THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Many thoughts on Jordan Walker’s demotion to the minors:
1. This will benefit Walker in the long term. The 20-year-old rookie made the long jump from Double A baseball to the majors leagues, and a couple of potentially serious flaws came with him. Per FanGraphs, Walker had a 60.4 percent ground-ball rate – third-highest in the majors – and a 40.4% chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone. Walker hits the ball hard, which is a huge plus. But 15 of his 20 hits were singles, and nine of the 15 singles came on ground balls. The goal here is to convert Walker’s hard contact into doubles and homers by getting more lift, more fly balls, more line drives. If Walker can’t do this, he’ll never reach his immense potential as a hitter. Walker has the power and the strength to go airborne and can’t be a ground-ball machine.
2. Per Stacast, Walker had a 56.3 percent whiff rate on offspeed pitches. Translated, when Walker attempted to make contact on the offspeed stuff, he failed to do so on 56.3% of his swings. Pitchers found a glaring weakness and would continue to attack it. Walker must work to reduce his vulnerability.
3. Walker’s defense was a problem. Per Fielding Bible, he was the worst right fielder in the majors this month with a minus 5 in defensive runs saved. I don’t blame Walker for this. The Cardinals converted him from third base to the outfield last season at Double A, but for some inexplicable reason waited too long to do so. In 2022, he didn’t play his first game at a corner outfield spot until Aug. 2. Walker lost critical developmental time on outfield defense because of the Cardinals’ ridiculous miscalculation – and that was borderline irresponsible. Walker wasn’t close to being ready to play average right-field defense in the majors, but the Cardinals rushed ahead, anyway.
4. I know that people are upset by Walker getting sent back to the minors. At the time of his demotion, Walker had a decent OPS (.718) and was a tick above league average in adjusted OPS. Walker opened his rookie season with a historic 12-game hitting streak, batting .319 with a .489 slugging percentage over that time. So why send him down when other outfielders were hitting less effectively than Walker? The answer: Walker can’t solve his offense-defense problems by sitting in the St. Louis dugout three or four times a week. He must be playing – every day.
“It came down to a couple of things,” STL president of baseball ops John Mozeliak told the media Wednesday. “For his own development, we felt like he wasn’t getting a chance to really work on the things we needed him to do. Then as we were starting to look at playing time going forward, we realized we were going to have days where he just wasn’t going to play. And when we look at his age and that he’s still developing, we felt it made more sense to go down to Memphis and work on some things.”
5. Walker’s numbers were declining over the two-plus weeks before the Cardinals pulled the plug. Since hitting his second home run of the season on April 8, Walker hit .214 with a .267 onbase percentage and a .238 slug. And he was striking out a lot. There’s nothing good in any of that. And because of swing-related issues and an overly aggressive hitting approach, there were no signs of improvement.
Here are a few other obvious differences between Walker’s early showing and his more recent performance:
* In his first eight games Walker had a 18.2% strikeout rate. In his last 12 games, the strikeout rate inflated to 31.1%.
* In his first eight games, Walker’s hard-hit rate was a remarkable 60 percent. But over his last 12 games, the hard-hit rate decreased to 35.7%.
* Walker had an average exit velocity of 92 mph through his first eight games. In his last 12 games, Walker’s average exit velo was 88 mph. His hard contact was waning. And if you’re hitting the ball on the ground as frequently as Walker did, you can’t muscle grounders past infielders for singles unless you’re blasting the ball by them. Accordingly: after having a .391 batting average on balls in play in his first eight games, Walker’s average on BIP play dropped 70 points over his final 12 games.
* First eight games: a 177 wRC+ in adjusted runs created. That means Walker was 77 percent above league average offensively. But in his last 12 games, Walker’s wRC+ was 54 percent below league average. That’s a dramatic swing in performance. Walker was on the way to Memphis. At least the Cardinals made the move sooner instead of letting Walker wallow on. It’s just a detour. He’ll be back.
6. The other primary reason for removing Walker was to ease the team’s outfield glut. Manager Oli Marmol struggled to find enough at-bats for his five outfielders. Keeping five in this crowded house was unrealistic; the DH role wasn’t an outlet for frequent at-bats. That’s Nolan Gorman’s spot.
“Creating an opportunity for the guys to know they’re going to be in the lineup daily isn’t something that’s really possible right now, if you’re trying to keep guys sharp,” Marmol told reporters Wednesday. “We have five guys that are all deserving of being in the lineup. I can build an argument for every single guy playing every day. That’s why it’s been rotating the way that it has been. Who are you going to sit for two to three days at a time? Who are you comfortable doing that with? But all that means is that none of them are playing three days in a row either. It’s mathematically impossible.”
7. No more exudes for enigmas Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. Alec Burleson needs to get going again offensively; if not he’s a liability. Lars Nootbaar has star power but must shine. Mozeliak and Marmol optioned Walker to Memphis to create more playing time for the other four outfielders. That works to their advantage, and they have to deliver.
8. Cardinals management is known for its strong discipline. Mozeliak and Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. stick to the plan, and rarely deviate. And when they do break their discipline the results often go wrong. The Dexter Fowler contract. The Mike Leake contract. The Steven Matz contract (so far.) The Andrew Miller contract. The premature contract extensions for young players such as Carlos Martinez, Paul DeJong, Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong.
Cardinal management broke its discipline by rushing Jordan Walker to the big leagues. They got caught up in the hype, put him on the opening-day roster and waved off dissenting opinions about his readiness. And they did this knowing that the club already had enough outfielders and there wasn’t a reason to have Walker make the leap from Double A without having a stay at Triple A to get the necessary reps to work on his weaknesses. And in the final two-plus weeks of spring training, Walker didn’t hit. Management disregarded that.
It would have been better to start Walker in Memphis, enhance his major-league readiness and promote him later. But management views Walker as the future face of the franchise, and their enthusiasm to begin a New And Exciting Chapter as soon as possible led to a demotion that could have been avoided had they given Walker more time to improve his swing and defense.
9. This is all a reflection of the faulty roster construction; surely these management had to realize the math didn’t add up. There was no realistic way to distribute enough at-bats among five outfielders who need regular work to fulfill their potential. Management went ahead with it, anyway.
10. The present circumstances are indicative of the front office failure to cultivate lasting, high-end talent among outfielders. Some terrible mistakes have been made along the way, and Mozeliak just keeps putting more coins in the slot in a desperate wish to hit the jackpot. Two famous examples: acquiring outfielder Marcell Ozuna but giving up elite starting pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen to get him. Trading outfielder Randy Arozarena for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.
11. Since 2015, here’s a nine-man list of the outfielders that have received the most playing time for St. Louis: Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, Stephen Piscotty, Dylan Carlson, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez. The bosses keep adding more and more outfielders, only to realize it the idea of keeping them all busy was simply unworkable.
None of the nine made an All-Star team as a Cardinal.
“When things aren’t working, if you just keep doing the same thing over and over it’s insanity,” Mozeliak told reporters Wednesday. “We have to try to do something different.”
You said it, Mo. So why do y’all keep doing the same thing over and over? After cycling through so many outfielders through recent years, members of the front office still haven’t found what they’re looking for.
I’ll be back with another Redbird Review in a little while.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.