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2024 Fangraphs Diamondbacks Projection: First-base

Christian Walker. Every day, and twice on Sundays.

World Series - Texas Rangers v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
  • Total production: 2.6 fWAR
  • Total MLB rank: 8th
  • Everyday player: Christian Walker, 2.6 fWAR
  • Backups: Jace Peterson, Emmanuel Rivera, Pavin Smith

Fangraphs 2024 Projections: First base

Christian Walker 658 .255 .335 .458 .340 10.5 -0.3 4.8 2.6
Jace Peterson 21 .234 .320 .353 .298 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Emmanuel Rivera 14 .253 .312 .404 .311 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Pavin Smith 7 .248 .330 .393 .317 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .254 .334 .453 .338 10.0 -0.3 4.7 2.6

Immediately, what we see here is the lower bar of positional adjustments. The median production at the catcher’s spot was fractionally above three wins. At first base, it’s only 1.8 fWAR. Expectations are... considerably different, shall we say. The average catcher in the majors last year had a .697 OPS, the lowest of any position. The average first-baseman was 78 points higher: .775 was the highest figure, even nineteen points better than the DH spot, despite having the tiresome additional work of trotting onto the field from the dugout every other innings. [In case you’re wondering, 1B came top in both leagues, though the gap was a lot smaller in the American League]

It’s little exaggeration to say that Torey Lovullo might as well save time, and order his team-sheets with Christian Walker’s name pre-printed on them. For Walker missed only five games last year, and just two the previous season. His combined tally of 317 games since Opening Day 2022, trails only six players in the majors. Half of those ahead of Christian are first-basemen, led by Matt Olson, who last sat out an entire game on May 1, 2021, giving him an ongoing streak of 458 consecutive appearances. Walker is now up to 689 regular-season games played for Arizona, and health permitting, should enter the franchise top 10 round about the All-Star break (he needs 84 more to tie Stephen Drew, currently 10th).

What concerns me is that it’s perhaps a toss-up between first-base and catcher, in terms of a fall-off should our everyday starter suffer an injury and be out for an extended period. It’s comforting that the projection sees the team get only 42 at-bats from anyone except Walker at 1B in 2024. I will take that. any day. For comparison, the respective figure in 2023 was 54: 28 for Pavin Smith, 25 for Emmanuel Rivera and, in what can only be considered some kind of performative artwork by Torey Lovullo, one for Jace Peterson [it came in this 9-1 loss to the Dodgers on August 29] Peterson actually has 17 career starts at 1B, but I would venture to suggest, if he gets as many as 21 PA there for Arizona, something has gone very wrong.

I suspect it’s largely a result of roster construction. In the event of an injury to Walker, I think the team would probably turn to Pavin Smith as a replacement, at least initially (he has more major-league experience at the position than Peterson or Rivera). If the issue proves to be a long-term one, then... I don’t know. There is no obvious replacement on the 40-man roster for Walker. STEAMER in particular hates all three listed by Fangraphs, pinning them all at just 0.1 fWAR for the season, albeit in limited playing time. ZIPS is more optimistic across the board, though in part because it sees considerably more PA for the trio. Rivera, at 1.0 fWAR over 419 PA, comes out on top.

It’s also worth considering that Walker is going to be a free-agent at the end of this season. So even if he remains healthy, the question of what to do with the position for 2025 is still a relevant one. I’m sure he’d be amenable to an extension. But largely because he was blocked everywhere he played, Christian didn’t even reach his hundredth MLB plate-appearance until the day he turned 28. Consequently, Opening Day of his final year before free agency will fall on Walker’s 33rd birthday. While first-base is a less athletic position, and generally matures better than some, it’s safe to say the aging curve will no longer be on Christian’s side. How much do we want to pay for those age-34 seasons on?

Last year, the only regular 34-year old first-baseman (min 50% games there) was Mike Moustakas, and he was below replacement level by bWAR between the Angels and Rockies. There were eight aged 34 or older, ranging from Paul Goldschmidt’s 3.4 bWAR to Yuli Gurriell’s -0.5. All told, those eight combined for 7.2 bWAR across 3,481 PA. That’s an average rate of 1.3 bWAR per 650 PA. It’s not very good production, considering Walker will get $10.9 million in his final year of arbitration. But if not Walker, who? Maybe the team would add Ivan Melendez, a.k.a. “The Hispanic Titanic”? Or Tristin English, another non-roster invitee who hit 23 HR over 102 games in the minors last year?

It’s definitely going to be an interesting situation to keep an eye on over the coming season. But purely from the point of view of this campaign, let’s hope the question of a Walker replacement not a decision the team is forced into before the World Series.