The Arizona Diamondbacks won their seventh game in their last nine tries on Tuesday, edging the Pittsburgh Pirates by a 2-1 final. The D-Backs are now nestled into a tie with the San Diego Padres for second place, a position few expected them to be in at this point in the season. Remember, Arizona lost Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock to free agency during the winter, and traded Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals for an underwhelming return.
Yet nearly a month into the season, the D-Backs haven't had reason to miss Goldschmidt. Luke Weaver, part of the payout, has been Arizona's best starter. An improved cutter has enabled him to post a 138 ERA+ and 5.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and on Tuesday he notched his fourth consecutive quality start. The other big-league piece of the return, catcher Carson Kelly, hasn't performed nearly as well. It hasn't mattered, however, in part because the D-Backs have received some of the best first-base production in baseball.
Christian Walker has thus far kept alive Goldschmidt's tradition of being among the top first-base performers in the game. He entered Wednesday ranked third in the majors in adjusted weighted runs created among first basemen -- better than Freddie Freeman, better than Anthony Rizzo and Joey Votto, and yes, better than Goldschmidt himself. Walker is hitting .329/.393/.684 with seven home runs in 84 plate appearances -- this from someone who entered the year with a career .170/.263/.420 slash line in 99 trips to the dish.
Walker's previous struggles to establish himself at the big-league level caused him to bounce around the league. Back in 2017, he was claimed off waivers three times over the course of five weeks. The Diamondbacks held onto him through the previous two seasons, despite Goldschmidt's presence and Walker's lackluster track record, and that patience is paying off.
Walker is hitting the ball about as hard as anyone in the sport right now. He entered Wednesday with an exit velocity around 96 mph, or in the 99th percentile, per Statcast. The only players with higher average exit velocities this year are Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge, two of the game's premier sluggers. He's barreled the ball more than 20 percent of the time, and has had more than 60 percent of his batted balls classified as "hard hit" -- again, among the top rates in baseball. When Walker makes contact, he makes the contact count.
That's an important caveat and one that helps explain why Walker is unlikely to keep up this pace. His swing-and-miss tendencies are extreme (he connects on about 64 percent of his swings), and will make it difficult for him to sustain a high batting average for long. He has shown a more patient approach this year, an encouraging sign given his previous walk-averse ways. It's possible too that pitchers work around him more often in response to his torrid start.
Still, it seems more likely that Walker's upside is settling in as a Mark Trumbo or C.J. Cron type -- a right-handed first baseman with big-time pop and limited secondary skills -- rather than becoming ... well, another Goldschmidt. The Diamondbacks would probably be content with that outcome. Keep in mind, they won't get Jake Lamb back for a bit longer, and, even if Walker fades and becomes thought of once more as a Quad-A player, the production he's offered them in April is part of why they find themselves in contention heading into May.