By Rob Rains
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – It was just another game during a long, six-month season, a Thursday night in the middle of August. For Jordan Walker, however, it represented something that excites the Cardinals’ top prospect every time he comes to the ballpark.
It was an opportunity for him to get better.
“That’s the way he carries himself every night,” said Ryan Ludwick, the Cardinals’ roving minor-league hitting instructor. “He doesn’t carry himself in a way like, ‘I’ve got this, I’m the best.’ When he takes the field, he wants to get better.”
The game between the Springfield Cardinals and Arkansas Travelers was the 176th game of Walker’s professional career, all coming in the last 17 months. It has been a quick rise to the top of the prospect rankings for the 20-year-old Walker, who was the youngest player, at 19, in the Texas League when this season began.
Blessed with physical size and natural athleticism, Walker’s career had a nice launching pad, but talking to those who have spent time with Walker since the Cardinals made him their first-round pick in the 2020 draft produces the same answer about what’s his most impressive skill – and the reason people use the words “superstar” and “cornerstone” when describing his potential, terms that are not thrown around lightly.
“He just hits the ball so much harder than everybody else. That’s pretty special,” said Tyger Pederson, Springfield’s hitting coach. “He also has a special commitment to getting better. … The way he goes after the game, in all aspects, he is trying to do everything he can to get better.
“Every day he’s the kind of kid who you have to say ‘enough is enough.’ He always wants to work. … He wants to be perfect. He’s always striving for his best.”
On this night, what shows up in the box score is that Walker hit two home runs and the Cardinals beat the Travelers 5-4. That represents only part of Walker’s day. What the box score doesn’t show is what makes Walker such a special prospect.
Here is an inside look at one day in the grind that sometimes gobbles up even the best prospects and spits them out along the way – and what Walker is doing to make certain that won’t happen to him.
Walker makes the short drive to Hammons Field from the apartment he shares with three of his teammates. It’s an hour before the team has been told to report, and five and a half hours until game time.
Walker is here early so he can spend time working with trainer Alex Wolfinger, who he knows will be busy as it gets closer to game time.
His day began as it does on most days when the team is at home, with a bowl of Coco Krispies cereal, followed by either playing video games with one of his roommates, Masyn Winn, or watching television.
Walker will spend most of the next few hours either hitting in the batting cage, attending the team hitter’s meeting or taking live batting practice on the field.
He wants to find out information about the pitcher starting for Arkansas, Prelander Berroa, who he has never faced before and who has only been in the league for a few weeks following his promotion from A ball.
“There are a lot of metrics but I don’t like looking at too many of them because it gets you out of the swing and hit it approach,” Walker said. “I want to see what he throws, how his ball moves. We have video from last week.”
Pederson also provides a scouting report which will help Walker and his teammates know what they should work on in the cage.
“He’s always looking to challenge himself,” Pederson said. “He stands the closest to the (pitching) machine out of anybody, to simulate the most velocity and the most challenging pitches. He doesn’t shy away from any challenge, that’s for sure.
“He works on everything. He has a great routine and sticks with it.”
One of the challenges in the 10-team Texas League for hitters is that they face the same teams often, especially in their own division, and see a lot of the same pitchers.
“It’s always challenging when you face the same team over and over,” Pederson said. “Once they get the scouting report on you they are obviously going to try to pitch to it. They are going to try to find ways to get you out, no different than us trying to find ways to hit them.
“He (Walker) is always trying to stay ahead of the curve. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t like to get beat. If he does, we go to work and try to find ways to beat them. More often than not this year he’s been pretty successful at beating them.”
Walker is coming into the game with a .308 average, which ranks fifth in the league. He has the fourth most hits in the league and ranks third in doubles and extra base hits. The longest he has gone without a hit this season has been two games.
One of the changes Walker has made to his pre-game routine in recent weeks is to take at least one round in the batting cage against a high velocity machine using foam balls. Teammate Mike Antico introduced him to the drill.
“We can crank it up pretty high and get swings in,” Walker said.
“It helps me get my foot down and get my timing right.”
Ludwick has had a chance to observe and work with Walker when he is town, as he did in 2021 when Walker was in A ball. Making his fourth visit to Springfield this summer, Ludwick is not surprised that Walker has found a new way to prepare which he thinks will help him improve offensively.
“He always wants to do more,” Ludwick said. “We try to tell him 50 swings is enough. He doesn’t need to take 500. He would take 1,000 if he could. He loves to work.
“He’s very instinctual and into the game. He’s willing to listen and he applies. In that regard in the six years I’ve been here as a coach he’s off the charts as far as the prospects I’ve seen … I think the sky’s the limit.”
After the meetings and his work in the batting cage, Walker and his teammates have spent a little time resting and playing cards in the clubhouse. Their game of choice at the moment is called Presidents.
Now it’s time to get back to work as Walker steps to the plate for live batting practice. He takes several rounds, then picks up his glove and jogs to the outfield.
This is where Walker’s work ethic is on display again. It’s only been a couple of weeks since the organization decided it was time for him to make the move from third base to the outfield, a decision Walker instantly supported.
“I want to be a big leaguer, and whatever they see as the fit for me I want to do it,” Walker said. “I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s been a fun change for me.”
Walker uses his time while his teammates are hitting to work on reading balls off the bat and getting jumps, the areas where he believes he needs the most work.
“I want to become an elite outfielder; I want to be someone who they can rely on to make the plays,” Walker said. “My goal is to be a complete player.”
Manager Jose Leger is convinced that Walker will do whatever is necessary to make that happen.
“It’s a matter of repetition,” Leger said. “His athleticism is going to play out there and definitely the arm. . He cares, he battles. He finds a way.”
When batting practice ends and Walker heads back to the clubhouse, he makes certain Winn has his order for his pre-game meal correct – a five-piece Zaxby’s chicken tenders meal with double toast, no cole slaw and fries. He will get their smoothies while Winn places the order through DoorDash to have it delivered to the clubhouse.
Tonight will be Walker’s 11th game in the outfield as he starts in center. He already has spent time in left and right as well. Ludwick, who played 956 games in the outfield during his 12 years in the majors, saw Walker there for the first time the previous night.
“It’s like he’s played out there for two years,” Ludwick said.
Pederson has worked with Walker about that aspect of his game as well, and Walker has relied on tips and suggestions from his teammates who have a lot more experience playing in the outfield.
“The first day we told him about the change (in positions) he we was like, ‘Tyger, let’s go. Let’s get to work,’” Pederson said. “Every game he stands next to me and when situations come up we talk through different defensive approaches, what we are thinking and how we want to keep guys off second base, where we want to throw the ball, things like that.
“He’s all in. He’s taken a real liking to it and has a real joy about it. He’s already got a few outfield assists. He throws the ball extremely well.”
Walker, batting third for the Cardinals, heads to the plate for his second at-bat of the scoreless game with one out in the third inning and a runner on first.
He struck out on four pitches in his first at-bat against Berroa, taking a ball before a swing and miss, a foul and another swing and miss. It’s a similar result in this at-bat – a swing and miss, followed by a ball, then two more swinging strikes.
“The guy was really good,” Walker would say after the game.
“This team usually likes to go fastballs away and then off speed but he was throwing his slider that looked like a fastball. I didn’t really feel lost at the plate but he made some really good pitches. Sometimes you just don’t hit them.”
Even though he is still early in his career, one of the in-game adjustments that Walker has already been able to make is to realize that a key to being successful is to relax more at the plate.
“One of the things I’ve been working on this season is not worrying too much about what happens in the first two at-bats; you can always make it into a good game,” Walker said. “Never counting yourself out is something I’ve learned from my teammates, especially Chandler Redmond. He’s really been talking to me about that.”
The good news for Walker as he prepares for his third at-bat, leading off in the sixth, is that the Travelers have changed pitchers. Berroa came out of the game after striking out eight in four innings.
Walker fouls off the first pitch from Jake Haberer, then launches the second pitch over the left-field wall for a game-tying homer.
“You’re going to see him chasing pitches now and then and probably have a poor at-bat, and looking like he has no idea, and then the next at-bat he will get you,” Leger said. “He’s just a natural hitter who has the ability to put the ball in play and find a way to put the barrel on the ball. I’ve been amazed.
“He’s kept me on my toes. It’s not easy to coach third when he is hitting because you’ve got to look out for some balls coming your way too.
“Other managers always want to praise how good he is. He is not a polished hitter and still gets it done. The kid just turned 20. To be at the Double A level and doing what he is doing is amazing.
“Chris Swauger (Walker’s manager in Peoria in 2021) told me, ‘This kid is going to be special.’ Not that I didn’t believe him, but you always want to see it first for yourself to say if he’s right or say no, he’s wrong. He was right. By far he is the best player in this league.”
One of the players who has helped push Walker to get better is Winn, his close friend who considers Walker “my brother from another mother.”
“He’s going to obviously be a perennial All-Star and is going to be a great player when he gets to the show,” Winn said. “Just getting to see his journey through the minor leagues … it’s fun to watch.
“I think I bring a little bit of energy and he kind of calms me down a little bit. We are kind of that fire and ice combo. If he gets a hit, I want to get a hit.”
Walker’s parents, Derek and Katrina, are finishing up dinner with their older son, Derek Jr., at their home outside of Atlanta during the game. As he does for almost every game, Walker has the broadcast feed of the game streaming on his Ipad.
“My wife is not happy about it because a lot of the time I am watching it during dinner,” Derek Walker said. “I have the volume turned down low. That’s the compromise.”
He had waited until there was a break in the conversation earlier to inform his wife and son that Jordan had hit a home run.
There was a runner on second with two outs in the seventh when Walker came to the plate again, with the Cardinals trailing 3-2 and another new pitcher, Devin Sweet, on the mound.
After swinging and missing the first pitch, Walker didn’t miss the second, this time going to the opposite field, hitting his second home run of the game over the wall in right center to give the Cardinals the lead.
Watching on his Ipad, Derek Walker saw it, and then casually slipped it into the dinner table conversation. “Oh by the way Jordan hit another home run,” he said.
The home run was Walker’s 15th of the year, matching the goal he had set in discussions with his dad before the year began, one more than his total in A ball last season.
Since Walker was a junior in high school, setting goals for the season had been a ritual. Back then, the goals were colorfully illustrated in a print out of a PowerPoint presentation that was taped to the wall in Walker’s bedroom.
The goals have changed as a professional, to some not so specific numeric targets, but Walker does still like to set some of them. Two for this year that Walker revealed were the 15 homers and 15 stolen bases. He already has 17 steals, three more than last year’s total, with nearly a month left in the season.
“What we instead tried to focus on was not so much the outcome, because that’s harder to control as a professional,” Derek Walker said. “More of the focus on goals surrounded technique; for instance, not trying to step out of the batter’s box as much; a general goal of staying healthy, goals like that.”
This home run was noteworthy in the fact that Walker was able to hit an outside pitch over the opposite wall instead of trying to pull it, something else he and the coaches have been working on.
“Working with the foam ball machine has helped me with that,” Walker said. “It was nice to see that one go out when you’ve been putting in the work trying to hit that pitch with more consistency.”
Ludwick was pleased to see the result as well.
“He talks a lot about handling pitches away better,” Ludwick said. “He’s aware that he pulls the ball with a lot of power and hits the ball the other way really hard but doesn’t produce the same amount of power as he does to the pull side. That comes with growth.
“He can flat out hit. He knows he is going to evolve as a player. He knows there’s room for growth … It looks like he’s just tapping the ball and it comes off the bat at 115 (exit velocity). Holy crap. He’s 20 years old. He doesn’t act like he’s 20. It’s actually like he’s 26.
“The hopes are with this organization that you have the Albert’s and the Yadi’s. When you draft a player and bring him through the organization you are always looking for that bonafide cornerstone player. He has cornerstone written all over him.”
Added Leger, “He’s got the attitude, the aura, that he will be a superstar. He’s got that in him. He’s very humble and a great teammate. He cares. He has fun. There is always a smile on his face. He’s eager to learn. He listens
“He wants to be elite, that’s the bottom line.”
The Cardinals get a walkoff win on a wild pitch, which comes with Walker on-deck. He is quick to join the celebration of players jumping around in back of home plate.
As much fun as Walker is having this season, and as much as his parents have enjoyed watching him, all three can’t help but think at moments like this about someone who would be enjoying it perhaps even more.
Charles Peterson was an area scout for the Cardinals who took Walker under his wing as the two became close in 2019 and 2020 throughout the draft process.
“He definitely liked Jordan a lot and in my opinion had big visions for what Jordan could do,” Derek Walker said. “He was very high on Jordan.”
In the summer of 2019, Peterson was one of the coaches at the East Coast Pro showcase, where Walker struggled.
“What Charles told Katrina and I was that he was able to see Jordan work through it in the batting cage, watching him day to day, and that was one of the things that impressed him and went into his calculus about deciding what Jordan was going to do,” Derek Walker said.
“At another event that December, with a bunch of scouts from different teams there, sort of like speed dating, Charles said he watched Jordan from the time he walked in the door until the time he walked out. What he was looking for was the intangibles. He knew how good of a player he was but he looked at how the other players gathered around him. He wanted to see how Jordan and I interacted when we talked with other scouts. He wanted to see if I was doing the talking or Jordan. Jordan did it.
“That was some of what he said he noticed which kind of helped seal the deal in his mind about Jordan being the right player.”
Just two months after Peterson celebrated when the Cardinals made Walker their first-round pick, he was dead. Peterson was 46 when he died on Sept. 13, 2020 from complications caused by Covid.
“I don’t talk about it too much because it really did upset me when he died,” the younger Walker said. “He was a great guy and I miss him a lot.”
Derek Walker knows how much Peterson would be enjoying watching Walker -and dreaming about his future.
“Katrina and I think about that a lot,” he said. “We would love to be able to call him for some chats about how Jordan and the Cardinals are doing.”
One comment that Peterson made to the Walkers which they have not forgotten came after Walker signed his contract, turning down a scholarship to Duke.
“He said his vision was to see Jordan, Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson being announced and running on the field together at the 2025 World Series,” Walker said.
Jordan Walker doesn’t like to think much about the future, preferring to stay in the moment – but he is willing to make an exception in this case.
“I would love nothing more than for that to happen,” he said.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Springfield Cardinals