Considering that Christian Walker has just two home runs through his first 118 plate appearances and has seen his isolated power drop 50 points, it may seem out there to suggest that he may actually be better this season than the last, but hear me out. Walker, of course, hit 29 home runs last season seemingly out of nowhere, and essentially matched the departed Paul Goldschmidt‘s first season in St. Louis. There was nothing that really looked out of the ordinary about his profile that would indicate that he couldn’t do it again, and Walker came into the season with the expectations of at least matching that production from a season ago.
His triple slash of .287/.347/.454 doesn’t look bad or anything. It’s a 116 wRC+ and a .345 wOBA, just one point off from where it was a season ago. However, it is definitely not the type of power that many were hoping for, especially at a position where home runs and slugging are pretty much a necessity. We expected huge power from Walker, and with the season now half over, we have yet to see it from Walker. Instead, he has turned into a positive on the batting average side, something that definitely would not have been predicted coming into the year.
So, what gives? Walker looks different at the plate to start this season, but how is he better? Well, there are some things in Walker’s profile at the plate that have him looking like a much better hitter overall. His high batting average looks like it may be here to stay, and the strong power that we all wanted to see may be coming soon. Walker has improved and made some changes in his batted-ball distribution that are helping him with the high batting average, and his batted-ball peripherals still look great as they did last season, but also with some improvements. With these two things working together, Walker should be just fine, and he should start seeing better results in the not-too-distant future.
Let’s start first by addressing the high batting average. Why is it much higher than expected right now? A quick look shows that he is currently sporting a .362 BABIP. Well, that may give many people their answers, as Walker is far from the type of hitter that would maintain a .362 BABIP. While that may work for some, I’m not completely sold that it’s that simple. While that .362 BABIP is still likely due for some regression, it doesn’t look too outlandish that he’s currently running such a high number when a closer look is taken to his batted-ball distribution. Consider the following table:
Looking at Walker’s batted-ball distribution from the last two seasons, what stands out immediately is the jump in line-drive rate. Line drives, of course, usually lead to hits, so hitting more of them is a good way to get a lot more hits. While Walker’s fly-ball rate is down at the moment, there is something else to like about this profile. His pop-up rate has dropped to a rate that is now better than league average after it was right around league average last season. However, this is still not a perfect distribution, but the point is to show that Walker’s high BABIP isn’t one that is being matched with a heavy surplus of ground balls that immediately looks unsustainable upon first look. Walker is doing positive things here by hitting more line drives and fewer pop-ups. That is all before factoring in his lower strikeout rate, as Walker has dropped his strikeout rate from 25.7% in 2019 to 21.7% in 2020. Walker is now not only hitting a greater amount of line drives and fewer pop-ups, but he is also putting more balls in play, and those balls in play are usually hit very hard (more on that later). All in all, that mostly explains Walker’s strong BABIP, but also shows why his expected batting average per Statcast is high as well at .315, a high enough mark that places him inside the top-15 of all hitters with at least 75 plate appearances. Walker’s current batting average and BABIP may look like a pleasant surprise, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t look undeserved.
But what about the power? That is, after all, what made Walker an exciting player in the first place. We know from the earlier table that Walker’s drop in slugging is not due to him all of a sudden hitting more ground balls that would zap his power. It’s a logical place to start but is ultimately not the answer.
The main thing that drove Walker’s breakout in 2019 was his great rate of hard-hit balls. His 48.8% hard-hit rate a season ago was good enough to place him in the 94th percentile. Perhaps, then Walker is not hitting as many balls hard this season, and that is what is driving his power outage? It turns out that this is not only not the case, but Walker is hitting balls hard at an even higher rate than the previous season, and at a rate that is among the top-five in all of baseball:
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||64.9|
It is not a surprise after last season to see Walker towards the top of the league leaderboard in hard-hit rate, but it is a surprise to see a hitter this high up and, with the talent that Walker has, to not have strong power results to go along with it. Plotting Walker along with the rest of the league in terms of hard-hit rate and isolated power shows just how unusual it is:
Looking at the point in red, we see just how much an outlier Walker is. This also helps show that Walker’s excellent hard-hit rate has not yet translated into more power. Now, if we do the same thing but this time using his expected slugging and his expected batting average to calculate his expected isolated power, Walker appears in a much better light:
Indeed, by taking Walker’s .538 xSLG and subtracting his .303 xBA, we get an xISO of .234, which is right around where a hitter with Walker’s profile would be expected to be. Of course, though, the game is not played on paper using expected stats, but this certainly gives us a better look at his performance through this point of the season. To this point, Walker has done a lot of things well, but it hasn’t yet shown up fully in the slash line. He has perhaps gotten a little unlucky, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing, the good results should come back.
The biggest bit of unluck that Walker has experienced this season that has struck down on him is how his fly balls are performing. Part of what drove Walker’s strong season a year ago was his impressive results on fly balls. This year, his fly balls have still been hit well and the peripherals still look good, but they haven’t gotten the most desirable outcomes quite yet:
|Year||Hard-Hit FB%||AVG Distance (ft.)||AVG EV||SLG||xSLG|
Last season, Walker earned his superb results on the back of hitting a good amount of his fly balls hard, at a rate that was close to the top of the league lead and hitting them among the farthest on average. Compared to 2019, we see that Walker’s advanced statistics on fly balls in 2020 mirror the previous season in many ways, but the immediate red flag is the vast difference in slugging percentage on these balls from 2019 to 2020, with Walker having just a .235 slugging percentage on his fly balls in 2020. While his rate of hard-hit flies is down, his current 52.9% rate is still among the best in baseball and is backed up by a more encouraging .846 xSLG. While that is still a ways away from where it was in 2019, Walker’s 2020 mark is still among the top-30 in baseball of all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. The main takeaway though should be that Walker is still doing a lot of the same things in this department that got him to where he was last season, but he just hasn’t gotten the same payoff just yet.
We know though that fly balls are just a minimal portion of Walker’s game. We saw that his fly-ball rate is down over seven percentage points from where it was last season, and instead, Walker is hitting a lot more line drives. Perhaps then, Walker is not hitting his line drives better here, and that is then also a reason for his huge drop in slugging? Well, it turns out that in terms of line drives, this is actually one area where Walker is getting the results that he deserves based on his quality of contact:
|Year||Hard-Hit LD%||AVG EV||SLG||xSLG|
On the back of a substantially higher rate of hard-hit line drives that is also alongside the best in the league, Walker is getting even better results on his line drives than he was last season. So, it ultimately doesn’t look like that his results on line drives are what is dragging down his power numbers. This also helps further reinforce Walker’s elite hard-hit rate, as we now see now that not only is Walker hitting all of his batted balls hard generally, but also when his hard-hit rate is broken down by batted-ball type, he still stands out positively. This brings us to the final scatterplot, which shows Walker’s hard-hit rate on fly balls and line drives stands out compared to the rest of the league, again relative to isolated power:
From this, we see that, once again, Walker stands out, and not in a good way. His rate of hard-hit fly balls and line drives is exceptional at 61.9%, which places him 31st in the league, sandwiched between Nelson Cruz and Jose Abreu on the leaderboard. In terms of raw numbers, Walker has hit 26 fly balls or line drives that are considered hard-hit, placing him tenth in the same leaderboard. But, as was the case in the earlier two plots, we see how much his ISO is lagging behind the pack, with only a handful of other hitters in a similar situation to him.
With these batted-ball factors taken into consideration and combined with his improved strikeout rate, we now see just exactly why Walker’s expected stats per Statcast are in a better place than his actual ones. His current .549 xSLG and .382 xwOBA are better than where he ended up last season. The one other part of the equation that I’ve ignored to this point is his barrel rate. It is true that right now his barrel rate of 7.4% is nearly half of what it was last season and doesn’t look too great. Using the Deserved Barrel Rate research done by Alex Chamberlain of Rotographs and his wonderful Pitch Leaderboard, it turns out that Walker has a 13.1% deserved barrel rate, or the exact same barrel rate he had in 2019. I definitely recommend checking out not only the Pitch Leaderboard but also the guts behind deserved barrels, as I won’t get into it much here. It’s a more descriptive metric rather than a predictive one, and it’s a bit more complex than that. I did not just want to gloss over Walker’s lower barrel rate, but it runs with the key theme of this point in that if Walker continues to do what he’s currently doing at the plate, he should get more of the actual barrels that we care more about, and the better actual results as well.
All in all, while Walker has yet to display the home runs and overall power that we saw he was capable of a season ago and made him such an attractive target, there is still a lot to like about the profile he has shown so far this season. There is a lot here in the profile that suggests that the power may indeed be on the way. When evaluating Walker’s 2020 season to this point, some of the under-the-surface stats seem to give the impression that the 2020 version of Walker is just as good, if not better than, the 2019 one. Thanks to an even better hard-hit rate, improving on one that was already great, and an improved batted-ball distribution that is helping him hit for a higher batting average, Walker is doing a lot of things well that have yet to translate to great results, especially compared to the rest of the league. However, assuming that Walker continues to maintain this profile, stronger results should be coming soon.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)