Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker is having the ultimate defensive season – the combination of his work as both a fielder and as a hitter.
We know that’s an odd thing to say but Walker’s statline has produced a highly unusual year.
Let’s start with the obvious, his defensive numbers are great.
Walker has 15 Defensive Runs Saved as a first baseman this season. He is the runaway leader. No one else has even half as many at the position.
Most Defensive Runs Saved – First Basemen
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
What separates Walker from his positional peers is his range, which accounts for all 15 of his Runs Saved, specifically the skill he has at handling a ball hit to his right.
He has converted 67 of 123 plays on balls hit in that direction in which he had a >0% chance of recording the out. He is the only first baseman at 50% or higher in that stat and is more than 10 percentage points better than anyone else with at least 50 such opportunities. Walker’s expected out rate on these plays is 46%, so he’s 9 percentage points better than average.
By comparison, Matt Olson, a past Fielding Bible Award winner, is 57-of-143 – that’s 10 fewer plays made on 20 more opportunities.
Walker can make these plays both standing upright and diving when necessary. Case in point:
But Walker is also a standout on balls hit to his left, turning 49-of-57 into outs, an 86% out rate against an expected out rate of 79% and 49-of-56 on what we define as “middle” (balls in which he didn’t have to go in either direction), 88% against an expected out rate of 80%.
This might sound weird but the defense that other teams have played against Christian Walker … it’s as good as the defense that Walker has played against other teams.
Walker is hitting .201 with a .449 slugging percentage this season.
SIS has the ability to calculate expected stats based on where players hit balls and how hard they hit them. Walker’s expected batting line this season is .254 with a .554 slugging percentage.
Walker has 19 fewer hits than expected.
Defenses have 14 Runs Saved against him in terms of turning batted balls into outs (13.5 to be exact). The only players that defenses have saved more runs against are Corey Seager (14.2) and Whit Merrifield (13.7).
One element of Walker’s numbers not being where they could be is in how teams are defensing him. Walker, a right-handed hitter, has had more at-bats come against defensive shifts than ever before.
And those shifts have crushed his batting average – he’s 3-for-40 when hitting a ground ball or a short line drive against a fully shifted defense (3 infielders on the pull side). As such, his ground ball numbers are nowhere near his career norms.
Batting Average on Ground Balls – Christian Walker
But it’s not just the positioning of the defense that has vexed Walker. It’s something entirely out of his control – the skill of the defenders.
Opposing players have 11 “Good Fielding Plays” against Walker related to taking away a base hit. That’s tied for most in the majors.
Walker’s done his part to deal with this, barreling up balls like never before. He’s now hit 25 home runs, not far from his career high of 29. His OPS+ is better than league average and comparable to his past seasons. He’s a productive hitter even with a low batting average
But he probably deserves at least better with that home run total too. Arizona has the lowest Park Factor for home runs in the majors. There have been 93 home runs hit there, compared to 137 in Diamondbacks road games.
Walker’s 25 home runs come along with an xHR of 31.
And it can happen to him on the road too. It just did – a ball that would have been a home run in 24 ballparks (per Statcast) was not one in Atlanta.
As Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume said, Walker can’t believe it. It’s been the story of his season. Those hitting balls in his direction know the feeling too.