What Walker learned in the Minors: 'Play my game and play relaxed'

June 3rd, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- As if ’s patience hadn’t been tested enough during a five-week demotion to Triple-A Memphis, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound prospect had an especially long night of travel delays and mix-ups on Thursday before arriving back at the MLB level.

Walker’s flights out of Omaha, Neb., and Dallas were both delayed, and when he got to Pittsburgh, his bag of bats wasn’t on the luggage carousel. A lengthy search ultimately proved successful, but Walker didn’t get to his hotel until 3 a.m.

The trying journey reminded Walker that the path to the big leagues isn’t always as storybook as it seems in syrupy-sweet Hollywood scripts. Occasionally, Walker noted, it is pocked with potholes, pitfalls and side steps back to the Minors to find a groove again.

“That’s not always real life, man,” the 21-year-old said. “Sometimes, things aren’t always going to go the way you plan for them to go. But you just can't let it kill you mentally, for sure.”

Walker, baseball's No. 1-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, certainly didn’t let his April 26 demotion to Triple-A break his spirits. He returned to the big leagues on Friday looking much like the player who opened his MLB career with hits in his first 12 games. On Friday, he smashed a ball 110.9 mph back up the middle for a single -- one of the few bright spots in a game in which the Cardinals squandered a five-run lead and a strong start by Jack Flaherty in a crushing 7-5 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park.

On the night Walker was back in the big leagues after working for weeks to improve the launch angle of balls off his bat, the game ended unceremoniously with him grounding out to second base. He is, quite frankly, still a work in progress.

Walker grounded out in the third, seventh and ninth innings, was caught looking in the sixth inning, and even his single was a hard-hit ball on the ground. The 110.9 mph ball Walker hit was his 26th hard-hit ball (95 mph or greater exit velocity) in 21 MLB games, but the Cardinals and manager Oliver Marmol would rather see him do greater damage on a hanging slider down the middle.

Walker said he’s at his best when he’s not thinking too much about trying to lift pitches in the air. His focus, he said, is trying to hit balls more out in front of him so he can extend his arms and drive balls into the gap.

“When I first got down [to Triple-A], I put too much pressure on myself,” Walker said. “But once I started relaxing at the plate, that's when things started to click. I need to learn to not let the game speed up on me, for sure, and just play my game and play relaxed. I think that's a big lesson I learned.”

Walker made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster out of Spring Training and hit .274 with three doubles, two home runs and 11 RBIs in 20 MLB games. But the Cardinals were concerned about his 60.4% ground-ball rate -- the fourth-highest rate in baseball at the time of his demotion.

But Walker slashed .333/.431/.619 with three home runs in his final 11 games at the Triple-A level while cutting his ground-ball rate to 44.6%. Marmol said Walker’s advanced maturity and high baseball IQ were two reasons the club was not worried that a demotion would hinder the young star.

“There was no thought on our end or his of this being something that wasn’t doable,” Marmol said of Walker’s swing changes. “It was a small adjustment that needed to be made, and we needed to get ahead of it.”

Walker, who made the jump to the big leagues from Double-A, admitted that the sting of the demotion took him a while to get over mentally. In a perfect world, he would have made it to the big leagues, improved steadily throughout his rookie season, and the Minors would’ve never been a thought for him again. But such was not the case for a player who is still developing parts of his game.

Now, he wants to make the most of his second opportunity.

“No one ever wants to be sent down, but that was adversity I had to overcome,” Walker said. “It was definitely a test, and I wanted to show that it wouldn't break me. I have to get a feel for my swing and not worry about the numbers. When I play relaxed, I hit better.”