Is Jordan Walker really ignoring the Cardinals’ plan for his swing adjustments?

Redbirds outfielder Jordan Walker at AutoZone Park on May 26, 2023.
Redbirds outfielder Jordan Walker at AutoZone Park on May 26, 2023.(WMC)
Published: May. 30, 2023 at 5:58 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - The Cardinal-crazed corner of the social media landscape was lit ablaze Monday night when a Memphis-based sports reporter tweeted a video of top Cardinals prospect Jordan Walker explaining some thoughts on his recent play down in Triple-A.

Earlier Monday, John Mozeliak told Bally Sports Midwest that Walker was making progress in the areas the Cardinals wanted him to address when they sent him back to the minors. Those areas are widely reported to have revolved around the team’s desire to see Walker cut down on his substantial ground ball rate by lifting the ball into the air with authority on a more regular basis.

So naturally, it turned heads when Walker told Action News 5 reporter Matt Infield and the other assembled reporters in Memphis that he had actually returned back to his approach from before the team gave him the launch-angle edict.

“I was told to start hitting the ball in the air, and that kind of got to me a little bit,” Walker said in Infield’s video.

“There’s no point in trying to hit the ball in the air if I’m not hitting the ball at all,” he added later in the clip.

Well, those are certainly interesting quotes. And it’s hard to blame the top prospect for delivering them. Digging into the context further, though, there’s a case to be made that his words were not nearly as inflammatory as they may have appeared in the 42-second Twitter clip.

The situation surrounding Walker’s winding path in 2023 has always been puzzling. The primary confusion surrounding his demotion had always boiled down to the notion that the Cardinals didn’t have all these objections to Walker’s swing in late March when they raved about his readiness for the big leagues. The team loved his maturity and the level-headed way he handled adversity in spring training.

Manager Oli Marmol and Mozeliak reiterated numerous times that the Cardinals saw enough in Walker to know that bringing him north with the active roster for opening day was the right call. How could four weeks of relatively standard MLB rookie production (.274 batting average, .718 OPS) change that to suggest the need to pull the plug on Walker’s rookie campaign so swiftly?

Even with suspect outfield defense and some clear holes in his approach, he was still the same player he had been in Jupiter a few weeks prior. The Cardinals knew who he was and brought him up because they believed in his ability to adjust to potential failure.

What changed was the Cardinals’ evaluation of his role on a team that had struggled mightily out of the gate⁠—and not because of Walker’s real or perceived deficiencies.

While the team’s performance and the crunch for playing time in the outfield were certainly factors that contributed to Walker’s demotion, it’s clear from Walker’s quotes that the team’s hitting plan for him was central to the decision as well. They wanted to see adjustments to his swing in order to get him to generate more power.

Those are certainly worthwhile goals, but it seems the execution of aspiring toward them had the effect of mentally bogging down the talented young player in the early days of his Triple-A stint.

“I forced myself to do things that I usually don’t do,” Walker said in the video. “Right now, I’m not too worried about getting the ball in the air more and I’m starting to drive the ball a lot better now. I think it’s just being more relaxed and not thinking about it at the plate.

“I just have to trust myself and trust how my swing’s been the past three years that I’ve been in the organization. That’s just what I have faith in.”

It’s one thing to instruct a player to improve in a specific area of his game, but guiding that player⁠—particularly a young, developing one like Walker⁠—to reach his potential in achieving that desired level of improvement is a critical part of the process.

The Cardinals’ intentions for extracting more power from the swing of their top prospect were sensible enough. But did the team fail to cater to that development plan effectively to ensure it would be a productive one for the budding star prospect? Or is this a case where Walker’s words are getting more play as a hot-button topic than is proportional?

Social media fodder tends to oversimplify complex issues. The Cardinals’ plan to get Walker to produce more batted balls in the air was more articulate than simply telling him to figure out a way to transport his swing and plate approach from point A to point B without any guidance. Daniel Guerrero of STLToday wrote a valuable article explaining some of the nuances associated with the mechanical tweaks that Walker has adopted with the Memphis hitting coach during his stay in the minors.

Lost in the shuffle of his seemingly bombastic comments, then, is the reality that Walker is still striving toward the changes that the team hopes to see him make. The distinction seems to be whether the batter’s box within game action is a suitable place to be thinking about the mechanical aspects of what happens in the cage during a practice session.

It takes repetitions for swing adjustments to become instinctual between the white lines, and Walker seemed to have more on his mind in Memphis than what has come naturally to him over his baseball life. In rededicating himself to his more natural inclinations, as he described, it seemed at first blush that Walker’s candor was a smoking gun of organizational ineptitude.

The context reveals that it may have merely been a natural⁠—albeit very public⁠—step in the process of his continual improvement.