Player Profile: Christian Walker

Am I missing something with Christian Walker? I think I love him at his ADP of 200, as he checks off plenty of boxes I like. For starters, I see a plenty of volume in his future, as well as a premium batting order slot. He’s also stolen a handful of bags on occasion, and from my general background knowledge I know he has solid hard hit rates. So basically, I need to answer this question:

Why aren’t more people drafting Christian Walker?

Opportunity

Kevin Cron, once thought to be a threat to Walker’s playing time, now resides in Japan. And per Roster Resource, the only other infielders projected to break camp with the D-backs are Josh VanMeter and Andy Young, and between them they played a whopping three games at first base last year. Stephen Vogt played one measly game at first. So I assume the backup role may eventually fall to either Pavin Smith or Seth Beer. Whereas Beer profiles as a masher who could really benefit from the universal DH, it might be Smith in the driver’s seat for backup duties due to his superior defensive skills. However, there are questions about Smith’s bat, as he doesn’t profile as someone who will hit for enough power to stick at first base in the majors. If you look at the big picture, Walker seems to be in for a large amount of playing time at first base in 2021. If there are hardcore Arizona fans reading this, please tell me if I’m missing something.

Additionally, Walker is known as a hard worker, an athlete who formerly played left field in the minors–someone who improved his defense at first base enough to be nominated for a Gold Glove in 2019. Soaking up wisdom from guys like Nick Ahmed and Paul Goldschmidt will do that for you. When you have a solid work ethic and some attention to detail–which is reportedly the case with Walker–good things can happen for you. When I factor in what Walker can do with the stick, I can’t envision a scenario where he doesn’t amass tons of playing time this year. He was 69th in plate appearances in 2019 (603), but was tied for 26th in 2020 (243). He batted mostly fourth and fifth in 2019, but hit mostly third in 2020. This volume shows up in his batted ball events, as he ranked 83rd (375) in 2019, but 27th (171) in 2020. He may not be the most feared hitter ever, and his home park environs leave much to be desired, especially with the advent of the humidor–but that volume will make up for some of his deficient team and park context.

Team Context

2018: 693 runs (19th)
2019: 813 runs (11th)
2020: 269 runs (19th)

Not the greatest look, especially considering that Starling Marte now resides in Miami and the Diamondbacks haven’t added an impact free agent hitter this offseason. Projected leadoff man Kole Calhoun might be miscast in that role, but he has posted the two highest walk rates of his career over the last two seasons, and he managed a .decent 338 OBP in 2020. On the plus side, Ketel Marte batting second–one slot in front of Walker–really catches my eye. Marte managed a career-best 5.9% swinging strike rate in 2020 despite his down year, and I like the toolsy 27-year-old’s chances to rebound in 2021. There’s also room for a Daulton Varsho breakout for Arizona in 2021. David Peralta has also long been an underrated asset, and he turned in another quietly solid .300/.339/.433 slash line last year. I could see the D-backs being a solid group this year, even if they aren’t particularly exciting individually. This group seems good enough for Walker to make a big impact given his spot as a middle-of-the-order bat.

The Skills

Walker’s hard hit rates over the last two years are 48.8% and 48.5%, respectively. Essentially, he was top 6% and top 10% of the league in hard hit rate in 2019 and 2020. As for exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, his marks were 95.3 MPH (30th) and 94.8 MPH (42nd). In the same vicinity as Walker these last two years are names like D.J. LeMahieu, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Dominic Smith. Those are guys that I view similarly. They are the same sort of template as Walker–a blend of power and batting average. And while Walker has developed into more of a power hitter, during his MiLB career he was more of a doubles/gap power sort of guy–one who posted some pretty tolerable strikeout rates. Here are his strikeout marks at Triple-A by year, for instance:

2014: 26.1%
2015: 23.0%
2016: 25.0%
2017: 17.6%
2018: 24.0%

In his breakout 2019 (29 HR, 8 steals), Walker posted a 25.7% strikeout rate. But in 2020 he trimmed it to only 20.6%, and I’m trying to figure out how. His swinging strike rate actually increased, from 12.7% to 13.2%. He also swung more (48.7% to 51.8%) and chased more (28.2% to 35.5%). The good news is he made more contact overall, more contact in the zone, and more contact out of the zone–and his quality of contact didn’t suffer, as his average exit velocity and hard hit rates were steady. The bad news is his barrel rate cratered.

Of course, we’re also talking about a short season sample. Perhaps the barrel rate would have improved with a longer season? There was certainly nothing wrong with his power, as Walker has ranked ninth (411 ft) and 12th (417 ft) in average home run distance over the last two years. His sweet spot rates were pretty similar, too–right at 34% in each of the two seasons. He also has exactly a .266 xBA in each of the last two years. The big difference in 2020 seems to be the lower average launch angle. Maybe this is related to his shift from 4th/5th in the lineup to batting third? Perhaps he tried to make more contact? I think it’s too small a sample to say this is a permanent plate discipline switch, or the beginning of a concerning trend. Instead, I’m reserving some judgement here. He was in a new role, and it was a small sample. And anyway, he wasn’t bad with regard to barrel rate, he was merely average. Even if there’s no improvement there, given the volume he’s about to see and given his ability to make hard contact…I’m comfortable buying in.

Summary

The 22nd first baseman off the board seems a small price to pay for Walker’s opportunity in 2021. Over the course of a full season, I’d expect his barrel rate to rebound a bit. Maybe he won’t reach 2019 heights at 13.1%, but I also doubt he’s completely average at only 6.4%. With his ability to hit the ball hard and the increased volume, I’m bullish on his 2021 chances. Even an average barrel rate is going to pay dividends if he continues to primarily hit third in the order as projected, and is top 30 or so in plate appearances and batted ball events. As for counting stats, Steamer projects 71 runs, 78 RBI, and a 4-for-6 effort on the basepaths. I think I agree with the lower steals count. As a No. 3 hitter, his job should be hitting, not running. But I do think over a full year he could approach five swipes. The runs and RBI seem on the low side to me. This is the “closer on a bad team” argument. Arizona isn’t drowning in prototypical No. 3 hitters, and worst case we should see Walker in the 3-4-5 spots this year. Even if he struggles for a stretch or two, I can’t see him falling too far in that lineup. Run-scoring opportunities and RBI potential should be there for the taking.

I like Walker SO much more than I like the idea of tolerating Miguel Sano’s anchor of a batting average, and Sano is being drafted right in the same area. I also think Walker lacks some of the mild concern over playing time that we may have for a guy like Jared Walsh–and Walker’s track record is longer. Trey Mancini, too, is being drafted ahead of Walker. And while pick 180 or so is a fine spot to chase Mancini’s upside, if it’s more of a floor you want, Walker is your guy. I could see Walker outperforming Josh Bell, for instance, and Bell is being drafted 50 picks earlier on average.

Maybe I’m a sucker for these boring late picks, where it’s clear that I’m “holding serve.” What say you all? Does Walker intrigue you at all?

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