Christian Walker, Secret Star | fangraph baseball

© Matt Kartosian-USA Today Sports

Before this year it seemed christian walker A player who is on a fall during a break can be washed before he has a chance to shine. After a breakout 2019 that saw him finally break out of the shadow of the men he supported (he was second in the back row) Chris DavisIn the DFA’s wild spring training a tornado hit through Cincinnati and Atlanta, and then took off in the back Paul Goldschmidt), Walker’s career outlook appeared bright. But all that apprenticeship time hurt, and so did the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Walker had another promising year – .271/.333/.459 with a noticeably better strikeout rate – but timing was not on his side. 2021 was his age-30 season, and also his biggest league campaign to date. He posted a below average hitting line, lost power while striking more often, and generally came back across the board.

Some version of that story occurs frequently in baseball. Fate’s freak is brutal: Baseball isn’t exclusively a young man’s sport, but you have to be a pretty good player in your early 30s to play the role. Find yourself in the wrong system, or miss some time with an injury, and you could be 30 before you know it, with just three years of service time and a major league spot. Corner infielders abound with average batsmen; They make a decent living playing baseball, but they mostly roam from team to team as waver wire fodder and up-and-down platoon pieces.

Before this season, that result was totally in the game for Walker. Our two projection systems didn’t like what they saw; Overall, he thought he would be a roughly league-average hitter, well below the offensive bar at first base. He expected a 0.9 WAR season and a .248/.320/.443 batting line, and without knowing how much offense would drop overall this year.

Nothing like this happened. Instead of leaning toward replacement level, Walker is in the middle of a career season. Despite the widespread aggressive downturn, he is on pace to have his highest run rate, lowest strike rate and highest isolated power. His 122 wRC+ would comfortably be the best full-season mark of his career. And he’s not doing it in an agile way – he’s catching the ball. In fact, he has been undeniably unlucky. His BABIP stands at .234; His career mark was above .300 entering the year. He has been hit with a plethora of unlikely outs, and is still having the best season ever. It’s downright impressive.

Walker knows it all. He Told Zach Buchanan of athletic So much. “‘He deserves to be in the All-Star Game because of his barrel rate.’ No one says that,” he told Buchanan in reference to his strong-batted ball stats. He wants actual production, not process-based stats. And hey, who can blame him? An RBI is undoubtedly something. Feels better than an analyzer showing you a computer printout to let you know you’ve really got everything. If nothing else, you won’t get as many high fives with a printout.

There is good news for Walker though. Even if you only care about the actual production and not the underlying process, he has been absolutely outstanding. He leads all qualified Diamondbacks hitters to 122 wRC+ (Jake McCarthy is ahead of him in limited game time). He is first in the team in slugging percentage (again qualified batsman) and second in on-base percentage. Counting stats? He leads the team with 32 homers, 79 RBIs and 74 runs. Sure, readers of FanGraph may not hold a ton of stock in RBI or moves as a measure of how good a hitter is, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel well.

So what has changed as Walker turned him into his team’s best hitter, batting ball metrics even better than him? In a word, swinging. In two words, not a hammock. If you take a look at our work Seasonal Change State GridNo one in baseball has cut his swing rate more than Walker in the past year. He’s following less. He is swinging on low zone pitches. He is swinging low at 0-0, low when he is ahead on the count, and low when he is behind on the count. It’s a sea change, and it seems to have worked.

The math behind swinging low is Obvious, Pitchers throw more than half their pitch outside the strike zone, and nothing good happens when you swing at them. Even if they throw a pitch in the zone, it may not be one you’re prepared to hit – and even if it is, you can swing it or may spoil it. Of course, never swinging is a viable strategy, but being more prudent about the deductions you make can benefit anyone.

Walker found this change in a roundabout way. He knew he had one obvious weakness as a hitter: four-seam fastballs, especially those that were either inside or high. In fact, a look at his player page reveals that he was against him for the past one year. The only pitch he messed up was the changeup. Generally speaking, hitters crush fastballs, which is why pitchers are throwing less and less of them, so walkers’ problems are a relative rarity. He diagnosed his problem as a result of feeling congested thanks to his stance. “Suddenly, a fastball appears,” he said to Buchanan, “[and] I get stuck.”

He made a simple mechanical change to counter that exact feeling. As he gave to Buchanan (the whole piece is certainly worth a read), the crux of the problem was his natural tendency to start the swing too open and off, which felt impossible to turn inside the fastball. Here he faces a fastball at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies in 2021 and also has a delightful camera angle:

Here he is in 2022. Don’t be distracted by the Rockies’ lovely jersey; Pay attention to the walker’s feet:

He’s starting out in a closer to neutral stance, which certainly helps his self-diagnosed issues with the open-to-close swing. He is also calm; It looks to me like he’s raising his lead leg a little bit, removing the moving parts. The result has been a huge contact improvement against the four-seamer; He is coming up empty on his 17% swings against them this year, compared to 31% in his career so far.

While that new stance plays a role, Walker’s new selectivity may be even more important. He used to swing hard on fastballs thrown for boundary strikes – 55% of the time. That’s down to 44% this year, an impressive decrease. Think about how much that matters: Those boundary line pitches are basically 50% strikes and 50% balls, with no real way of knowing which ones they will be when they track them down. Rather than swinging at the pitcher’s pitch—which has produced poor results for most of Walker’s career—he often whispers, spoils a ton of time where he makes contact, and whines when he puts them into play. Doesn’t exactly hit for power – that’s to come up on the count again and again. Even if they strike, what then? Anyway, many times this would have been the result.

turning a big hole in his game into a minor inefficiency – he’s still bad against fastball on Black because everyone The hitter is bad against the fastball on Black – he’s flipped the overall equation around. Pitchers can’t paint the edges every time; They often miss. Throw a few in between, and his prodigious raw power can send the ball to the moon. Also, by swinging less, he is more likely to take pitches out of the field – the less you swing overall, the easier it is to remove bad pitches. By both closing the hole in his swing and offering a less difficult fastball to hit, Walker went solidly above average, one of the worst four-seam hitters in baseball.

That change opened up 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 swings and misses, or at least some weak contact. As a result, he suffered a ton of four-seamers. Pitchers are now throwing him pitches only 26.5% of the time, more than 10 percentage points below his career average, and you can understand why: It just stopped working.

He’s replacing that short with sinkers, which he always hits 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 usually to hold the bat over your shoulder; Pitchers don’t find them in the field very often, and when they do, they are often hangers that good hitters quickly pick up and crush.

Here’s another way to put it, courtesy of Baseball Savant swing/report taking, Last year, Walker added 18 runs of aggressive production on pitches that never tempted the strike zone, in the chase and west zones. This is roughly the league average; He swung on an average number of pitches in both areas and made average contact. This year, he is on 33, and is swinging almost half as fast as the rest of the league. Meanwhile, he’s actually been Better over the heart of the plate, despite swinging less often; I’m guessing it’s because more of those swings come on the pitches he’s looking for, rather than the smooth swing he wasn’t planning on hitting.

It’s no surprise that this adjustment worked. Earlier this year, Walker’s breakout 2019 season showed his most patient approach to the plate. To me, this all seems logical: no one doubts Walker’s prowess on contact, so when pitchers can’t use their cheat code (four-seamer) against him, they cleverly avoid the strike zone. Huh. Want to create a good attitude when the pitchers are intimidated by you? Cut your swings and force them to come near 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 on pitches in the field and far less than average on balls.

Baseball is a game of tricks and counter-moves; Perhaps the pitchers will find something new they can target against Walker’s current plan. Although I am not so sure. It never made much sense that Walker would be poor against fastball, and his combination of strike zone judgment and power is rare. His current form sounds like a perfect strategy to me; It leverages its best skills while minimizing weaknesses.

Oh yes, and he is the best first base defender in the game. Defensive metrics are always confusing at first base, but the numbers are simply staggering. Starting with the 2019 season, his first full year, Walker has been 32 outs above the per statcast average. their closest rival is Matt Olson, with +10. Trust Defensive Runs Saved? Walker has 28, ahead of Olsson’s 24 and outpacing everyone else. He covers a great deal of ground, especially toward second base, thanks to excellent instincts and a sneaky-quick first move. Sure, he’s not a burner, but who cares? First base defense isn’t about straight line speed, but about making the most of certain moves.

A patient, mighty slugger with elite defense in the desert? Arizona fans are used to it. I don’t think Walker is likely to make him forget Paul Goldschmidt any time soon, but he has established himself as an important part of the team this year. Forget DFA purification; Walker looks like the rare success story, having escaped from the depths of minor league duty in his mid-20s to become a real star. If Arizona’s youth movement can continue, it may not remain a secret for much longer.

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