Jordan Walker learning outfield intricacies in AFL

October 6th, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It’s not often that a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder roams center field, but in many ways, much of what Jordan Walker does on the field already makes him an anomaly. The highest-ranked prospect (No. 6 overall) in attendance at the Arizona Fall League according to MLB Pipeline, Walker’s tenure with the Salt River Rafters will also serve as a graduate course on the intricacies of playing the outfield.

Drafted as a third baseman out of Decatur (HS), Ga., Walker held down the hot corner for all of his appearances in 2021, in addition to 68 starts there this season. But as his preternaturally gifted hitting ability continues to blossom, the Cardinals’ organization has kept an eye on the future; with third base in stable hands with nine-time Gold Glover Nolan Arenado under contract through the ‘27 season, Walker has begun to explore a new defensive home.

Walker made four starts in center field for Double-A Springfield during the regular season, but he was patrolling a notoriously difficult sun field at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick during the Rafters’ 8-6 defeat to the Saguaros on Thursday.

“I had good people around me -- [right fielder Zach] Britton and [left fielder] Zac Veen -- they had good calls out there; I felt really comfortable with them out there,” Walker said. “It was a lot of fun.”

An added advantage of Walker suiting up for Salt River is access to Statcast data during home games; thus far, the metrics back up what the eyes can see -- St. Louis’ top-ranked prospect blisters the ball.

Despite grounding out to short in his first at-bat Thursday, the ball came off Walker’s bat at 107.4 mph. His final ball put in play during Wednesday’s outing was a single to the opposite field at 108.5 mph. 

“Exit velocity is something that will come with good swings to be honest,” Walker said. “There’s nothing I really try to do. 

“I feel like when it comes to exit velocity that if you put a good swing on the ball, the exit velocity is going to be high.”

While Walker’s size makes him stand out with a glove in his hand, he runs like a prototypical center fielder. On the aforementioned groundout, sniffing a base hit, he got down the line with a 29.3 feet per second sprint speed, just below the threshold which would qualify as “elite.” 

Walker admitted that getting a jump on the ball in center is vastly different from right field, where he drew 24 starts at Double-A. 

“The pitcher is kind of blocking where the ball is hit, so you kind of have to stagger between the pitches whether it’s a righty or a lefty,” Walker said. “I’m still getting adjusted.”

One of those pitchers that Walker had a cat’s eye view of was Rafters right-hander and fellow Cardinals prospect Tink Hence (St. Louis’ No. 6 prospect/MLB No. 91 overall). The 20-year-old ramped his heater up as high as 97.8 mph, throwing it for six of his eight pitches. 

“It was nasty,” Walker said of Hence’s AFL debut. “It was 97, it was moving. He was throwing strikes, it was exactly what we needed -- it’s hot out here in Arizona. It was really nice to see.”

Hence, who posted a 1.38 ERA across 16 starts at Single-A Palm Beach this year, retired the side in order Thursday. St. Louis kept a close watch on its second-round selection from the 2020 Draft this season, not allowing him to throw more than four frames or 60 pitches in any outing. Still, his numbers were staggering, as he allowed one run or fewer in 14 of his appearances.

Surprise’s offense was paced by No. 8 Royals prospect Tyler Gentry, who walloped two hanging breaking balls for home runs. His two-run shot in the third gave the Saguaros a lead they would never relinquish, before adding another two-run roundtripper -- traveling 430 feet -- as the difference maker in the seventh.