09 May 2016

"Left Field, Christian Walker"

Joe Reisel's Archives

With current first baseman Chris Davis signed through the next three Congressional election cycles, and AA first baseman Trey Mancini emerging as this year's prospect de l'annee, last season's prospect de l'annee, AAA first baseman Christian Walker, found himself in danger of being squeezed out of a major-league position with the Orioles. When the Orioles traded for Mark Trumbo and signed Pedro Alvarez as a free agent, Walker fell to #5 on the first base/designated hitter depth chart. Toward the end of spring training, the Orioles decided to try Walker in left field, expecting to increase his versatility and hoping that he might be a viable part of their complex left-field solution.

We, and probably the Orioles, know what Walker would likely contribute offensively. Given his consistent performance at AAA Norfolk and the track record of batters moving from Norfolk to Camden Yards, a reasonable performance for Walker would be .260/.330/.430. This .760 OPS value would translate into a 105 OPS+. This is for a full-season performance; if he was primarily used in a platoon role, he might do better than that.

The question is whether Walker can play left field well enough to be something more than an emergency option. At first blush, it would seem unlikely. Before the 2016 season, Walker had not played professionally at any position besides first base. Generally, teams try to play their prospects at the toughest position they believe they can handle. If the Orioles hadn't tried Walker anywhere other than first base, it seems likely that they didn't think he could play anywhere else.

Christian Walker has played exclusively in left field for the Norfolk Tides. That's not literally true; he's played a few games as the designated hitter, but he hasn't played defense at any position other than left field. Through May 9, I've seen and scored ten Tides games. While this isn't many games for statistical evaluation purposes, there is probably some interest in Walker's performance in left field. So, I'll try to answer the question, "How is Christian Walker's left-field defense?"

Based on my observation, Walker has had two major problems. First, he has had problems judging and tracking fly balls. This should be expected; Walker hasn't had much experience judging fly balls and his performance may improve as he gets experience. Second, Walker doesn't have great speed, especially going toward the walls. On the positive side, Walker does catch and hang on to what he is able to get to. And I haven't seen his throwing arm be challenged; it seems to be neither a positive nor a negative.

However, there are plenty of outfielders who don't look good but who nevertheless get the job done; there are other outfielders who look good but who don't get the job done. I've assembled data I have from the ten Norfolk games I've scored. Specifically, I've compared the left field defense for Walker, Xavier Avery (who played left field in two games in which Walker was the DH), and the Tides' opponents' left fielders. Ten games is not much of a sample; there are many factors which pollute the data. However, if the data shows that Walker is much better than he appeared to be, then I could conclude that appearances are misleading and Walker is a viable left fielder.

The tables below should be pretty self-explanatory. The distinction between "Line Drive" and "Fly Ball" is my own subjective judgment, about which I can say that I have scored games for BIS for eight seasons and there has been no complaint about my over- or under-use of either category. These are balls that were first touched or fielded by the left fielder. The "x" in the cell for Ground Ball - Out represents that any ground ball that gets to the outfield is almost always a hit, the occasional 7-4 or 7-5 force out notwithstanding.

Christian Walker (8 games):


Out
1B
2B
Line Drive
1
8
4
Fly Ball
13
0
4
Ground Ball
X
6
2

Xavier Avery (2 games):


Out
1B
2B
Line Drive
0
9
1
Fly Ball
5
1
0
Ground Ball
X
4
0

Tides Opponents (10 games):


Out
1B
2B
Line Drive
3
9
5
Fly Ball
15
2
2
Ground Ball
X
6
1

The data is this limited sample, by itself, does not prove or disprove that Christian Walker is a good or a bad left fielder. The one potentially significant fact is that every fly ball that Walker didn't catch went for a double. That might mean that Walker isn't good at cutting off hard-hit fly balls and they are getting past him, going for doubles rather than singles. I observed that he had trouble going back on fly balls, and that fly balls that fall in go for doubles tends to support that.

It's early and the data is limited. There are plenty of factors which may explain why more doubles were hit when Walker played left field than when others did. I am certainly not at this time declaring the experiment a failure. But I don't believe that Christian Walker is going to part of the Orioles' left-field solution any time soon.

11 comments:

Roger said...

I agree that it's not going to be "soon". The LF situation for the big club is pretty well convoluted - probably as bad as 1B this year - with Kim, Reimold, and Rickard. I suspect that, if the O's let Trumbo walk next year, then they will try Walker in LF. By next year, Walker should be no worse than Trumbo is as a defender......

Joe Reisel said...

That's not a high standard ...

Pip said...

Roger, Trumbo is a total train wreck in the outfield. Saying, "as good as" is much less accurate then saying, "as bad as"
I cannot fathom why Dan thought that signing Alvarez and forcing Trumbo into the outfield was better overall than Trumbo at DH and Reimold in right field.

Jacob W Smith said...

The big obvious advantage to signing Alvarez is that Trumbo in the outfield and Alvarez at DH is now an option in the (likely) event that Reimold gets hurt (again). It's really hard to go into the season depending on regular work from a guy who has never stayed healthy for a full season in the Major Leagues. You certainly didn't want to count on Rickard as an everyday guy at that point, and as popular as he remains in Baltimore, it's getting pretty clear why. In addition to not being able to play defense, he has one of the worst hard-hit rates in baseball. So he's a DH who can't hit the ball hard. Kim was an unknown at that point, so really, you had Adam Jones and a whole lot of nothing. Pedro was a contingency plan.
What I don't understand is why, when Trumbo and Davis both play, Buck insists on playing them with Trumbo in right and Davis at first. Maybe this has already been discussed on CamdenChat, I haven't been around much since early March. But I put this analysis on the Orioles official website about a week ago, I think. Of course, there, I was just told that I have no understanding of how baseball works on the field and am an idiot. Not sure why I bother...

"So far, the Fielding Bible has Trumbo with -5 defensive runs saved in the outfield this season - -6 with his fielding, +1 from his arm. They see only 5 outfielders in baseball as worse, several centerfielders. And nobody is worse in DRS/inning than Trumbo. So the Fielding Bible - which I trust far more than the commenters on here who don't seem to think Trumbo has been particularly bad - thinks he's the worst defensive outfielder in baseball this year. I've seen him miss ball after ball, so I don't know what you guys are seeing. UZR/150 paints the same picture - not only is Trumbo the worst defensive outfielder in baseball, it's not particularly close. -51.5 runs/150 games. In his career he's averaged about -14 as a right fielder. On the other hand, as a first baseman, in his career, he sits at +6.3.

Davis, on the other hand, has a +0.2 as a 1B and +1.7 as a RF. His first base defense has been better the past few years according to UZR. So let's give him credit for being a +5 1Bman. Add in Trumbo's -14 in RF and they combine to be, on average, about 9 runs below average defensively. Now put Davis in RF and add his +1.7 to Trumbo's +6.3 at first. Now you have a combination that's 8 runs above average. That's a 17-run swing relative to the current defensive alignment over the course of 150 games (on average).

Advanced defensive metrics are far from perfect, there's no doubt about that. And Davis' sample size in RF is pretty small. But given that the results aren't even close - 17 runs is quite a big gap - it seems obvious to me that the team is better off with Davis in right. Especially given that I fudged the numbers twice in favor of the current alignment. Moreover, I don't know how several of you seem to think Trumbo has been an acceptable defender in RF. I've seen him play at least 2 balls that should have been outs into doubles already this year. And several more into singles. There's no way his arm has been so good that it compensates for at least 5 or 6 outs and 7 or 8 total bases of free offense. And, lest we forget, Davis' arm is even better."

Roger said...

Pip, at least you're not a Reimold-hater... :-) Guys, I never said Trumbo was good in RF. Joe, the bar IS low for Walker. Everyone needs to remember that Walker and Mancini will have to play somewhere in the majors. Either the O's need to play them or trade them. Trumbo was a fantastic pickup for a one year deal. The O's may not want to pay him next year. But I see Walker as generally equivalent only younger and untested. Maybe he will learn enough at Norfolk this year that he can be passable in RF.

Jacob, with regards to defensive comparisons, I was fighting the same rhetorical battle as you here on Camden Chat earlier this year. I don't know why they don't play Davis in RF. I can only suspect that the infielders have a lot of confidence in Davis' ability to scoop their throws at least based upon familiarity. The O's apparently value IF defense over OF defense. There was an article here on CamdenChat earlier this year defending the idea that OF defense is not as important as IF defense. I am just guessing that Davis at 1B and Trumbo in RF is a way of being "old-fashioned" rather than data driven.

Further, I don't know how much 1B defense is measured by a catching parameter - framing. Does having a good target and good framing at 1B improve the IF defense overall?? How do we measure the importance of technique at 1B?

Jacob W Smith said...

I highly doubt that setting up a good target at 1B is very important. Major League infielders have enough reps to basically throw to first blind.

I disagree with you re: Walker. I don't see why they need to play him or trade him. That was how I felt about Ryan Howard when he was 24 and 25 and still sitting in the minors. But Walker is no Ryan Howard. Joe was projecting a .760 OPS for Walker in a decent sample at the Major League level; I don't pretend to have a projection system, but I've seen Walker play enough (albeit not so much in the past few years except when he's been called up) to feel like if anything, that projection feels a little optimistic to me. I'm sure he can OPS .700+, and maybe he can OPS .750+. But if you pair that with probably below-average defense at 1B, or way below average defense in LF, is it really positive value? Not by much, anyway. You're not giving up a lot by failing to use him. And that kind of "upside" doesn't bring a lot of trade value. People have been calling for the trade of Christian Walker for years now, but I don't see when in his career he would have brought anything of value back. He's never been a ranked 1B prospect. In years past he was an insurance policy, and worth more as an injury reserve than a trade chip. At this point we have so many 1B/DH types he's not really important in that respect, but he's 25 and he's still never OPSed all that close to .800 in AAA. He's got a .754 career AAA OPS (again, not sure how Joe projects this to .760 in MLB; in particular, the 5 point improvement in OBP feels like a big stretch). So who wants to trade for him at all at this point?

Anonymous said...

Honestly I think it comes down to a promise to Davis that he would play first and not right. So while it may be the best alignment it goes against the agreement they made with him. In addition Davis has played first base at a gold glove level so they have no incentive to move him therefor they have to find a spot other than first for Trumbo. I don't know that the sample size is large enough to confirm Davis would have a positive DRS in right and Trumbo the same at first. So while I agree with you in theory they have Trumbo for one year and Davis for 7 so they are simply choosing to hope that Trumbo can handle RF. Maybe if he continues to struggle out there the Orioles will switch them more often. Either way they need both bats in the lineup every game.

Jacob W Smith said...

After Davis let his agent aggressively market him as the best RF on the market, I think he'd have to accept an assignment in that position.

Roger said...

Bottom line is that Trumbo is having a Cruz-like year and won't be signed next year. Walker will be asked to play in his spot. I read a lot about the Davis negotiations and don't remember anything about him being portrayed as the best RF on the market. He was marketed as the best 1B on the market who could also play RF. No one ever thought he was a better OF than Cespedes. Walker showed a lot more maturity in Spring Training this year and is hitting better at Norfolk. I think that, again, Buck is not an out of the box thinker and Davis has more time at 1B and Trumbo more time in the OF so that's where they're playing metrics notwithstanding.

Jacob W Smith said...

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/14104070/scott-boras-selling-chris-davis-king-free-agent

"'Chris Davis grades out as the top free agent because he's the top outfielder, the top first baseman and the top DH,' Boras said. 'He's all of those. He's three in one.'"

"Top outfielder" is explicitly stated. Not top defensive outfielder, but as I said, Boras marketed him as an outfield option, and a good one. So he can't complain about being put there.

I don't think Christian Walker is next in line to start if and when Trumbo walks. Kim will still be around. Rickard will likely still be around. There's a good chance Reimold comes back, he seems to be happy in Baltimore. There will be free agents. If the Orioles front office is still viewing Walker as a future starter in any capacity, not a backup plan, there's a big problem. A guy who is likely to OBP just a little over .300 with 20-25 HR power is an asset at SS or C, a solid contributor at 2B or even CF, and a big hole at 1B or DH.

Anonymous said...

De l'annee C'mpn now. You sound ridiculous with that