By Rob Rains
PEORIA, Ill. – It was the sound that provided Chris Swauger’s introduction to Jordan Walker.
Just a few weeks after the Cardinals selected Walker in the first round of last year’s amateur draft, he was invited to be part of the organization’s alternate site camp during the canceled minor-league season.
Swauger was there too, as one of the instructors. After clearing COVID quarantine, he walked from the clubhouse into right field during a scrimmage at the camp in Springfield, Mo. Walker happened to be batting, but Swauger didn’t know that at the time.
“I wasn’t watching, but it sounded like a shotgun went off,” Swauger said. “I looked up and saw the ball clear the wall. I looked at the plate and said, ‘I don’t know that guy… who is that?’
“Joey Hawkins (another instructor) said, ‘That’s Walker, the guy we just drafted in the first round.’ I said, ‘Out of high school?’ When Joey said yes, I just looked again and said, ‘That’s pretty good.’”
Swauger got to see plenty more of Walker last summer as the then 18-year-old native of Georgia took full advantage of being at the camp, the only place for him to gain experience in what normally would have been a year spent in the lowest levels of the minor leagues.
Walker and Swauger were reunited just over a month ago when Walker, after ripping through low Class A pitching for 27 games at Palm Beach, was promoted to the high A Peoria Chiefs, where Swauger is the manager.
In Walker’s first few weeks at the higher level, Swauger has learned that his initial opinion that Walker was “pretty good” is proving be an accurate scouting report.
“Everything he’s done has been really impressive,” Swauger said. “It makes you understand why he was drafted where he was.”
High expectations? No problem
While Swauger’s introduction to Walker came from the sound of his bat hitting a long home run, the first impression most people get from Walker is his physical size. Two months after his 19th birthday, Walker stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds.
“What’s most impressive is how big he is, but how he is still able to organize his body athletically,” Swauger said. “A lot of guys that big struggle with what somebody once called ‘baby giraffe legs’ syndrome. He doesn’t have that. He moves around like a guy who is 3-to-4 inches shorter than he is. That’s just how fluid he is.”
A third baseman, Walker arrived in Peoria with the high expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick, the 21st overall selection in last year’s draft. He turned down a scholarship to Duke to sign with the Cardinals for a reported bonus of $2.9 million. After only three months of games, Walker was recently ranked as the 45th best prospect in all of the minors by Baseball America.
Some players wilt from the pressure that comes with those expectations. That hasn’t been the case so far for Walker. He believes a big part of the reason for that comes from the way he was raised by his parents, Derek and Katrina.
“My mom was all about your mind, not just your body,” Walker said. “I really do appreciate that from her. My dad always told me that hard work would pay off. He lives by that. … The biggest thing, I think, is just being around the right people.
“I know people who had coaches that made them hate the game of baseball. I’ve had coaches who baseball was their favorite sport. Just having people around you who know the game and love it as much as you do is probably the biggest thing that has helped me.”
Derek Walker is happy to see that his son’s career is off to such a great start.
“It’s better than even we expected it to be,” he said. “It’s sort of surpassed our expectations. He’s always been a pretty mature kid so we didn’t expect there to be any issues with him being off on his own, but what we didn’t know was about the rigors of the pro ball life, the wear and tear it would take. So far that hasn’t been the case … he’s very much exceeded where we thought he would be at 19.”
Derek Walker believes there are reasons for his son’s quick success – and his ascension into the ranks as one of the game’s best prospects. The first was the transition that began last summer in Springfield, followed by the fact Walker doesn’t pay much attention to expectations or rankings.
“He’s humble by nature, and has always been that way,” Derek Walker said. “He grew up introverted or shy if you want to use that word. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight. Even in high school as he started to get more attention, he really didn’t want it.
“He has loved baseball for a long, long time … It just so happens that his talent and makeup has blessed him to be able to get there (the pros). He’s been pretty focused and dedicated for a long time.
“He’s also a very smart kid. He’s pretty dedicated in whatever he does. He did well in school. He’s always been driven.”
When Walker was growing up, his parents put him on the same athletic teams in soccer and baseball as his brother, who is 2 years older than Walker.
“He always held his own,” Derek Walker said. “He was the goalie in soccer because he was the most mobile kid on the team and he could stop the ball and kick the ball really far. In baseball we saw a little of the high-level ability. That’s probably where it started.
“He’s always had a pretty high baseball IQ and when he got to high school you could really see him become more serious about the sport … In school and in sports, my wife and I kind of pushed him that if you are going to do it, do it the right way. Put the time in or don’t do it.
“We told him to find what he liked and what he had interest in and go forward. Try different things, and what you don’t like we will stop doing, but we will then double down on the things that you do enjoy, but you’ve got to work hard at it.”
Walker has continued to do that, and his rise on the prospect rankings reflect how hard he has worked. It might also be due in part to the fact he wasn’t as well known as some other players coming into last year’s draft. He did not have as much history on the showcase circuit, with his dad saying the term he heard from scouts in the summer of 2019 about his son was “raw.” Then came the pandemic in the spring of 2020, which stopped Walker’s senior high school season after just a dozen games.
“In some sense he’s had to catch up over the last couple of years,” said Derek Walker.
He’s doing so now in a hurry – but the increasing attention is not affecting Walker or his serious approach to his job.
“It’s best for me not to think about it (the rankings and expectations,” Walker said. “When I start thinking about that, I start trying to do too much. I do my best not to look at the rankings at all. I don’t really care about that too much.
“I just try to play my game and keep on having success with whatever I’m doing. I just try to repeat that. I think that’s the most difficult part, trying to do it consistently. If I focus on that, I feel like success will come.”
Part of the expectations for Walker’s success were a result of the fact that on the first pitch he saw in his first pro game for Palm Beach in May, he hit a home run. That’s a fact which is going to stick with him the rest of his career.
“I just saw a pitch I wanted to hit and tried to hit it hard,” Walker said. “It was all a blur honestly. It was a pretty exciting moment.”
Walker’s time at Palm Beach included facing major-league pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom when they were making rehab starts. Walker can brag that he hit two foul balls off deGrom before striking out.
“It was a pretty tough at-bat, but it was definitely a highlight getting to face him,” Walker said.
Against the low A pitchers, however, Walker had more success – connecting for six homers and posting a .374 average in 99 at-bats before his promotion – in a league that notoriously is tough on hitters. One of his home runs came with an exit velocity of 116.2 miles per hour. According to Baseball America, only 16 major-leaguers have hit a ball harder than that this season.
Learning from his mistakes
Since arriving in Peoria, Walker has homered twice in his first 20 games as he is adjusting to better, and older, pitchers, most with at least a couple of years of professional experience. After missing a week in mid July with back soreness, Walker has posted a .324 average (12-of-37) in his last nine games.
He is learning from his mistakes, something else Swauger is happy to see.
“There’s no better teacher than the game,” Swauger said. “You talk about situations, go over fundamentals, harp on little details, but those situations and tough times coming up at game speed, you just can’t simulate that. When a guy makes a mistake that in that moment costs us an out or a run, those are great teaching moments for guys.
“Everybody here is building a rolodex of experience which then turns into instincts. When anybody makes a mistake, that is going to help them learn and be a better player down the road.”
Swauger already has seen similarities between Walker and one of his former players, Dylan Carlson, who is having a solid rookie season in the major leagues with the Cardinals at the age of 22.
“When Carlson struggled, he had to kind of learn what made him good,” Swauger said. “It was awesome to be able to do that in A ball. If you can check that box early in your career it makes the adjustments a lot easier.
“Walker’s maturity reminds me a lot of what Dylan was like. I’m not trying to put the two together, but just the underlying confidence and the ability to deal with failure when they make mistakes – not let it carry over at-bat to at-bat or a mistake on defense that carries over. His (Walker’s) ability to process and move on and learn, you don’t see that a lot with guys out of high school.
“He never really looks overmatched. He will have a tough at-bat, but he bounces back. His mindset is really good at keeping the vision of what he’s here to do and what he’s working on. He’s very intentional about his work every day.”
Having fun on the field
Part of what Walker knows has made him successful to this point in both his high school and pro career is how much fun he has on a daily basis.
“I love everything about being here,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy it. When you are doing what you love, it’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world right now.”
There’s no doubt one of the reasons Walker always seems to have a smile on his face is being able to spend so much time with Masyn Winn. The two were together at the alternate site camp, after first becoming acquainted on the showcase circuit when they were in high school. Winn, who plays next to Walker at shortstop, also was with him in Palm Beach before he too was promoted to Peoria.
Winn, the Cardinals’ second-round pick last summer out of a Texas high school, also does not hide how much fun he has playing the game and getting to play with Walker.
“People ask us what we’re doing out there on the field, they see us talking so much,” Winn said. “We have a running talk between every pitch out there. When we were at Palm Beach and were in a game at Daytona, I looked over at him and said, ‘Hey you got a really big old head.’
“Then a ball gets blasted at him, he dives and makes a play, then in the fourth inning I think, he comes up and hits a 450-foot home run.”
Walker in turn chided Winn about the speed of one of his throws from shortstop to first.
“We just can’t look at each other and not laugh,” Winn said. “He’s a big teddy bear, a genuine person. I’m the bigger goofball.
“The thing about Jordan is that he’s 19, a young 19, and he doesn’t know he isn’t supposed to be hitting 450-foot home runs. That isn’t supposed to happen yet.”
When Winn hit his first home run at Peoria, Walker, the next hitter, was waiting for him at home plate and almost was more excited than Winn.
“Jordan is a quiet kid but he’s a relationship kid,” said his father. “A lot of his success in high school was because his closest friends were on the baseball team with him. Masyn and a couple of other guys represent the same thing.
“He likes to be around kids who are highly competitive who love the game as much as he does and who like to have fun. Masyn is very much like that. They play off each other very well. They make a great team.”
The pairing of Walker and Winn and their relationship is similar to that of the players generally considered the top two prospects in the Cardinals organization, childhood friends Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore, now together at Memphis.
“I hope they get the opportunity to kind of be a pair going forward as long as possible,” Derek Walker said. “I think they make each other better because they play off each other so well.”
The ability to have success, have fun, and remain humble in the process, is something Walker’s older teammates have noticed about him.
“What sticks out to me is just how physical he is at such a young age,” said Chandler Redmond. “And he is a lot more mature than a typical 19-year-old. He handles his fame really well and he’s an unbelievable player.
“He interacts really well with people and is always super respectful. I just see how good of a guy he is. He’s not bothered with fans wanting him to sign stuff. Even on days when he doesn’t get a hit, he’s got 20 people outside the gates trying to get him to sign something and he signs it with a smile on his face.”
Walker intends to keep smiling. He knows where he is, and he knows where he wants to go – and what he needs to do to get there.
“All I can control right now is progressing myself as a player,” Walker said. “I will just let it play out on how I do in the game and how I progress.”
Added Derek Walker, “If I had to script it I couldn’t have scripted it better; from getting drafted by the Cardinals, to the ability to go to the alternate site camp, to the way it’s worked out this year in Palm Beach and Peoria. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have thought it would have worked out this way.”
Walker and Winn know there is a large portion of the script yet to be written – but Winn knows how he wants the plot to go.
“We’re two young guys going on this journey through pro ball,” Winn said. “We talk about five years from now, how incredible it would be to be in the World Series and winning a ring some day as teammates.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Peoria Chiefs and Springfield Cardinals