Baseball

Jordan Walker And The 2.7 Launch Angle Problem

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Why did the Cardinals demote Jordan Walker?

A look at his launch angle and pitch recognition.

The Cardinals shocked fans Wednesday by demoting highly touted prospect Jordan Walker to Memphis; it really shouldn’t have been surprising though. Walker has sat out 4 of the 6 games prior to the demotion; he was working with hitting coaches on a more upright batting stance.

Walker is talented, but he’s got a major flaw right now; he hits too many groundballs for as hard as he hits the baseball.

According to Statcast, Walker is above average in barrel percentage (aka the abiltiy to get the perfect exit velocity and launch angle – 7.5% to the leagues 6.8%), barrels per plate appearances (5.1 to the league average 4.6), exit velocity (90.0 MPH to the league average 88.4 MPH), and hard hit percentage (aka balls with an exit velocity over 90 MPH – 47.2% to the league average of 35.9%). Those are all solid numbers for a player 20 games into his MLB career.

The issues are his launch angle (2.7 degrees to the league average 12.1 degrees) and sweet spot percentage (a batted-ball event with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees – 26.4% to the league average of 33.0%). As a result, he’s hitting groundballs on 58.5% of his balls in play (league average is 44.8%).

For as hard as he hits the ball, he’s getting little to show for it; most of his hits have been infield singles. Look at his spray chart from Baseball Savant:

Jordan Walker spray chart

This was one of the knocks on him in the minors: he hits too many groundballs. For him to be an elite player, he needs to get that launch angle up. He’s got the bat speed and the power, so working on getting the ball up will key to his long-term success.

The Cardinals have spent a few days making adjustments to get the ball up; rather than working on it in MLB games, they decided to send him down.

The demotion also allows Walker to work on pitch recognition, something scouts questioned in the Arizona Fall League last year. Walker is killing sliders and hitting 4-seam fastballs well; he’s struggling against sinkers, curves, and change ups. Here’s the run values for each pitch he’s seen this season:

PitchSeenSeen %RVRV/100
Slider8130.145.2
4-Seam5420.111.8
Sinker4416.4-1-1.2
Curve248.9-1-3.3
Change238.6-1-5.4
Sweeper186.713.2
Cutter186.70-2.6
Splitter72.60-6.6

If you take a total of his RV/100 (the run value over 100 pitches of that type), he’s sitting at -8.9; it’s not totally fair though because he’s not going to see 100 sweepers (a pitch with a lot of horizontal movement and little vertical movement) while he will see plenty of sliders.

So, if we figure that the average hitter gets 5 pitches per at bat and 323 at bats per season (minimum of 50 games), Walker’s pitch total looks as follows:

PitchProjected SeenProjected Seen %Projected RV
Slider48630.125
4-Seam32420.16
Sinker26416.4-3
Curve1448.9-5
Change1388.6-7
Sweeper1086.73
Cutter1086.7-3
Splitter422.6-3

Projecting out his RV shows he’ll be better, but he’ll still struggle in half the pitches he sees. Overall, his projected RV is +14 because he’s doing so well with the slider. I don’t think this is sustainable over the long-term because teams will stop using the slider so much and go to the curve and change more.

Working out his pitch recognition will also help his walk and strikeout rates; his BB% is currently 3.8% (below the league average of 8.4%) and his K% is 25.6% (above the league average of 22.1%). If he can get the ball up more and recognize what’s coming (aka walk more and strikeout less), he’ll be an elite player.

The demotion is the right call. The Cardinals are struggling as a team, and their best outfield right now doesn’t include Walker trying to fix his swing. He needs a low pressure atmosphere to work on it.

At the same time, they can get regular at bats for Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson; let’s face it, Lars Nootbaar is the best of the outfield bunch right now. Carlson should play everyday; he needs the reps to get out of the funk, plus he’s the only guy that’s capable of playing a halfway decent center. Splitting time between O’Neill and Burleson in left isn’t really fair to either one, but that’s going to put the best outfield in the lineup; plus the odd man out will get the occasional start in right to spell Noot.

If there is one thing to be upset about with Walker’s demotion, it’s the fact the team brought back Taylor Motter. He’s just not good. He’s never hit at the majors and he’s a liability in the field. They’d be better off with Juan Yepez on the bench, even if he doesn’t have the “defensive versatility” of Motter.

Walker is going to be a great player, but it sometimes takes a little time. Nolan Gorman didn’t hit well initially; he’s now showing the potential that made him a top prospect. Mike Trout was not very good in 2011 (89 OPS+); he finished the season in the minors and tore the cover off the ball in 2012. I think Walker will be somewhere in the middle, but it might be 2024 before we see that.

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