Gambling on Adam Walker

A week ago, the Milwaukee Brewers claimed prospect Adam Brett Walker off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Walker was born in Milwaukee and graduated from Milwaukee Lutheran High School, so that automatically makes for an interesting plot line as only nine players born in the state have ever suited up for the Milwaukee Nine. While it would certainly be exciting to see a local product in the Brewers’ lineup everyday lineup, what should Brewers fans realistically expect from the 25 year old?

When discussing Adam Walker, the first topic of conversation has and always will be his prodigious home runs. “He has among the strongest power grades of any hitter in professional baseball from our scouting reports,” GM David Stearns told Adam McCalvy of“Whenever you see a tool like that that’s readily available, you take notice.” In 584 minor league games since being drafted in the 3rd round by the Twins in 2012, Walker has clubbed 124 home runs. Walker is powerfully built at 6’5″ and 225 lbs, has a natural uppercut to his right-handed swing and generates tremendous bat speed, leading to 60 power grades from Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline. Pipeline’s report praises Walker for having “as much raw power as just about any prospect in baseball” and Jeff Moore of BP noted that Walker is “extremely dangerous” on pitches located up in the strike zone.

Unfortunately, that tremendous level of power comes at the cost of a highly questionable hit tool. Walker is only a career .251/.310/.486 hitter in those aforementioned 584 minor league games and has struck out in a startling 744 of 2,449 career plate appearances (30.4 percent). In his first exposure to AAA competition in 2016, Walker hit .243/.305/.479 with 27 home runs for a .279 TAv, but he struck out a whopping 202 times in 531 plate appearances (38 percent).

Moore wrote that Walker “struggles to recognize curveballs and changeups,” and that he’s over-aggressive, expanding his strike zone too easily. Walker’s 2016 entry in the BP Annual described his approach at the plate as “unsustainable” and noted that “[h]e kills fastballs, but struggles to recognize other stuff, and his attempts to wait longer and pick up spin seem to be coming at the cost of that attacking mentality. His future rides on being able to find a balance.” MLB Pipeline grades Walker’s hit tool as only 40 on the 20-80 scale and John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote that Walker “could struggle to hit .230 in the majors.

Often times we’ll see a low-average slugger pair a high strikeout rate with a high walk rate and still manage a respectable on-base percentage, but that’s never been the case with Walker. He reached base via free pass just 8.3 percent of the time in 2016 and has drawn a base on balls in 7.7 percent of his plate appearances throughout his career. When coupled with his almost comically high whiff rates, that means Walker’s not likely to ever be much of an on-base threat.

There’s not much reason for optimism on the defensive side of things, either. MLB Pipeline gives Walker well-below average grades of 40 for his glove and 40 for his arm. Regarding his throwing prowess, Jeff Moore writes “Extremely long arm-action, little carry on throws. Left field arm.” Khris Davis’ throwing arm in the outfield would probably be a fair comparison here. Walker has been valued at -26.5 Fielding Runs Above Average over the past two seasons while playing left field almost exclusively at the AA and AAA levels. Walker’s speed was once graded as above-average to plus, but he’s been more in the average to slightly-below range in more recent reports. He’s stolen 43 bases in 56 attempts during his career, but was successful in just seven of 11 in theft attempts in 2016.

The Brewers may have a plan to try and mitigate some of Walker’s defensive woes, however. The club apparently plans to try Walker as a first baseman, a position that is sorely lacking for depth in the system beyond Chris Carter (who may himself be non-tendered this winter). Walker has never played the position professionally, but he did see some action there when he played collegiately at Jacksonville University so a first baseman’s mitt won’t exactly be foreign to him. Walker would be a big target at first and given his previous experience, there’s at least some reason to be hopeful that he can eventually become a passable defender at the position in the professional ranks.

Adam Walker has one loud, exciting tool but doesn’t bring much else to the table at this time. He could be a 30+ home run threat as an everyday player at the MLB level, but nothing about his current offensive approach says he’ll make enough contact to tap into that power consistently. He struggles to recognize pitches that aren’t fastballs and doesn’t walk enough to mitigate his extremely high strikeout rate. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs joked that Walker could punch out in 45 percent of his plate appearances if he were in the MLB next season. Even if that seems hyperbolic, it’s true that without a significant adjustment in his approach at the plate, the odds that Walker can be a dependable offensive threat at the MLB level look exceedingly long.

Walker provides little value defensively, and the fact that he is limited to left field severely hampers his chances to break through among a crowded outfield that includes more versatile defenders like Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Michael Reed, and Corey Ray. A permanent move to first base may provide a much clearer path to big league playing time for Walker, but would also put that much more pressure on him to provide value with the bat.

Chris Crawford wrote back in July that if Walker could tone down his strikeouts, “he’d have a chance to be a regular” at the major league level. His offensive ceiling could be something along the lines of current Brewers’ first baseman Chris Carter: a late-blooming, low-average, low-OBP slugger with game-changing power and big strikeout numbers. But it’s important to remember that before actualizing that profile at the big league level, Carter was a much more accomplished hitter in the minor leagues (.283/.378/.535, 182 home runs, 23.5 percent K rate, 12.2 percent BB rate in 826 games) than Walker has been to this point.

It could be telling that the 59 win Twins chose not to give Walker a September call-up this past season and gave up on his development shortly thereafter. But Walker is still quite youthful and has never repeated a level in his career, so it’ll be interesting to see what sorts of adjustments he may be able to make during a likely assignment back to AAA for 2017. With two option years remaining, the rebuilding Brewers can afford to be patient with Walker and see if he can become a part of their next winning core in the role of everyday first baseman. At this point in Walker’s career, however, the odds appear to be firmly stacked against that outcome.

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