Christian Walker, Secret Star | FanGraphs Baseball

Ben Clemens


Ben Clemens
blogs.fangraphs.com

© Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Before this year, it looked like Christian Walker might be washed up before he ever had a chance to shine, a player on the decline while breaking through. After a breakout 2019 that saw him finally step out of the shadow of the men he’d backed up (he was second in line behind Chris Davis, took a whirlwind tour through Cincinnati and Atlanta in a wild spring training of DFAs, and then landed behind Paul Goldschmidt), Walker’s career outlook appeared bright. But all that apprenticeship time hurt, and so did the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Walker put together another promising year – .271/.333/.459 with a markedly improved strikeout rate – but time simply wasn’t on his side. 2021 was his age-30 season, and also his worst big league campaign yet. He posted a below-average hitting line, lost power while striking out more often, and generally regressed across the board.

Some version of that story happens frequently in baseball. The whims of fate are cruel: baseball isn’t exclusively a young man’s game, but you have to be a very good player to hold a starting role into your 30s. Find yourself in the wrong system, or miss some time with injury, and you can be 30 before you know it, with only three years of service time and a tenuous major league spot. Corner infielders with average bats abound; they make a good living playing baseball, but they mostly bop around from team to team as waiver wire fodder and up-and-down platoon pieces.

Before this season, that outcome was squarely in play for Walker. Our two projection systems didn’t like what they saw; in aggregate, they thought he’d be a roughly league-average hitter, which is below the offensive bar at first base. They expected a 0.9 WAR season and a .248/.320/.443 batting line, and that’s without knowing how much offense would decline overall this year.

None of that happened. Instead of slouching towards replacement level, Walker is in the midst of a career season. He’s on pace for his highest walk rate, lowest strikeout rate, and highest isolated power, again despite a broad offensive downturn. His 122 wRC+ would comfortably be the best full-season mark of his career. And he’s not doing it in a fluky way – he’s clobbering the ball. In fact, he’s been undeniably unlucky. His BABIP stands at .234; his career mark was above .300 entering the year. He’s hit into a pile of unlikely outs, and he’s having his best season despite it. It’s downright impressive.

Walker knows all this. He told Zach Buchanan of The Athletic as much. “‘He deserves to be in the All-Star Game because of his barrel rate.’ Nobody says that,” he told Buchanan in reference to his strong batted ball data. He wants actual production, not process-based statistics. And hey, who can blame him? An RBI undoubtedly feels better than some analyst showing you a computer printout that lets you know you really got all of that last line drive. If nothing else, you don’t get as many high fives with the printout.

There’s good news for Walker, though. Even if you only care about actual production and not underlying process, his has been downright excellent. That 122 wRC+ leads all qualified Diamondback hitters (Jake McCarthy is ahead of him in limited playing time). He’s first on the team in slugging percentage (qualified batters again) and second in on-base percentage. Counting stats? He leads the team with 32 homers, 79 RBI, and 74 runs. Sure, FanGraphs readers might not put a ton of stock in RBIs or runs as a measure of how good a hitter is, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel good.

So what has changed for Walker to turn him into the best hitter on his team, with batted ball metrics even better than that? In a word, swinging. In two words, not swinging. If you take a look at our handy seasonal change stat grid, no one in baseball has cut their swing rate by more than Walker in the past year. He’s chasing less. He’s swinging at pitches in the zone less. He’s swinging less on 0-0, less when he’s ahead in the count, and less when he’s behind in the count. It’s a sea change, and one that seems to have worked.

The math behind swinging less is clear. Pitchers throw more than half of their pitches outside the strike zone, and nothing good happens when you swing at those. Even if they throw a pitch in the zone, it might not be one you’re geared up to hit – and even if it is, you might swing through it or foul it off. Never swinging isn’t a viable tactic, of course, but being more judicious about the cuts you take could benefit just about anyone.

Walker got to this change in a roundabout way. He knew he had one glaring weakness as a hitter: four-seam fastballs, particularly ones that were either inside or elevated. Indeed, a look at his player page shows that he’d been abysmal against them through last year. The only pitch he’d done worse against was changeups. Generally speaking, hitters crush fastballs, which is why pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer of them, so Walker’s problem is a relative rarity. He diagnosed his problem as a result of feeling crowded thanks to his stance. “All of a sudden, a fastball shows up in,” he told Buchanan, “[and] I get stuck.”

He made a simple mechanical change to combat that exact feeling. As he put it to Buchanan (the whole piece is definitely worth a read), the root of the problem was his natural tendency to start very open and swing closed, which made inside fastballs feel impossible to turn on. Here he is in 2021 facing a fastball in Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies and also a delightful camera angle:

Here he is in 2022. Don’t get distracted by the lovely Rockies jerseys; pay attention to Walker’s feet:

He’s starting closer to a neutral stance, which surely helps with his self-diagnosed issues with the open-to-closed swing. He’s quieter, too; it looks to me like he’s lifting his lead leg a bit less, eliminating moving parts. The result has been a huge contact improvement against four-seamers; he’s coming up empty on 17% of his swings against them this year, as compared to 31% in his career before now.

While that new stance plays a part, Walker’s newfound selectivity might be even more important. He used to swing voraciously at fastballs thrown for borderline strikes — 55% of the time. He’s down to 44% this year, an impressive reduction. Think about how much that matters: those borderline pitches are basically 50% strikes and 50% balls, with no real way of knowing which they’ll be when he tracks them. Instead of swinging at a pitcher’s pitch, which has produced mostly bad results in Walker’s career – he whiffs often, fouls off a ton of the ones where he makes contact, and doesn’t exactly hit for power when he puts them in play – he’s frequently getting ahead in the count. Even if he takes a strike, so what? That would have been the outcome a lot of the time anyway.

By turning a huge hole in his game into a tiny inefficiency – he’s still bad against fastballs on the black because every hitter is bad against fastballs on the black – he’s flipped the overall equation around. Pitchers can’t paint the edges every time; they frequently miss. Throw something middle-middle, and his prodigious raw power might send the ball to the moon. At the same time, by swinging less, he’s far more likely to take pitches outside the zone – the less you swing overall, the easier it is to lay off bad pitches. By both closing the hole in his swing and offering at fewer tough fastballs to hit, Walker went from one of the worst four-seam hitters in baseball to solidly above average.

That change unlocked the rest of his game. Pitchers used to have a get-out-of-jail-free card against Walker; throw a fastball up and in, and they were likely to get a swing and a miss, or at least some weak contact. As a result, he faced a ton of four-seamers. Pitchers are now throwing him the pitch only 26.5% of the time, down more than 10 percentage points from his career average, and you can understand why: it stopped working.

They’re replacing that deficit with sinkers, which he’s always hit well, and breaking balls. You know what works well against breaking balls? Walker’s new patient approach. The best thing you can do against breaking balls is generally keep the bat on your shoulder; pitchers don’t locate them in the zone overly often, and when they do, they’re often hangers that good hitters pick up early and crush.

Here’s another way of putting it, courtesy of Baseball Savant’s swing/take report. Last year, Walker added 18 runs of offensive production on pitches that never tempted the strike zone, in the chase and waste zones. That’s roughly league average; he swung at an average number of pitches in both zones and made average contact. This year, he’s at 33 runs, and swinging roughly half as often as the rest of the league. Meanwhile, he’s actually been better over the heart of the plate despite swinging less frequently; I’m guessing that this is because more of those swings come on pitches he’s looking for, rather than instinctual swings at pitches he wasn’t planning on hitting.

It’s no surprise that this adjustment worked. Before this year, Walker’s breakout 2019 season featured his most patient approach at the plate. For me, it all seems logical: no one doubts Walker’s power on contact, so when pitchers can’t use their cheat code (four-seamers) against him, they smartly avoid the strike zone. Want to tailor a good approach when pitchers are afraid of you? Cut down on your swings and force them to come to you. It doesn’t hurt that Walker is blessed with an excellent batting eye; even after cutting down on his swing rate, he swings more often than average at pitches in the zone and far less often than average at balls.

Baseball is a game of moves and counter-moves; perhaps pitchers will find something new they can target against Walker’s current plan. I’m not so sure, though. It never made much sense that Walker would stay bad against fastballs, and his combination of strike zone judgment and power is rare. His current form seems to me like an ideal strategy; it leverages his best skills while minimizing weaknesses.

Oh yeah, and he’s the best first base defender in the game. Defensive metrics are always confusing at first base, but the numbers are simply staggering. Starting in the 2019 season, his first full year, Walker has been worth 32 Outs Above Average per Statcast. His closest competitor is Matt Olson, with +10. Trust Defensive Runs Saved? Walker has 28, ahead of Olson’s 24 and lapping everyone else. He covers a huge amount of ground, particularly towards second base, thanks to excellent instincts and a sneaky-quick first step. Sure, he’s not a burner, but who cares? First base defense isn’t about straight line speed, but rather making the most of a few steps.

A patient, powerful slugger with elite defense in the desert? Arizona fans are used to that. I don’t think Walker is likely to make them forget Paul Goldschmidt any time soon, but he’s established himself as a key piece of the team this year. Forget DFA purgatory; Walker looks like the rare success story who escaped the depths of mid-20s minor league duty to become a bona fide star. If Arizona’s youth movement can keep rolling, that might not be a secret for much longer.


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