You might be surprised to hear that a 28-year-old in his fifth major-league season is still rookie eligible, and Baseball Reference originally stated that Walker had lost his eligibility after the 2018 campaign. However, after we saw Fangraphs still listed him among the rookies, we reached out to the Diamondbacks PR department, as well as Baseball Reference. After both parties double checked with Elias and MLB, they informed us that Walker’s rookie status is indeed intact for the 2019 season. So it’s official folks: we have a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate!
It has taken a confluence of circumstances for Christian Walker to become one. Not just the trade of Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis, but also the injury to Jake Lamb. Unfortunate though that was, it unquestionably opened the door for Walker, who had otherwise been stuck on the short end of the platoon, only making the line-up against left-handed starters. That was the minority of games up until Lamb hurt himself running the bases on April 3, but Walker has become the everyday first-baseman since that point. He has played so well that, if he maintains this level of performance, it’s difficult to see how he can be dropped from his starting role when Lamb recovers.
Christian is batting .347 with seven home-runs and a 1.135 OPS, and at 1.1 bWAR has already exceeded the production of all his other major-league seasons combined. That’s the same bWAR as Goldschmidt has put up in St. Louis, at a fraction of the cost. Walker is only getting paid league minimum, and won’t even hit arbitration until at least 2022. Still, there are 14 other NL teams with rookies playing for them, so where does he stack up? There are several young hitters in the National League that are making an impact through the early going, and Walker features prominently among them. Below is a chart comparing numbers for some of the leaders [Complete rookie batting table here]
Among NL rookie pitchers, Merrill Kelly is 2nd in IP so far, but with an ERA north of 4 he will need to improve a good deal to get into the conversation. San Diego’s Chris Paddock has a 2.25 ERA in 20 IP, but is winless on the season and averaging just 5 IP per start. For now at least, it appears that the rookie hitting crop is setting the pace for the National League. So far, it appears that Pete Alonso is the only rookie with a good case to be ranked ahead of Walker. Though only nine points ahead in OPS, adding in park adjustment skews things more heavily in his favor - though, as ever, there’s the question of whether the humidor at Chase is being fully factored into those park-adjusted numbers.
For the Diamondbacks, our pitchers have done much better than our hitters. Brandon Webb was arguably jobbed out of the award in 2003, finishing behind both Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik [both of whom, curiously, would go on to become Diamondbacks - albeit very briefly in the latter’s case!]. Wade Miley gave Arizona its best-ever finish here, coming second in 2012 to a guy called Bryce something or other. But our sole top three position player was all the way back in 1998, when Travis Lee took the bronze. The only others even to be mentioned since were Chris Young (4th in 2007), Gerardo Parra (8th, 2009) and Ender Inciarte (5th, 2014). No D-back position player has ever got a first-place vote.
We still have a week left to go in April. but by bWAR, Christian Walker’s 2019 campaign is already the 15th-best by a rookie in franchise history. Indeed, right now, Walker’s start to the season ranks among the best EVER by a D-back, regardless of situation. Only four players have previously posted an OPS of better than 1.100 through the end of April (min. 50 PA): Luis Gonzalez in 1999; Gonzo and Reggie Sanders in 2001; and most recently, Kelly Johnson in 2010. Since then, Goldschmidt’s 1.030 in 2015 is the best figure achieved in early going for Arizona, and Walker is more than a hundred points better at the time of writing.
One factor that may work against Christian is his age. It’s a lot harder for 28-year-olds to get noticed than the likes of young phenoms such as Fernando Tatis Jr. The last position player to become Rookie of the Year at his age or older, in either league, was all the way back in 1950. 33-year-old Sam Jethroe won it, as the first black player on the Boston Braves roster. In more recent history, Joey Wendle of the Rays was fourth last year, and Jun Ho Kang came third in 2015. But it’s going to be an uphill climb. There is still, of course, an extremely long way to go too: Walker will have to keep playing well, stay healthy and make his way past the return of Lamb, whenever that may occur. Fingers cross he can continue the excellent work.