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  • Writer's pictureIan Bertschausen

Hope Springs Eternal; Jordan Walker is Inevitable

March 11, 2023

Coined by sabermetrican, Voros McCraken, “Voros’s Law” states that any player can hit just about anything in around 60 at-bats. The concept is easy to understand. Over the course of 17 games and 59 at-bats in May 2014, Mike Trout posted a batting average of .153. In 2022, Corey Dickerson put up not one, not two, but three 17-game spans where he averaged .460 or higher, joining only Aaron Judge and J.D. Martinez as players who had three such streaks. Any player can hit anything in around 60 at-bats.

If Voros’s Law is true during the regular season, it is doubly true of Spring Training during a year where some of the best ballplayers on the planet have departed their clubs to play in the World Baseball Classic.

Enter Jordan Walker, the 20-year-old righthander, who has mashed three home runs and slashed .424/.424/.813 through the first ten Spring Training games of 2023, nearly insisting that John Mozeliak and co. find a place for him on the Opening Day roster. That Walker might find himself on the 26-man when the Cardinals take the field in St. Louis against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 30 was far from a given. FanGraphs’ ZiPS and Steamer systems currently project Walker for 116 and 102 games, respectively.

Part of the reason Walker might have been expected to start the season with AAA Memphis was due to the unclear path through the logjam of talent ahead of him. The Cardinals drafted Walker as a third baseman in the first round of the 2020 Draft, a position occupied by in St. Louis Nolan Arenado, who declined to exercise his opt-out clause this past offseason, leaving him firmly parked in the hot corner through the 2027 season. Walker has taken up work in the outfield, which provides him an easier route to the big league roster than supplanting Arenado, but remains a tall order.

With only one losing season since the turn of the century (which, incidentally, immediately followed the team’s World Series victory in 2006),Cardinals fans know that any of the team’s problems are the good type to have. The 2023 outfield is exactly that brand of good problem. The presumptive starters, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neil, and Lars Nootbaar, each have a high ceiling and a not insignificant question mark entering the season. In 2022, Carlson, himself a former first-round pick, faltered down the stretch, where his first-half WRC+ of 111 fell to 85. He struggled particularly against right-handed pitching, against him is WRC+ of 83 on the year was 60 points below his marks against lefties. O’Neil has been explosive when healthy, posting a WRC+ of 144 over the course of the 2021 season, but played in only 96 games in 2022. Nootbaar, for his part, put together a strong 2022 campaign punctuated by 90th percentile leaguewide exit velocity and 98th percentile walk rate. He, and his pepper grinder celebration, have become darlings of not only the St. Louis front office, coaching staff, and fans, but the world at large following Shohei Ohtani’s adoption of the celebration in the World Baseball Classic.[6] Even so, it remains to be seen whether Nootbaar can continue to build on his strong rookie season.

To make matters worse for Walker, all three of the outfield frontrunners are plus defenders. Carlson started 69 games in center field in 2022, primarily taking over the position following Harrison Bader’s trade to the Yankees. When O’Neil came into camp this spring, he requested the opportunity to audition for the center field role, which the Cardinals will grant him. Both O’Neil and Nootbaar will play centerfield for their World Baseball Classic squads.

Walker is not the only guy hoping to get an outfield spot, either. Juan Yepez hit a respectable .253/.296/.447 over 274 plate appearances in 2022, including 12 home runs. Alec Burleson appeared in 16 games this past season and, although he did not post great numbers, he remains a strong prospect. Oh, yeah, and super utility man, Brendan Donovan, appeared in 37 games in the outfield in 2022, as well.

The door to a roster spot was always going to be there for Walker as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. The question was whether he could find a way to wrench it open. An injury seemed the likeliest route, but that was ten exhibition games ago. That was before, per MLB Pipeline, Walker led all Spring Training players in average (.452), slugging (.839), OPS (1.291), total bases (26), hits (14), and extra-base hits (6, tied).[8]

We know the sample size is miniscule. We know the pitchers Walker has faced are ramping up, testing out new pitches, experimenting with new rules, and may not all represent big league talent. We know that in about 60 at-bats, any guy can hit anything. But when you look at the 33 at-bats Walker has masterfully pieced together, we can’t help but forget the other things we know.

Maybe it’s the optimism of spring, when the players are in the Best Shape of Their Lives and each team’s dream of hoisting that piece of metal in October remains intact; maybe it’s that humans are bad at holding two ideas in their head at once. All I know is this: Jordan Walker is the best ballplayer on Earth.

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