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Will Jordan Walker’s demotion pay off this time? Cardinals, Walker are counting on it

With both team and player mired in a season-opening slump and fighting to find a way out, the St. Louis Cardinals opted to release some pressure on Wednesday morning by demoting struggling outfielder Jordan Walker to Triple-A Memphis.

Zack Thompson, who started the second game of the season for St. Louis, was also sent down after allowing seven earned runs in relief in Tuesday’s 14-1 thrashing by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Infielder José Fermín and lefty reliever John King replaced the two on the roster ahead of Wednesday’s series finale.

For Walker, Wednesday’s move marks the second consecutive year in which the highly-touted player broke with the team out of spring training but saw himself sent to the minors before the season’s first month was up. Last season, the team expressed concern over the rate at which he was driving balls into the ground rather than with authority in the air. This year, the issue has been described as about pitch selection and the resulting mechanical flaws that have accompanied attempts to fend off pitches low and away.

Both issues are fruit of the same tree – Walker, who doesn’t turn 22 until the end of May, displayed skills and results that earned him a rapid path to the majors, but then saw himself struggling to find rewards for his adjustments as he combatted the realities of big league pitching.

“In thinking what’s best for Jordan at the moment, for continuing his development, going down into a lower stakes environment and working on the things that he’s been trying to work on over the last several weeks here made the most sense,” manager Oli Marmol said. “Good conversation with him this morning, and he felt good about going down there and getting the work and being able to get back to producing and feeling good about where he’s at swing-wise and pitch selection-wise in order to get back up here and help us.”

Walker is just 9-for-58 thus far on the season and has not hit a home run in the season’s opening weeks, covering 67 plate appearances. Graphic representations of his swing, produced by MLB’s Baseball Savant, make plain the issue that the Cardinals and Walker have worked hard to combat.

In the season’s first two dozen games, Walker has seen 79 pitches delivered to him low and away out of the strike zone, more than 50 more than in any other zone. He swung at only 27% of those pitches, demonstrating the skill in his zone recognition, but that total amounts to 31% of the total deliveries from opposing pitchers.

While he was working admirably to keep himself out of trouble on pitches in his weakest spot, the frequency with which major league pitchers can hit that spot has all but sapped his overall effectiveness, leaving him torn between chasing offerings that he knows won’t end in solid contact and being frozen without opportunities to get off his best swing at all.

Last season, even as Walker maintained a strong batting average, the Cardinals scheduled days for him to work with hitting coach Turner Ward in San Francisco to counteract his launch angle issues. He wasn’t available to play in games those days even as he stayed on the active roster, and actions taken by the team this week had a ring of familiarity about them.

Walker was not in the lineup either Sunday or Monday, but did serve as the designated hitter on Tuesday. After Marmol declined to use Iván Herrera as a pinch hitter for lefty Alec Burleson in a potential spot that arose in the sixth inning of Sunday’s series finale with the Milwaukee Brewers, he made reference on Monday to Herrera being the “one bullet” the team had to fire from the bench in a run-scoring opportunity.

That necessarily excluded the righty-swinging Walker, implying a similar treatment, which was heightened by a run of starts in right field by Lars Nootbaar, as opposed to Nootbaar remaining in his more frequent spot in left field.

Now, with Walker’s demotion, Nootbaar figures to stay in place in right, with a combination of Brendan Donovan and Burleson handling left. Fermín, who plays the three infield positions other than first base, is off to a white hot start at Memphis, with a 1.108 on base plus slugging percentage and a .350 batting average over his first 18 games.

He offers another righty bench option, which can help balance the heavily lefty Cardinals. He also is a player at a different developmental stage who carries a different importance to the organization than Walker; Fermín can largely sit on the bench until the right spots arise, but it remains paramount for Walker to maximize his at bats and play every day, and the patience for allowing him to do so for a team with an already lagging offense has run out.

Marmol said Walker will take a few days after arriving in Memphis to continue some of that work before playing in games. Last year, after being demoted on April 26, he was recalled on June 2, and both player and team reaped the rewards of those five weeks in the minors.

There is no public timeline for his return at the moment. What matters most – to Walker and to the team – is getting right, and putting him in a position to come as close to his sky-high ceiling as possible.

“It’s not something you want,” Marmol said of the demotion. “It’s not something anybody wants for him. But the situation does call for it.”

Walker, for now, is down and away. This time, the Cardinals need to be sure he’ll stay in the middle when he returns.