Christian Walker made his major-league debut in 2014. There can’t be many players who have ever won a Rookie of the Year award five years after their first appearance in the majors. But over the the 2014-18 period, Walker amassed a total of fewer than a hundred plate-appearances, keeping his rookie eligibility intact. That radically changed this season. He was initially expected to platoon at first, but injury to his partner forced him into an everyday role, and Walker took full advantage. He ended up appearing in more games than anyone else bar Nick Ahmed and Eduardo Escobar, and delivered one of the best rookie seasons ever by a Diamondback.
Why did it take so long? To start with, Walker had the misfortune to be drafted by the Orioles in 2012. Though Christian progressed quickly through the farm system, reaching AA the next year, and the majors in 2014, Chris Davis was entrenched at first-base. Before the 2016 campaign, Baltimore signed Davis to a 7-year, $161 million extension. It, along with Davis’s subsequent cratering, is a good part of the reason why the Orioles are where they are now. But for the purposes of this story, what matters is, Walker became entirely surplus to Baltimore’s requirements. Before the 2017 campaign, he was placed on waivers, and the merry-go-round started.
Apparently, the Orioles attached a condition to Walker, stating that only teams who already had first basemen could select him. Thus, in little over a month, Walker bounced from Baltimore (Davis) to Atlanta (Freddie Freeman) to Cincinnati (Joey Votto), before finally ending up in Arizona, who had some Goldstein guy at the position. And for the next two years, Walker’s career continued as it had. He put up OPS’s of .980 and .922 for Reno, while seeing only limited (15 and 53 PA) major-league time. But a year ago yesterday, everything changed, when Paul Goldschmidt was traded to St. Louis. Suddenly, for the first time in his career, there was no-one apparently in front of Walker.
Of course, publicly, everyone expressed how sorry they were to see Paul go. But I wonder if, in Casa Walker, Christian was running around with his shirt pulled over his head, miming drinking pints of beer. For he said in March, “I don’t know if discouraging or frustrating is the right word – maybe somewhere in between. You go out and you’re staying ready and trying to be the best player you can be, and on the other hand you’ve got a guy like Paul Goldschmidt who plays 158 games a season. (I knew) some things are really going to have to align to get my shot.” However, even in spring, he was expected to see no more than “occasional starts against left-handed pitchers, while serving as a weapon off the bench.”
And so it initially seemed. Though Walker was Opening Day starter in Los Angeles, for the rest of that four-game series, he was on the bench. But on April 3 in San Diego, Jake Lamb suffered a grade 2 strain of his left quad while running the bases. The initial prognosis had him out six weeks, but it ended up twice that. The injury thrust Christian into an entirely unfamiliar role of an everyday starter in the major leagues. But he took to it with aplomb. From there through April 30, Walker started 21 of the D-backs’ 23 games, and ended the month with a .994 OPS, the best on the team (min. 25 PA), also leading Arizona with seven home-runs. It was the highest April OPS by a rookie (min. 50 PA) in franchise history.
Naturally, there was adversity, and it came soon after. Over a three-week spell from May 6-28, Christian couldn’t buy a hit, going 8-for-70 (.114) with 27 strikeouts. The concern was growing:
I'm ready for less patience with Christian Walker after this afternoon's showing. https://t.co/okc8XIl443— AZ SnakePit (@AZSnakepit) May 27, 2019
But despite a lot of people demanding more time instead for Cronzilla, manager Torey Lovullo was unfazed by the slump. He said of Walker, “He’s got a very good approach and the eye of the tiger. He’s going to have some growing pains, too, and I want to give him a chance to show that the first five weeks of the season weren’t a fluke.” And, guess what? Lovullo was right. Christian clawed his way back out of the hole, and while June wasn’t great (.741 OPS), he was above .800 for each of the remaining three months. By the time Lamb returned at the end of June, Walker had become the incumbent, helped by being able to handle both right- and left-handed pitching. He started 58 of 71 games after the break.
Comparisons between Walker and Goldschmidt’s seasons were inevitable, though some of the narratives being pushed didn’t have much apparent basis in fact. In the final analysis, while it has to be said, Goldschmidt had a very below-average season by his standards, there was surprisingly little difference in the two player’s performance. Below, you’ll find a side-by-side comparison of Christian and Paul:
Perhaps the biggest surprise is to see Walker apparently out-performing three-time Gold Glove winner Goldschmidt in the defensive metrics, when many expected this to be an area where Christian would struggle. Both men ended up nominated for, but not winning, the Gold Glove this season. Team-mate Nick Ahmed, who did win, spoke in glowing terms of Walker’s defense: “He is incredibly improved and underrated defensively. Going back to spring training and the offseason, he was always picking my brain about defense and his footwork and hands. He has made every routine play, picked balls out of the dirt for us and he’s made phenomenal plays. He is a Gold Glover in my eyes.”
It was an epic season. No-one could ever replace Goldschmidt in the hearts and minds of D-backs fandom, but Walker managed to make the post-Goldy era far less traumatic than I feared. All told, the bWAR of 2.8 for Walker represents one of the highest-ever by an Arizona rookie, either position player or pitcher, and the best since 2014. Here are the top 10:
- Brandon Webb, 2003 (6.2 bWAR)
- Daniel Hudson, 2010 (3.8)
- Ender Inciarte, 2014 (3.4)
- A.J. Pollock, 2013 (3.1)
- Wade Miley, 2012 (3.1)
- Christian Walker, 2019 (2.8)
- Alex Cintron, 2003 (2.7)
- Nick Ahmed, 2015 (2.3)
- Ryan Roberts, 2009 (2.3)
- Oscar Villarreal, 2003 (2.2)