The Pirates have called up third baseman Neil Walker, and pitcher Virgil Vasquez with Major League rosters expanding today. The 25-Man Roster has been updated, along with the 40-man roster/payroll projection.
Walker recently complained that there was a bias towards Neal Huntington acquired players, and that he was being held back due to being a Dave Littlefield prospect. He backed those comments up by hitting for a .339 average in the month of August, with four homers in 109 at-bats. In fact, Walker is batting .291 with seven homers in 172 at-bats since the International League All-Star break.
The downside to Walker is his on-base percentage. Even with the success after the break, Walker had a .319 on-base percentage, thanks to just eight walks in that time span. This season he has just 26 walks in 390 plate appearances. That’s a seven percent walk rate, which aside from his 2007 season in Altoona (11 percent) is his career high. To put that in perspective, the average Major League walk rate this season is nine percent.
That doesn’t mean players can’t be successful with a low walk rate. Freddy Sanchez has a career five percent walk rate in the majors, but his success is due to an extremely solid contact rate. In his career, Sanchez has struck out in 11 percent of his plate appearances. The Major League average this year is 18 percent. Walker has been ahead of the curve there, with a 15 percent strikeout rate.
I’m not saying Walker can become the next Freddy Sanchez. Sanchez is more of the exception than the rule. What I am saying is that, with what we’ve seen so far, Walker is in no way guaranteed success. This is a player who has a career .248 average at AAA, even with the strong performance recently. He also has a career on-base percentage of .291 at AAA.
Walker is only 23 years old, turning 24 in a few weeks. While he was drafted out of high school, and has spent six seasons in the minors, he’s still rather young. For that reason I don’t want to write him off. I still maintain that his former top prospect status looked much better as a catcher. His offensive potential looks much better behind the plate than it does at third base. So even though we can’t write him off, I think his upside is an average offensive third baseman, with solid defense.
For those of you who want Walker to replace Andy LaRoche, just consider that for a second. LaRoche isn’t exactly tearing it up at the plate this year. His batting average is .245, although he does have a .324 on-base percentage, thanks to a nine percent walk rate, which is average in the Majors this season. The power isn’t encouraging, with a home run every 61 at-bats. The strong part for LaRoche has been his defense. His 3.5 UZR this year ranks 9th amongst qualified third basemen.
It’s not impossible to improve over Andy LaRoche this season, but I don’t think Walker is going to do it. Walker’s defense is good, but it would be hard to top what LaRoche is doing. Walker also has a career .248 average at AAA, so it’s hard to imagine that he’d do much better than the .245 average LaRoche has put up. As for power, Walker has displayed some at AAA, but that doesn’t guarantee major league success, as we’ve seen with LaRoche. To take the comparison further, let’s compare their time at AAA, using major league equivalents to balance out the park factors.
Walker: .211/.251/.352, 40.78 AB/HR
LaRoche: .242/.330/.407, 25.71 AB/HR
Ironically the .245/.324/.367 line by LaRoche is pretty close to what we’ve seen this year. Major League equivalents aren’t an exact science though, as Andrew McCutchen would have a .245/.311/.348 line with a 72.73 AB/HR ratio based on his time at AAA (and we know he’s been much better than that in the majors). MLE’s are a good tool to compare players, and this comparison between Walker and LaRoche shows that LaRoche projects to be the better hitter in every way.
If anything, the presence of Neil Walker should benefit the third base situation. LaRoche hasn’t had much competition this year, with Walker struggling at AAA, Pedro Alvarez too far off and struggling the first half of the year, and no one else on the Major League roster presenting a challenge to take over. Walker should push LaRoche to possibly play up to expectations, and at the same time, this shot by Walker could be the motivation he needs to carry his recent AAA success over to the major league level.