It’s not terribly difficult to get Walker Robbins to smile.
The 20-year-old George County, Mississippi native is often in a good mood. But ask the former St. Louis Cardinals fifth-round draft pick about his best professional baseball momentand he lights up.
After hitting .185 in his professional debut in 2016 with the Gulf Coast League champion Cardinals, the left-handed power hitter started off his 2017 with an opening day blast that cut through the night air in Johnson City, Tennessee, for a 13th-inning walk-off homer.
It was Robbins’ best baseball moment to date.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“That was awesome,” Robbins said, beaming. “Especially when I hit it. I didn’t know if it was going to go out or not. I squared it up and when I saw it go over the wall, I kind of just blacked out to be honest. It was a great moment.”
Robbins went on to have an improved sophomore campaign with the Johnson City Cardinals. Although his batting average dipped slightly from .185 to .174, almost every other number improved, including his on-base percentage (.248), slugging percentage (.288) and OPS (.536). He also hit two homers and nine doubles, scored 14 times and drove in 11 runs. He also nearly doubled his walk total to 14.
Not quite his .351 career varsity average, or his .961 OPS that helped convince Cardinals brass to stick with his bat instead of his left arm, which unleashes fastballs in the low-90s — more on that later — but Robbins chalks up his first two years to adjusting from high school to the professional ranks.
“Pitching is the biggest thing. You go from facing guys maybe throwing 85-86 (miles-per-hour) to guys throwing 99-100,” he said. “I learned a lot and felt a lot better toward the end of the year.
“I feel a lot better coming into this third season. I feel like it’s going to be a good year.”
In preparation for his 2018 assignment — which he said is currently to be determined — Robbins has been working out at George County High with his brother, Mason, who is a Chicago White Sox prospect, and JaCoby Jones, who played for GCHS coach Brandon Davis at Richton High and is now battling for an outfield spot with the Detroit Tigers.
They’ve mostly been hitting in George County’s indoor facility, but saw live pitching from Davis on Claude Passeau Field for the first time last Tuesday. He said the Cardinals are in constant contact with him and while they haven’t requested any major alterations to his swing, he has been tweaking things a little in an effort to see a power surge.
“Especially just staying back on the ball and driving it, trying to hit for more power,” he said. “... I’m trying to work on my angle to drive the ball into the gaps more.”
Although he was almost entirely a pitcher and first baseman at GCHS, the Cardinals immediately moved Robbins to left field after drafting him in 2016. He said the move to the outfield was difficult, but he’s worked with former Cardinals great and new St. Louis major league coach Willie McGee to become more comfortable to the new position.
“He has worked with me a lot and that helped me out a lot,” Robbins said. “He would come out there during BP and really help me work on my jumps and stuff.
“After the first year I felt really comfortable out there and now I feel good.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Robbins was 21-6 on the mound at GCHS with a 1.41 ERA and 249 strikeouts in 179 1/3 innings. He could also ramp up his velocity into the low 90s so it’s no surprise Robbins was seen as a bona fide pitching prospect by some organizations.
The Cardinals, however, preferred his power potential at the plate.
“They were telling me your arm is always going to be there, so if something does happen with your hitting you can always come back and try pitching,” he said. “If you take three or four years off of hitting, it’s kind of hard to come back and get the feel for it again. If you take four years off pitching, you’re always going to feel that arm.
“I’m trying to make it as a hitter, but if something happens and I have to go back to pitching, I’ll be fine with it.”
Robbins joked that a couple times last year with Johnson City he threw on the side, just to hear the catcher’s mitt pop again. Although some of his Johnson City coaches saw him and inquired about his pitching history, Robbins insisted it was merely for fun.
“I enjoyed pitching and liked it a lot, but hitting and playing in the outfield every day, that’s awesome,” Robbins said.