Baseball by its nature is a game of failure, which is part of what makes Jordan Walker’s earliest days in a Cardinals uniform so jarring.
Through the team’s first four series — all 12 games of which Walker has started in right field — he’s yet to spend a day in a lineup without recording a base hit.
It’s impossible for such a stretch to last forever, but that the streak exists at all is a feat that exceeds the appearance of Halley’s Comet in its rarity. For eager Cardinals fans, the brightness of his streak is no less celestial.
Walker’s 12th consecutive game with a hit — a broken-bat single in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s series finale in Colorado — tied “Honest” Eddie Murphy’s Major League record for longest hitting streak to begin a career by a player 20 years old or younger. Murphy set the record for the 1912 Philadelphia Athletics, who have twice been moved in the interim and are setting up to be relocated a third time.
Forget the comet and stay on the field. It’s a feat so rare that it’s outlasting the span of entire franchises.
“Right now I’m in a mode where you just let him play,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said last Saturday in Milwaukee when discussing how best to deploy his rookie phenom. “No expectation of what we expect out of him against righties or lefties. He’s in a position where … we’re just going to let him go.”
Despite starting in each of the team’s first dozen games, Walker saw lefty pitching only nine times in that span. That’s in part a function of quirks and luck in the early scheduling, but also a demonstration of opposing teams taking pains to avoid those bullpen matchups later in games. He does have one of his two homers against a lefty, tagging Milwaukee’s Eric Lauer just hours after Marmol expressed his comfort in riding the current wave.
Still, there are some rough patches to smooth out. In his first 50 plate appearances, Walker has been hit by a pitch twice as often as he’s drawn a walk — two to one. A 2% walk rate is arguably even less sustainable than a lengthy hitting streak, but is due to eventually advance toward the mean.
That will come, in time, with patience. It also will come with opposing pitchers being less willing to challenge and more willing to concede. In a Cardinals lineup that’s received an absolute vacuum of run support in the early going from Willson Contreras hitting fifth, the argument to keep Walker in the lower third is fairly intuitive — he’s still learning, and he’s doing enough damage in his current spot to stay right where he is.
“I’m always trying to prepare for their stuff,” Walker said of the challenges which come with facing big league pitching for the first time and acclimating himself to a league where the vast majority of opponents will be familiar to him only from video. “It doesn’t work out every single time, but at least it can kind of give me a little inside edge on, you know, I’m not surprised by anything when I get into a game.”
More about Walker
It’s the lack of surprise that’s arguably more surprising than anything else. More than a month before his 21st birthday, Walker is demographically much more likely to be surprised by discovering he needs to be laundry than lacking surprise at the spin cycle of a Major League breaking ball.
Poise can be a learned skill, but in some cases, it’s preternatural. Setting aside the thunder from his bat, it’s almost ludicrous to imagine him spending another summer riding buses in the minor leagues as some sort of path to improvement.
Spending any amount of time at all coming to understand how he carries himself and his readiness for the moment makes it clear the Cardinals had really no decision to make at all when it came to his placement at the end of spring; there’s nothing Memphis could do for him.
“I’m just trying to hit the ball hard right now,” Walker said in Milwaukee. “I’m not really too worried about launch angle.”
‘Just have to make adjustments’
And yet, since the day he shared that assessment, his average angle has improved by five degrees. With an expected slugging percentage in excess of .400 despite repeatedly smashing his hardest hit balls into the dirt, not only is his opportunity for improvement obvious, but it can also be tracked in real time.
Solid, important, contributing Major League players have passed through the Cardinals organization in the two decades since Albert Pujols made his debut. This, though, is what a shooting star looks like.
“I feel like that’s just a few adjustments with my swing to lift the ball right now,” he said. “I’m still going to take the same approach. Just have to make an adjustment, and it gets in the air. It’s going to be better.”
Much better, in fact, and you might be able to see it from space.