After the season he had in 2021, it could have been an easy decision for the Arizona Diamondbacks to move on from Christian Walker. Walker originally came to Arizona as a waiver pickup after three teams (Orioles, Braves, Reds) designated him for assignment in the 2016-17 off-season. After toiling in the minors for a couple years, he got his opportunity to earn the everyday first baseman job in the 2019 season after Paul Goldschmidt was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Finally given the chance to be an everyday player, Walker put up a .259/.348/.476 season with 29 homers, 110 wRC+, and 2.8 bWAR. While certainly not the previous standard of play at the position, it was good enough to build around.
Unfortunately, Walker hadn’t been able to build upon that breakthrough season. He had a solid showing in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a 109 wRC+. With the statistical oddities that came from that season, it’s pretty easy to whitewash that season although Walker did have a higher extra base hit rate in 2020 than 2019. At this point we expected Walker to become a key feature to the lineup and be relied upon to be a key run producer despite another 1B prospect, Pavin Smith, getting his feet wet in the majors. While Smith may or may not have presented a threat to take over at first base, Walker likely needed to keep up the strong hitting performances from 2019-20 in order to keep his role as the everyday 1B.
2021 would prove to be a challenging year for Walker. In addition to needing two stints on the injured list for a right oblique strain and then reaggravating the injury after 7 games, Walker’s swing was never quite right for the majority of the 2021 season. For much of the second half of the year and the first two weeks of this season, I referred to him as “Trash Can” Walker. Walker saw his wRC+ drop from 109 to 87, his strikeout rate climbed to over 23%, and his ISO fell to a career-low .137. On the wrong side of 30, it could be easy to say that Walker was washed and decline to pay him $2.6MM in his first trip through the arbitration process. Ultimately the Diamondbacks elected to tender Walker a contract and settled on a 1-year, $2.6MM contract for the 2022 season, hoping he’d rediscover that 2019 form on a very low-risk, high-reward deal.
While it hasn’t completely manifested itself in his bottom-line numbers, the D-backs faith in Walker has already been repaid. Walker had a monster Spring to remove any doubt he was capable of being a key player, but got off to a slow start. There were some frustrating at-bats where he’d chase breaking balls and mishit some hittable fastballs in the month of April, but he’s been jumping on those pitches as of late. After hitting .147/.229/.347 (64 wRC+) in April with a 22.9% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate, he’s completely caught fire in May with a .304/.407/.587 slash (178 wRC+) with a 14.8% strikeout rate and a 13% walk rate. The sample size might not be enough to differentiate a hot month rather than maturing as a hitter, the latter of which would be a welcomed development for this team’s present and future, but it’s an encouraging sign.
Coming into play on May 17th, Walker has a season batting line of .207/.299/.438 with 7 homers and a 109 wRC+ with career lows in strikeout rate (19.5%) and swinging strike (9.7%) rates in 137 PA. That in itself is a major improvement compared to last year, but I believe there is a lot more in the tank. His .207 average is held up by an unsustainably-low .207 average on balls in play when considering the type of contact he’s making. In fact, Eno Sarris had listed Walker as one of 12 players who have underperformed their contact rate and batted ball data.
Digging into his batted ball data, Walker is hitting more fly balls and pulling the ball more this year than ever before according to Fangraphs. Those two stats are key indicators about a potential power breakout, or in Walker’s case a return to power breakout. While Statcast doesn’t show an increase in pulled balls, it does show an increase in fly ball contact and a drop in ground ball contact, so the trend is similar nonetheless. We still have roughly 75-100 PA left to go before we see batted ball rates start to stabilize more, but I don’t see too much deviation as the season goes on barring any lengthy slump where Walker is hitting a ridiculous amount of ground balls or infield pop-ups.
Earlier this month, Makakilo posed the question of whether or not Christian Walker could be a potential All-Star this season. Given the amount of quality 1B in the National League and accounting for teams needing representation in the game, it will be tough for Walker to get in. C.J. Cron seems to be the likely candidate to represent the Rockies, as he’s having a great year plus you have to account for Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Bell, and Pete Alonso in the National League. While all five of those 1B have a higher fWAR than Walker, only Freeman has a higher xwOBA on the Statcast Leaderboard and Walker is the best defender of the six players mentioned. While I’d handicap the odds that Walker makes the National League All-Star roster on any basis at 5%, it’s not an impossible task if the numbers catch up to the type of contact he’s making.
Looking at the Statcast leaderboard, Walker ranks 7th amongst qualified hitters with 10.9% of his plate appearances ending with a batted ball that Statcast labels a barrel. A barrel is a batted ball that has an expected BA of at least .500 and an expected slugging% greater than 1.500. That sandwiches him between the last two full-season National League MVPs Bryce Harper and Christian Yelich. Walker is 28th in that group for hard hit rate, with 47.9% of the balls he puts into play having an exit velocity greater than 95 MPH. If we isolate the type of contact to line drives and fly balls, Walker once again ranks 28th with an average LB/FB exit velocity just under 96 MPH.
If we go from the raw numbers to the percentile rankings compared to other major leaguers, this is where Walker ranks in terms of batted ball data.
From a batted ball standpoint, Walker has done everything he can to put runs on the board for the D-backs. Whether or not the defense is in position to catch those batted balls is out of his control. What we can glean from that is Walker has found a way to produce more valuable contact without having to sell out for more power. In fact we see Walker trending in the opposite direction in terms of plate discipline, as he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone than ever before (21%/87th percentile). That has translated into a lower strike out rate, more pitches to hit as he forces more pitchers into the strike zone, and more walks when they don’t. That has translated to a huge drop in strikeout rate and swinging strike rates.
With all this talk about how well the bat has performed, I haven’t even gotten started on how his defense has performed. On the season as a hole, Walker has performed well defensive with 5 outs above average at 1B (99th percentile) and +6 defensive runs saved. Breaking this down, it’s clear he moves well laterally (+3 to his right, +1 to his left) and coming in. With the amount of shifts that right-handed hitters see now, the 1B is left on an island on one side of the infield. Having a capable defender with a lot of lateral range and capable of making more plays than your typical 1B also allows for the team to play more aggressive shifts against RHH. How many times this year have I commented “Walker positioned perfectly” on a hard hit ball for a critical out?
Walker ranks first amongst all MLB 1B in outs above average (+5), runs prevented (+4) and the highest success rate added (+5%) of converting balls hit in his direction into outs according to Statcast. Walker has always had the physical tools to be a very good defensive 1B, something I’ve always believed in after watching him convert a near-impossible play in a Spring game back in 2018. Now the consistency and confidence on defense appear to be showing up in games, which was the final step in Walker’s development as a defender. If he’s able to finish out the year in Arizona and not have a stretch where he has a fielding slump, I think there’s an excellent chance he walks away with a Gold Glove.
The 2022 season is a key evaluation year for the players already on the roster. With the top prospects in the farm system rapidly approaching, the team needs to figure out who to keep and who is deadweight in order to build the most competitive roster as their window potentially opens over the next few season. As more of 2022 has unfolded, Walker is starting to play himself into the first category more so than the second.
Do you believe Christian Walker is going to have a big 2022 season?
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