Jordan Walker has been under a microscope since he broke camp with the Cardinals to start the season. The low point that followed his historic hitting streak -- being sent down to Triple-A to, among other things, work on his ground-ball rate -- came with struggles that are hard for anyone to balance, let alone a 21-year-old.
So what has MLB’s top prospect been doing to help himself relax? Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with baseball.
“I'm a big video game person. My friends who I went to high school with … we play NBA 2K23,” Walker said, adding with a laugh: “They have a lot more time to play it now than I do.”
Indeed, it’s taking the focus off of baseball sometimes that’s helped Walker feel, in his own words, “like my old self a little bit.” In perhaps his best performance for Triple-A Memphis to date, Walker homered for the second time in four games, smoked a ball nearly 115 mph and drove in the then-go-ahead run in the club's 13-12 loss to Norfolk.
“Being more relaxed, not putting too much pressure on myself, that’s kind of how it felt tonight,” Walker said. “I just have to remember to trust in my abilities.”
Those abilities are some of the most promising in baseball, and for a little while, Walker felt himself being weighed down by those expectations -- specifically the ones about lifting the ball more. Over his past 10 games, though, the Cardinals’ top prospect is batting .318 with five extra-base hits and eight RBIs, in no small part due to Walker’s concerted effort to be more relaxed.
“Right now, it’s just about driving the ball and hitting the ball hard,” Walker said. “The most comfortable I am [at the plate] is when I think like that.”
By the time the fourth frame rolled around, right-hander Chris Vallimont was on the bump and Walker was ready to do more damage. The righty slugger got another changeup and hammered the pitch to left field for a single, this time torching it 114.7 mph off the bat, the hardest-hit ball of the day in Triple-A.
Walker drew a four-pitch free pass off Vallimont in the seventh before finding himself at the plate in a 10-10 game in the bottom of the eighth and a new pitcher coming in -- righty Logan Gillaspie. On the very first pitch he threw, Walker laced the slider back up the middle, driving in the then-go-ahead run and securing his second three-hit game of the season.
The Georgia native has been leaning on his teammates -- specifically infielders Kramer Robertston and Taylor Motter -- to help keep him mentally centered. Walker was encouraged to set little goals for himself to work on every game, rather than looking at the stat sheet every night. It seems to be working wonders.
“Today’s goal was to catch the ball out in front. Doesn’t matter where it goes, just catch it out in front and hit something hard and in play,” Walker said. “I feel like today, I accomplished that goal. Based on how I feel tomorrow, I’ll set another goal, just to keep my swing centered and where I want it to be.”
“It may not be the way I want it to turn out on the stat sheet, but as long as I meet those goals, swing mechanically-wise, that’s what I want to do.”