It’s easy to forget now, but just 15 months ago, Christian Walker’s future as a Diamondback was uncertain.
Entering his first year of arbitration off a season in which he posted a .696 OPS, there was a tangible possibility that the club would non-tender him. Even in March 2022, at the start of spring training, he recalled it as, “a suspenseful time,” and not one any player wants to relive.
It’s understandable, then, that Walker describes this spring as a “different feeling.” Last year, he went out and finished fourth in the National League with 36 home runs. He won a Gold Glove. He was worth 5.1 wins — third most among first basemen and up from 0.5 the year before.
In arbitration, he earned himself a tidy $6.5 million. Whether or not the Diamondbacks would pay it was never a question, because now, Walker is a critical piece of their offense. When manager Torey Lovullo writes him into the Opening Day lineup, presumably as the cleanup hitter, that spot will be seen as a strength for the Diamondbacks, not a weakness.
So yeah, this spring is a different feeling.
“Knowing that I can do it for a whole season,” Walker said, identifying what feels different. “I was always confident about that and I always believed that, but it’s different when you see it on paper and there’s closure to it.”
Walker’s success also gave him a sense of importance to the team that he didn’t feel during the peak of his 2021 struggles. “That’s a lot of my motivation and whether it’s the right mindset or not, that’s what keeps me going,” Walker said.
That was true even during the first half, when his batting average hovered around .200. Although that number frustrated him when he looked up and saw it on the Chase Field scoreboard, Walker knew the advanced analytics showed that he was producing some of the best contact in baseball.
“I felt like I was a key piece all year, regardless of the average,” Walker said. “Fortunately, the slug was there even when the average wasn’t. As somebody who’s hitting in the ‘4’ hole or the ‘5’ hole, just to be able to help the team, period, and then having the defense on top of it, that was good for my brain, too.
“You want to feel like you bring something to the table. You want to feel valuable. You want to help the team. So to be able to check as many of those boxes as I can is the goal.”
This spring, Lovullo has seen that mentality manifest itself in Walker’s demeanor.
“He’s in a very relaxed state,” Lovullo said. “Very comfortable with the foundation that he’s standing on. … It’s always where I’m trying to get to with a player. I want them to be impactful because they’re themselves and they’re relaxed and they’re just confident in who they are. Some players walk into this clubhouse on day one and they feel that. Some players have to evolve into that.”
Still, Walker isn’t resting on the laurels of one strong season.
“To be able to throw it out there for one year is great, I’m proud of it,” Walker said. “But now it’s like, do it again. And do it again and do it again and do it again.”
To that end, he’s spent his offseason working on getting to balls down in the strike zone. Last year, he made hard contact on pitches in the bottom third of the zone, but his launch angle on those balls was 10 degrees, as opposed to 24 degrees on balls in the top two-thirds.
“They would end up being groundballs, which are just outs,” Walker said.
To address that issue, he spent time working on mobility in his back and hips. By doing so, he’s been able to teach his body to move in new ways that enable him to reach those pitches. The process was painstaking — “take a swing, look at the video; take a swing, look at the video,” as Walker puts it — but there was a purpose to it. Those details, as nuanced as they might be, are what can enable him to replicate last year. They’re what can enable him to keep feeling important, keep feeling like he matters.
“For me to show up and ride out a good season last year and to not prepare the same way I did or not put in the same amount of work isn’t fair to my teammates,” Walker said. “That’s not what professionals do.”
- Outfielder Dominic Fletcher, catcher Dominic Miroglio and right-hander Mitchell Stumpo had their final day in camp on Wednesday ahead of the World Baseball Classic. All three are scheduled to depart for Taiwan to play for Team Italy.
- Right-hander Merrill Kelly is scheduled to make his first start of the Cactus League on Friday vs. the Mariners. Right-hander Zac Gallen and left-hander Madison Bumgarner have yet to appear in a game or on the pitching schedule the team makes public. “No issues whatsoever,” Lovullo said. “We’re just slow-playing it. They have a plan in place to get them their innings and their early buildup in backfield situations.”
Diamondbacks 8, Giants 5
At Scottsdale Stadium
At the plate: C Carson Kelly had three hits in Wednesday’s game, including his first home run of the spring, and drove in four runs. The home run, a solo shot in the second, came on a drive to deep left-center in the second off Giants RHP Jakob Junis. 3B Josh Rojas had a pair of singles and LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. singled and walked. SS Jordan Lawlar had a run-scoring single in the seventh on a ball he shot into right-center field. 1B P.J. Higgins hit a homer to left-center in the ninth.
On the mound: RHP Drey Jameson threw two perfect innings, striking out two. Jameson said he was pleased with how he threw his sinker and with the fact that did not walk anyone. He took issue with Giants C Roberto Perez, who took a 3-0 swing off him before striking out. “Don’t swing on me 3-0; that puts fire in my blood,” Jameson said. “Something clicks when that happens. So it’s more of, ‘I’m not going to walk this guy.’ You just fight and when someone swings 3-0 on you, it gives you a little more edge and you attack even harder.” RHP Miguel Castro threw a scoreless inning, striking out one. LHP Kyle Nelson, RHP Kevin Ginkel and RHP Zach McAllister each worked a scoreless inning.
Extra bases: Rojas forced a balk and stole a base during a sequence in the top of the fourth, outcomes that he said were triggered by him trying to time his breaks with the expiration of the pitch clock.
Thursday’s game: Diamondbacks RHP Ryne Nelson vs. Dodgers RHP Michael Grove, 1:05 p.m., Camelback Ranch.
Nick Piecoro contributed to this report.