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Christian Walker vs. Paul Goldschmidt: a comparison

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2019 hasn’t quite unfolded as we expected for either player

MLB: AUG 27 Diamondbacks at Giants Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of 2018, Paul Goldschmidt was one of the most consistently-good players in the National League. Since 2013, no NL position player had posted as much bWAR as Goldy’s 36.5, with only Nolan Arenado (33.0) and Joey Votto (31.0) even reaching thirty in that time. Christian Walker, on the other hand was an unheralded prospect, who had made his major-league debut in 2014, but accumulated less than a hundred plate appearances in total over the five seasons since then, getting little more than a sprinkling of playing time with both Baltimore and Arizona.

The trade of Goldschmidt to St. Louis that December was one which left many D-backs’ fans with a heavy heart. Even those that logically accepted the need for it, with just one season before Paul hit free-agency were not looking forward to 2019. Even discounting the long-term deal Goldschmidt subsequently signed, it seemed likely we would be watching him put up another MVP-caliber season in red - just the Cardinals shade, rather than Sedona. Meanwhile, first-base in Arizona was going to be manned by some kind of platoon between a 28-year-old rookie with career production below replacement level, and an injury-prone converted third-baseman, who couldn’t hit lefties. What could go wrong?

Turns out we were right about the second half of the Arizona platoon, at least. Everything else? Not so much.

Offense

Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
Age 31 28
G 131 125
PA 553 496
AB 492 436
R 81 69
H 127 116
2B 16 22
3B 0 1
HR 29 23
RBI 71 59
BB 55 54
SO 136 126
BA .258 .266
OBP .334 .353
SLG .467 .479
OPS .801 .832
OPS+ 109 112

Early on, it seemed that Lamb was going to get the lion’s share of the playing time at first. This was as you’d expect, given his strength against right-handed pitching and far greater overall experience, even though he is less than six months older than Walker. Jake started three of the first four games of the year at 1B, but then suffered a grade 2 strain of the quad muscle in his left leg, while running the bases. He’d miss 74 games as a result. The team would miss Lamb considerably less, as Walker took to his first real chance as an everyday player with alacrity. Through the end of April, Christian batted .304 with seven home-runs and an OPS of .994.

Of course, he couldn’t keep that pace up for ever. But he has become a very consistent contributor: post the past 80+ games, Walker’s OPS has been locked in a sixty-point band, between .785 and .845. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Goldschmidt was very far from consistent. After his OPS dipped as low at .741 at the end of June, Paul surged back to win NL Player of the Month honors for July. But that didn’t carry forward, and in August, his OPS has slumped back down to .724. Even allowing for park factors, Walker has had the better season, with an OPS+ of 112, compared to Goldschmidt’s 109. Here’s a chart showing how the two men’s OPS numbers have ebbed and flowed over the course of the season.

But it’s when you start looking at their peripherals, that the two men seem to have been almost identical. The chart below matches them up, and you can see how close they are, in areas like strikeout rate, walk-rate and line-drive rate.

Base-running and defense

Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
SB 1 8
CS 1 1
OOB 1 4
XBT% 44% 38%
Inn 1111.2 961.1
Fld% .996 .992
Rtot 4 8
Rdrs 6 5
Rtot/yr 5 9
Rdrs/yr 6 6

One of the joys of Paul Goldschmidt was that his talents lay in every area of the game: he wasn’t just a one-dimensional slugger. He could field at a Gold Glove level, and run the bases with a skill rarely seen in a first-baseman. From 2015-17, he stole a total of 71 bases, a number comparable with or superior to Charlie Blackmon (74), Mookie Betts (73), Lorenzo Cain (68) and Mike Trout (63). But in 2019? Goldschmidt does not have a single successful steal of second-base this season, his sole SB being of third as part of a double-steal on August 11. It’s a remarkable fall for a player who had 32 stolen-bases, as recently as 2016.

Is this a Dave McKay thing? Because Walker has taken up the mantle. After having just one stolen-base attempt prior to this season, since his 2014 debut, Walker is now 8-1 for the season. And defensively, the gap between the two players has been much less than I think anyone would have expected. Not that Walker should be clearing space on his mantel for a Gold Glove. But he has been more than serviceable, across all the metrics above, with numbers not too dissimilar from the man who preceded him. You can throw in UZR/150 as well, where Goldschmidt ranks fourth among the 15 qualified men at the position... and Walker ranks fifth.

Value

Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
Name Paul Goldschmidt Christian Walker
Rbat 10 8
Rbaser -1 2
Rdp -1 -1
Rfield 6 5
Rpos -7 -6
RAR 26 24
bWAR 2.3 2.2
BsR 1.4 2.3
Off 7.5 10.7
Def -6.3 -7
fWAR 1.9 1.9
Salary $14,500,000 $559,800

The above table summarizes the overall production across all areas by the two men this season. It shows first the components which go into bWAR, and the total there; then the components which go into fWAR, and it’s tally. Really: you’d be hard pushed to draw any meaningful line between Christian Walker and Paul Goldschmidt this season. Goldy has a fractional edge in bWAR, potentially a result of having slightly more playing time; fWAR rates the players equally.

The big difference is, of course, salary. Walker is basically earning league minimum - and won’t even become arbitration eligible for two more full seasons. So over 2019-21, he’ll earn less than $2 million. In contrast, Goldy’s new contract kicks in next year, and during the same three seasons, he will be paid $66.5 million. I don’t begrudge him a penny of that. He earned it all, and more during his time in the desert. But it’s kinda nice that it will be the Cardinals who are paying for it.

I expected this to be a deal where the D-backs would probably come out on top eventually, with Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly providing years of production, long after Goldschmidt’s contract here would have expired. But I was bracing myself for a lean 2019: how could it be otherwise, with the best position player in franchise history, no longer occupying first-base? However, Christian has turned out to be far more than the occasional stop-gap which I was expecting. While I still have to suppress a sigh when I look at my Goldy shirt hanging in the closet, I’d not be averse to replacing it with a Walker one...