Over the offseason, the Diamondbacks traded away face of the franchise Paul Goldschmidt. A short time later, Goldschmidt signed a five-year extension with the Cardinals. It was a hard goodbye for Diamondbacks fans, not just because Paul Goldschmidt was so great, but because the Diamondbacks didn’t have a clear replacement for him. Jake Lamb, who was hurt for most of 2018, was expected to go from third to first. He unfortunately went down with an injury in the first week of the season.
Arizona then gave the first base job to Christian Walker. Walker had spent the previous five years oscillating between Triple-A and the majors. Despite hitting well in the minors, none of his appearances in the majors were convincing enough to let him stick. Over 99 plate appearances between 2014 and 2018—most of them coming in 2018—Walker slashed .170/.263/.420 with a 40.4 percent strikeout rate. He seemed like the prime example of a Quad-A bat.
Through the first month of the season, Walker appears to have finally carried his skills into the major leagues. He’s certainly making up for lost time. Through 80 plate appearances, he’s hitting .347/.413/.722. He’s hit seven home runs and cut down on strikeouts. It’s hard to replace Paul Goldschmidt, but so far, he’s done a fine job.
Walker will come down to earth eventually. Nobody carries a .462 BABIP. Though it’s not as if he’s been dinking and doinking his way to greatness. As Mike Petriello pointed out, Walker has a 99th percentile hard hit rate of 61.2. His xwOBA is .427 and his average exit velocity is 95.9 MPH, a good 7 MPH faster than league average. Walker has been roasting the ball, and that’s hard to luck into.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Walker’s 66.2 percent contact rate ranks 16th lowest in the majors (min. 50 PA). Even though he has cut down on strikeouts, he’s still striking out more often than the average hitter.
While there are reasons to be skeptical, there are also reasons to believe he’s taken a real step forward.
Walker is being more patient than he’s been in the past. His swing rate dropped 10 percentage points from 2018 to 2019. Nearly all of that came from his chase rate. In 2018, he chased 35.2 percent of pitches outside the zone. That’s down to 28 percent in 2019.
While he’s still prone to chasing sliders out of the zone, he’s done a better job of identifying when a fastball is going to be a ball. Walker has been far more selective in 2019. Last season, Walker saw 91 fastballs thrown in what Baseball Savant calls the shadow and chase zones. These zones are indicated by the tan and yellow areas respectively.
Of these 91 pitches, Walker swung at 49 of them or 53.8 percent. Over half of these pitches became strikes.
In 2019, Walker has seen 106 such pitches, and he’s swung at just 40.5 percent of them. Because of that, those same pitches are 16 percent more likely to be a ball.
It’s a teeny tiny sample, but his improved selection is allowing him to draw more walks and to get better pitches to hit.
Walker can clearly hit the ball hard. I don’t think anyone is questioning his ability to crush the snot out of the ball, so long as he hits it. I imagine we’ll see pitchers throwing him more changeups as he hasn’t hit those well. If his approach on fastballs is real, that should help him continue his success and maybe, just maybe, allow Diamondbacks fans to forget about Goldschmidt.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.