CINCINNATI — Each afternoon, no matter the stadium or opponent, you can find Jordan Walker in right field hours before first pitch. The 21-year-old rookie has developed a meticulous pregame routine. Before regularly scheduled batting practice and hitter’s meetings, Walker will patrol the outfield grass. He’ll take rep after rep, tracking fly balls off machines and ensuring his reads are accurate.
There are plenty of things Walker wants to practice. He knows he needs a more definitive first step on balls in the air, and that his routes on hard-hit balls will need to continue improving. He has a lethal throwing arm, but he won’t be truly feared by opposing base coaches until he can consistently hit his cutoff man. These areas of improvement are to be expected. Walker is not a natural outfielder. He became one out of necessity. The St. Louis Cardinals knew there would be growing pains as he acclimated from third base to the corner outfield — and there have been plenty.
But Walker has not let his initial discomfort or prior defensive miscues deter him. And as he looks to wrap up his first year in the big leagues, he has slowly but surely become much more confident in the outfield. That is a testament to his early fielding sessions and the work Walker has put in with the coach responsible for holding them.
After all, who better to learn from than Willie McGee?
“There’s no better person,” Walker beamed. “He’s the man. I talk to him about everything.”
McGee, a longtime fixture within the Cardinals organization, surely knows a thing or two about outfield defense. He has three Gold Gloves and a National League MVP award to prove it. But McGee is not here to talk about himself or the accolades of his playing days. He wants to talk about Walker and the commitment the rookie has made to improve defensively. He saw Walker’s potential, even when Walker was statistically one of the worst defensive outfielders in the league in the first half of the season. So he asked Walker one simple question: “Hey, man, you want to work?”
The two have partnered together pregame ever since. The results have been dramatic.
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“I don’t mess with him a lot,” McGee said. “I leave him alone, let him play. If he throws to the wrong base, I’ll tell him: ‘Hey, I did it. I played outfield all my life and in the big leagues, and I did it. I miss balls. It happens.’ But if you’re working at it, I got your back.”
Walker responds well to McGee’s coaching style. He is eager to learn and McGee is eager to share when asked. Walker wants to work and McGee is always available, again when asked. It’s made for an ideal partnership, to say the least.
“We joke around every once in a while, but one thing I like about him is that when it’s time to work, he wants to work,” Walker said of McGee. “He’s not afraid to get on me. Sometimes that’s the best way I learn. Having that person that really gets on me, shows me he really cares, he’s a wonderful human being and a wonderful coach.
“He’s not afraid to say anything. He’s said, ‘Hey, you sucked here.’ He tells me that straight up, and then he tells me what we’re going to work on to help that and that I’ll get it right. He just keeps reassuring me like, ‘Yeah, man, you’ll be fine.’”
Walker’s metrics still read that he’s below league average defensively (for example, Walker owns a minus-5 outs above average ranking in right field). The Cardinals aren’t looking at it that way. They’d prefer to take advantage of their first non-competitive second half in 15 years by evaluating individual players’ progress. Walker is at the top of that list. So far, the organization has been impressed.
“He’s slowed the game down,” manager Oli Marmol said. “When the game’s fast, you make more mistakes. When the game is fast and you’ve made mistakes, you are more tentative to not make them, so that decreases how quick you are to get a jump or the angle you take towards the ball. You tend to take a little deeper route in order to get to the ball, so that you don’t misjudge it. You do things in order to not make a mistake. When the game starts to slow down, you don’t do that. You’re a little bit more aggressive, you’re more confident.
“He’s worked hard at it, early work every day, and it’s carried into the game. … The more reps you get, the calmer you become out there. There’s nothing like replicating in-game reps. But I do think the work that he’s done over the last couple of months with Willie has helped him slow the game down.”
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The Cardinals use an assortment of performance- and data-based statistics to evaluate outfield performance. Arm strength and top speed are important, but perhaps the most pivotal stat is outfield jump and the underlying factors that accompany it, such as reaction time and route efficiency. That area is where Walker initially struggled the most. Now, after nearly three months of consistent playing time in right field at the major-league level, it’s also the area where he’s made the biggest advancements. That he’s been able to improve so quickly is a reflection of his comfort increasing with more playing time and the preparation he puts in beforehand.
“I’m not being as timid,” Walker said. “The outfield is my weakest area, so there are always going to be some nerves there. But in the beginning of the year, I was really, really timid, and it kept me from doing stuff. I was always thinking, ‘Is this the right move?’ and then I’d overthink it and be a second too late getting to a ball and let it fall. Becoming more comfortable out there and making that first move a little bit quicker has really been the biggest thing.”
McGee knows Walker is solidifying himself as an outfielder with each passing week, but he also knows there is more work to be done.
“I know he’s getting better, but I try not to look at it,” McGee said. “I just try to see what’s next. Step by step. Right now, we’re working at getting to the wall. Everything else, he’s getting pretty good at.
“I like to go in phases,” he said. “I don’t like to try to give them everything at once. I got patience because of my experience. You have to have patience with people when you try to do (new) things.”
That outlook has also helped Walker, who can admittedly be both impatient and a perfectionist. That won’t fly with McGee.
“Sometimes I just want myself to be perfect out of the gate,” Walker said. “He’s the one that keeps telling me that’s not going to happen. I get frustrated with myself in early work sometimes when I don’t get it right, and he’s always the one to calm me down. This takes time, and he’s helped me realize that.”
There’s one more thing that’s different for Walker in the outfield now.
“I’m having fun,” he laughed. “I used to be nervous to play out there, but now I find myself looking forward to playing out there. I like seeing the other outfielders make plays, up close and personal. I’m having fun out there, a lot more than I did at the beginning of the season.”
Comfort makes a world of difference for a rookie, and the Cardinals are seeing that with Walker firsthand. His future as an outfielder is no longer as murky as it was in the early summer. In fact, Walker is starting to show the potential of becoming an above-average right fielder.
Thanks to an undeterred work ethic, from both player and coach, the Cardinals are confident Walker has a chance to become exactly that.
(Top photo of Jordan Walker: Jeff Curry / USA Today)