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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews, #37 Christian Walker

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A step backward has put the first baseman on thin ice and on the verge of being labelled as AAAA.

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
  • Rating: 3.06
  • Age: 31 years old by Opening Day (Maybe - fingers crossed)
  • 2021 Stats: 445 PA, .244/.315/.384 = .696 OPS. 0.3 WAR (Fangraphs)
  • 2021 Earnings: League Minimum (1st year Arb Eligible)
  • 2022 Status: On 40-man roster

At this point in his career, Christian Walker has become as close as this version of the D-Backs have to a household name outside of Ketel Marte. We know the basics: drafted by the Orioles in 2012, a waiver pickup by both Atlanta and Cincinnati, and finally nabbed by the D-Backs in 2017. He went on to have a solid cup of coffee the same year, fell back in 2018, and joining the big-league club full-time in 2019 where he flashed exactly the type of potential that the Orioles saw all the way back in 2012. Walker followed that solid showing with a slightly better posting during the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. All this combined to prime him to be a solid (if not spectacular) contributor on a D-Backs roster bereft of such impact players in 2021.

WELP, THAT DIDN’T WORK

I apologize folks. I almost feel bad - so many of these reviews seem to follow exactly that pattern: up-and-down performances with some indications pointing up going into 2021 before taking big steps backward. But I suppose that’s what the current D-Backs roster has become - a series of dice rolls that almost all went against Hazen and Co to result in the dumpster fire that was this past season. And unfortunately for all involved, Walker was no different in 2021.

For what it’s worth, we here at the Snakepit were just as fooled as to where the 2021 season might take Walker - including the possibility of an additional Gold Glove nomination to go along with the nod he received in 2019. And to be fair to both Walker and ourselves, the defensive side of the game is what saved him from being sent back down to AAA (as well as his complete lack of MiLB options remaining). At first base, Walker combined for a measly 6 errors across the 107 games he played total at the position - good enough for 4 total defensive runs saved (DRS).

Unfortunately, we cannot get too far without addressing the proverbial rattlesnake in the room: the contract Walker was tendered on November 30 before MLB went colder than a Midwestern winter. It came as a surprise to many (myself included) - especially considering the pickup of Jordan Luplow and the possible emergence of Pavin Smith at the same positions. Luckily for you, our very own Makakilo will have an in-depth piece exploring the ins and outs of the deal later today, so you don’t have to do it yourself! Here’s hoping Makakilo can make more sense out of Hazen’s decision to tender the Pennsylvania native, because I haven’t totally been able to wrap my head around it.

While I certainly do not want to step on Makakilo’s toes, it is exactly that comparison – between Pavin Smith and Walker – that helps to shape Walker’s narrative in 2021. Even as Walker struggled slightly at the plate, Smith took a step forward in his first nearly full season with a slash line of .267/.328/.404 = .732 OPS. In essence, the two became halves of a fully contributing major league player as Smith struggled on defense – shifting around the entire outfield and 1B throughout the 2021 season. Smith managed to post a negative DRS at everything but 1B and LF where he managed to post a DRS of *drum roll* - 0 at both positions. Unsurprisingly, the D-Backs were much happier to run the much more surehanded Walker at first while Smith continues to take reps and hopefully gain confidence at first and with his glove more generally.

In all honesty, there isn’t necessarily an incredibly clear explanation for Walker’s struggles at the plate, but his power, while never his calling card as a prospect, has taken a hit. Worryingly, Walker appears to be following a well-worn trend: as players age, exit velocity and hard contact tend to dip as their ability to create as much power diminishes in turn. Even worse, the 2021 season marked the third straight season his hard contact percentage dipped from 46% in 2019, 44% in 2020, and finally 36% in 2021. While three seasons certainly is not conclusive, his hard contact percentage decrease has sunk his slugging nearly a hundred points from his 2019 high of .476 to .382 in 2021. Offensively, the only bright spot for Walker now: Fangraphs projects him out to be right around league average next year as they evidently see the 2021 season as more of an aberration rather than another data point in a trend. I sincerely hope they are correct.

Ultimately, Christian Walker’s situation is not unique in the slightest. There have been dozens (if not hundreds) of former prospects stuck on teams outside of contention, on the wrong side of 30, and struggling to establish themselves on the major league level. For everyone’s sake however, we can only hope that Walker can return to his 2019 version - especially at the plate. If he does, Hazen might be able to flip him to further reinforce an improving, but still lacking, farm system and allow Walker to attempt a contribution somewhere else. At the moment, all we can do is cross all of our digits that comes to pass.