Christian Walker is Making the Most of His Opportunities

Christian Walker has always been able to hit well. While he was coming up through the Orioles organization, he compiled a 124 wRC+ across five minor league seasons. Unfortunately, Chris Davis and his massive contract blocked Walker from breaking into the big leagues with Baltimore and they designated him for assignment after the 2016 season. He bounced around that offseason and was claimed by two other teams before finally latching on with Arizona, and he’s continued to hit since joining the Diamondbacks organization. He compiled a 142 wRC+ across two seasons in Triple-A, but was again blocked by Paul Goldschmidt at the major league level.

By 2018, Walker had managed to accumulate just under 100 plate appearances in the majors but couldn’t break through. The dreaded “Quad-A” label was looming. Then the Diamondbacks traded away Goldschmidt this offseason, and suddenly Walker had a path towards regular playing time. He earned a part-time job out of spring training that quickly turned into a full-time job after Jake Lamb injured himself five games into the season. Walker seized the opportunity. He collected seven hits in his first 15 at-bats and continued to produce well through the first month of the season. In April, he collected 17 extra-base hits while posting a 152 wRC+.

Despite the hot start to the season, there were a few warning signs that his performance wasn’t sustainable. He struck out almost 30% of the time in April, and his BABIP was elevated at .393. Unsurprisingly, he came back down to earth in May.

It’s not as if Walker’s success in April was completely BABIP driven. His average exit velocity ranks in the 83rd percentile in the majors and he’s making hard contact nearly half the time he puts the ball in play. His expected wOBA on contact ranks 28th in the majors.

The quality of contact is there, but the quantity has been lacking. During his slump in May, his strikeout rate jumped up to 35% and his contact rate cratered. In a mid-May interview with Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro, Walker diagnosed his problem: high fastballs. “I’m not getting much out over the plate. Strikes, but tough pitches to handle,” Walker explained. This heat map showing his whiff rate bears that out:

In April and May, he was whiffing at high pitches 42.1% of the time he swung at them. With the high fastball in vogue across the league, Walker needed to make some adjustments if he was going to find success again.

Here’s what his swinging strike rate and strikeout rate have looked like this season:

It still may be too early to tell, but it certainly looks like he’s made the right adjustments. In June, his whiff rate on high pitches has fallen to 28%, helping him cut his strikeout rate to 20.7%. These improvements haven’t required any major changes to his swing mechanics, just a little tinkering to ensure he’s able to catch up to the high heat.

Here’s a swing from early May during the middle of his slump:

And here’s one from early June:

The differences are hard to spot but they’re there. In May, his hips were flying open a touch too early, causing his whole upper body to drag behind. Even though he was on time to make contact with the high fastball, his bat head was in a poor position because of the disconnect between his upper and lower body and he wound up swinging under the pitch. His June swing is much more fluid. His hips fire on time and he’s able to catch the 98-mph fastball from Walker Buehler with his barrel and deposit it into the center-field bleachers.

He hasn’t just improved against high pitches either. He’s fairing much better once the count has gotten to two strikes. During the first two months of the season, once the count reached two strikes, he ended the at-bat with a strikeout over half the time. In June, he’s striking out in 35.4% of his two-strike counts. Not only has Walker made adjustments to address a weakness in his swing, he’s simply been tougher to put away altogether.

Walker recognizes the importance of making these minute adjustments throughout the season. “Like anything else, I have a sample size now to where pitchers and teams can dig into… I think the league is making adjustments and now it’s time to make mine and get back on track,” Walker told Richard Morin of the Arizona Republic in May. Now that he’s proven he can make the necessary adjustments, the results have followed. He’s posted a 128 wRC+ in June and is in the midst of an nine-game hitting streak.

With Lamb close to wrapping up his rehab assignment, the Diamondbacks roster is about to get crowded. Eduardo Escobar has been one of the best third basemen in the majors this year, but he’s flexible enough to shift over to second base. That would push Ketel Marte into center, where his defense has been surprisingly adequate. However the Diamondbacks decide to align their roster, Walker’s resurgence in June has helped him make a case for keeping his spot in the lineup. Overcoming a crowded roster isn’t a new experience for him. It’s just another opportunity to prove himself again.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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4 years ago

His statcast numbers all back up his current production level and he’s at 60th percentile in sprint speed so he’s no plodder that would be exepected to underperform xwOBA / xBA style calculations. I am surprised he doesn’t get tried out in the OF more often since it seems like he’d have the footspeed to cover LF in a pinch. As a Right / Right corner guy he’s going to have to continue to hit a ton to keep a starting job but I agree with this article that he’s shown a lot of encouraging signs and hints of the rights sorts of adjustments being made lately.