Christian Walker – If you’re going to get pressed into service prominently, suddenly, and unexpectedly, you want it to happen when things are going well, not when you’re languishing on the bench or struggling with slumpiness. Walker had things going well when he became the everyday first baseman for Arizona, pending Jake Lamb’s as-yet-unscheduled return from the DL. When he got word of his new role, thanks to four of Arizona’s first seven games being against lefty starters, Walker already stood at fourth in the NL for most extra-base hits, sixth in the majors for SLG, and ninth in MLB for OPS. Walker began the year becoming the second D-Back in franchise history to homer in both of the first two games. The other was Luis Gonzalez in 2001.
A long-time Orioles farm hand, despite winning an organization Player of the Year, he didn’t advance quickly, didn’t see much of the majors, and didn’t do well in his brief stays. Getting into the D-Backs organization helped markedly. He was the 2017 PCL MVP with a .309-32-114 season. If you think, oh, it’s just the PCL with its inflated offenses, consider that 32 homers set a Triple-A Reno record. In 2018 he hit the fourth-longest home run in MLB, a 480-foot shot off Clayton Kershaw. (If you see it, it’s real, in this case, brute power against southpaws, a key explanatory factor that put Walker into a platoon role with Jake Lamb.)
Walker was not regarded even as an obvious platooner going into spring training. He just wanted to make an Opening Day roster for the first time in his life. A spring performance of .367/.429/.612 (1.041) took care of that first step. Getting the start over Lamb on Opening Day was “exciting, hard to put into words,” he said, and proceeded to open the season hitting .368 with three homers, and then he got this promotion. So far it’s a happy story. Torey Lovullo said he was “following my instincts” with the Opening Day decision, the defined platoon role, and the fill-in for Lamb after injury decision. Notice that no one ever said Walker can’t hit righties, because he can; there was just this assumption that Lamb can hit them better.
Dispassionately, we could argue that Walker is a relatively unaccomplished 28-year-old, twice-waived, career .170 hitter with almost no big-league experience. He is quite mature, or even a tad elderly, for a rookie. We pause to take a longer look at him now, because he is unquestionably the least-known everyday first baseman in the majors, and all first basemen can hit well, by definition. (If they don’t, they lose the job.) Also note that my full-year forecast does not assess his value on the field for the next six weeks, because we assume that Lamb will return and Walker will be doing well just to keep his minority interest in the platoon which was at the high end of his goals thinking during his ’19 Cactus League experience. His full year won’t amount to much even he is valuable now and for several more weeks. In a full season with moderate development, he would give us around .252-67-22-78-3, worth $5 in a standard RLBA NL format.
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