting reports weren’t particularly promising, either. And unlike Walker, Burly entered the Cardinals system ticketed for the outfield. He has well over 1000 professional innings in right and left field. It’s all too possible that what we see from Burleson defensively is about what we’re going to get.

Put it all together. Both players have real offensive abilities that we can’t ignore. They also have offensive struggles that impact both their current performance and future ceilings. Both have major defensive issues that could be lasting.

How much offensive/defensive improvement is it going to take for either or both players to be plus contributors for the Cardinals next season? We’ll have to look at other players to find out.

We want to assume offensive and defensive improvement from both Burleson and Walker. We want to translate that improvement to a fWAR total. All we have to do is find corner outfielders that fit the range of offensive/defensive production that we want from Burly and Walker and look at their fWAR totals.

Here are the parameters of my search:

* Players who met the batting title qualifications in either RF or LF in 2022.

* Players with between a 105 and 130 wRC+.

* Players with a DEF between -12 and -5. That translates to about a -8 to 0 OAA.

Those numbers represent the high points of where both players are now and a very optimistic rise for next season.

Here are the results organized by fWAR:

Mark Canha: -8.6 DEF, 128 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR
Randy Aronzarena: -7.9 DEF, 125 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR
Anthony Santander: -11.9 DEF, 120 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
Teoscar Hernandez: -8.4 DEF, 129 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
Hunter Renfroe: -6.2 DEF, 124 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
Jurickson Profar: -4.8 DEF, 110 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
Ronald Acuna Jr: -11.1 DEF, 114 wRC+. 2.1 fWAR
Austin Hays: -7.7 DEF, 105 wRC+. 1.5 fWAR
Alex Verdugo: -9.7 DEF, 103 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR

That’s a pretty clear set of outcomes. The defensive number can vary a little. The offense can vary a little. But players in that fairly wide range of offensive and defensive outcomes typically land in a fairly narrow production band, assuming they get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

(It’s worth noting that a lot of players in this type of production/defensive range don’t get those PAs. And they end up finishing with much lower fWAR totals.)

2.8 fWAR if Walker or Burleson hit the upper end of my offensive and defensive outcomes for next season. That’s probably an “if everything goes right” result.

1.2 fWAR if the players manage to turn their June 1st forward production into a full season of playing time and results next season.

Simply put, it’s hard to overcome really poor defense unless you are doing something really good at the plate.

That’s where Jordan Walker has a significant advantage over Alec Burleson both next season and beyond. Walker is young, athletic, and completely inexperienced in the outfield, but with the raw tools to play the position. That’s good. Better is his massive and still unfulfilled power tool. To answer cdb’s question, Walker’s ceiling is unchanged from his (arguably) top-prospect-in-baseball status entering this season. He still has the upside of an All-Star caliber outfielder.

That ceiling doesn’t feel attainable any time soon. He has so much to work on in the field and so many adjustments to make at the plate to unlock his athletic potential. He really looks like a player who could have benefited from some significant time at AAA. Yes, there are 4.0 fWAR seasons in him somewhere in the future. But a 2.0 fWAR season next year would be a positive and not guaranteed outcome for him. That’s likely less than what the Cardinals expect but it would still require significant progress from him in the offseason.

Burleson is already 24 years old. His body type and skill set don’t inspire hope for much more than defensive refinements as he ages. He does have good bat-to-ball skills and power potential. But he’s a very BABIP-driven hitter, and his inability to lay off balls on the edges or out of the zone limits his upside. What we’ve seen in the second half from Burleson could be replicable. A wRC+ between 110 and 125 is possible in ‘24. Considering his struggles against lefties (which didn’t even make it into this article but are too pronounced to ignore), and his obvious defensive shortcomings, Burleson doesn’t look like he will be more than a platoon-level bat who would fit better at 1st or DH. A 1.5 fWAR in 450 platoon PAs seems like a possible outcome. That’s not a starting outfielder on a team that wants to rebuild their pitching staff and contend next season.

Can Walker and Burleson be plus contributors next season? The odds point toward no. That doesn’t mean both players won’t continue to make progress. Or that Walker’s ceiling is any lower than it’s ever been.