Why Don’t We Trust Neil Walker?

Dejan Kovacevic had a few interesting questions today in his morning links.  Wilbur tackled the question of who should be added and removed from the 40-man roster.  I wanted to take a look at the following:

Does it not seem that Neil Walker’s performance is seen as fluky, while Jose Tabata’s is not? If you think it is seen that way, why might that be?

I don’t think it seems that Neil Walker’s performance is seen as fluky.  I think Neil Walker’s performance is seen as fluky.  I also think that Jose Tabata’s performance is seen as legit.  The answer for why many people seem, scratch that, do feel this way is simple: expectations.

Coming in to the season we had very different expectations for each player.  Tabata was a top prospect in the system, arguably the #2-3 guy behind Pedro Alvarez.  He was coming off a strong year between AA and AAA, an even stronger time in the Arizona Fall League, and was seen as part of the future.  Meanwhile, Neil Walker’s career seemed to be on the decline, and many people viewed him as a bench player at best, and possibly a super utility player.

Do you think Walker's season is a fluke, or legit?

Personally, I liked Walker when he was a catching prospect.  The potential he had at the plate worked best when he played behind the plate.  His hitting potential wasn’t really a fit at third base, and making matters worse, he wasn’t even playing up to that potential in the minors.  Coming in to the 2009 season, Walker had a combined .248/.291/.428 line in 1009 at-bats at the AAA level.  He had some pop in his bat, but when you’re getting on base at less than a 30% rate in AAA, it’s hard to picture a future big league career.

Walker did have a nice run starting in July of 2009, and drastically improved this year in AAA, with a .321/.392/.560 line in 168 at-bats.  He also started playing multiple positions, originally shooting for a role as a super utility player.  His hitting got in the way of that goal, but in a good way.  The combination of Walker’s success in AAA, Akinori Iwamura’s massive struggles in the majors, and the lack of any other second base options opened the door for Walker to get a shot in the majors.

Now Walker is currently sitting with a .310/.352/.487 line in 316 at-bats in the majors.  His average ranks fourth in the majors among second basemen with 325+ plate appearances.  His on-base percentage ranks 11th, his slugging 4th, his OPS 6th, and his AB/HR ratio 11th, all among second basemen with 325+ plate appearances.  You could make the argument that Walker has been one of the top offensive second basemen in the majors this year.  He also could be argued as one of the top offensive rookies this year, ranking 3rd in OPS behind Buster Posey and Jason Heyward among rookies with 325+ plate appearances.  Expand that to 300+ plate appearances and Walker is still 3rd, while Jose Tabata comes in at 8th.

There have been concerns that Walker was a fluke this season.  The biggest change for him has been an increase to his walk ratio.  In the minors this year the ratio was around 10%.  So far in the majors, Walker has been around 6% on a consistent basis.  Walker’s batting average per balls in play (BABIP) has been .366.  That’s in line with his .364 from AAA this year, but much higher than his .255-.280 range from his time in AAA prior to this season.  A hitter generally stays in the same range throughout their career, unless a major change or adjustment is made.  Even prior to his AAA struggles, Walker was only in the .320-.330 range.

It’s not out of the question to think that Walker has made an adjustment, and has a somewhat legit BABIP ratio.  That ratio would be enough to support a walk rate of 6%.  But I don’t think the reasoning behind the distrust of Walker is that complex.  I think it just boils down to expectations.  We all expected Jose Tabata to be good.  It’s not a surprise that he is good, because it was in the realm of possibility for so many people.  Hardly anyone expected much out of Walker, much less the production we’ve seen so far.

I always say that people are looking for affirmation, not information.  They’re not looking for things that can change their views, they’re looking for things that support their views.  Jose Tabata’s success, especially after the All-Star break, supports the view that most everyone had of him being a future impact player.  Neil Walker’s surprise success goes against the popular view that he was a bench player at best.

A lot of people didn’t expect this from Walker, so naturally they’re going to view it with skepticism.  Likewise, they didn’t expect much from Garrett Jones, and he surprised everyone in 2009.  Just like Garrett Jones, Walker’s season will be viewed with doubt.  Jones looked like a 30-40 home run hitter, and a star player, based on his 2009 numbers.  His 2010 numbers look like an average first baseman.  What if Walker goes through the same regression?  Many people are probably wondering whether they could still be right on Walker.  What if he’s not this good?

Walker hasn’t been good on the defensive side based on his -18.7 UZR/150 rating, which ranks 20th out of 22 second basemen with 600 or more innings.  There are two big disclaimers here.  First, Walker is new to the position, so it’s excusable if he doesn’t adjust right away.  Second, half a season is a very small sample size for UZR.

No one expected Walker to be this good.  What if everyone is proven right?  What if Walker sees a regression at the plate, similar to the regression that Garrett Jones saw from 2009 to 2010 after his surprise season in 2009?  If Walker’s defensive numbers are legit, then Walker goes from an above-average second baseman to a super utility player very easily.  It could be the difference between what Walker is doing now, and what Delwyn Young has been over the last two seasons.

As for Tabata, there’s no reason why people can’t ask the same questions about him.  Tabata could very easily regress.  His success after the All-Star game could easily be a fluke hot streak.  This all goes back to expectations.  We expected Tabata to be good, which is why we expect his good performance as of late to continue.

You look at the other top rookie hitter, Pedro Alvarez, who is hitting for a .229/.311/.400 line, and you see the exact opposite of Walker.  Everyone had high expectations for Alvarez, and he’s been having a poor debut overall, despite some hot stretches.  Everyone had low expectations for Walker, and he’s been having a great debut.  You won’t find many people who think that Alvarez is a future .711 OPS guy, all because we expect Alvarez to be a star, and half a season in his rookie year isn’t going to change that opinion.  The same can be said for Walker.  The expectations were low, and despite his success, half a season in his rookie year isn’t going to change the original opinion.  The only thing that will change the view on Walker’s success is a continuation of that success.  Until then, people will continue to view him as a pleasant surprise who might not be as good as his 2010 numbers are indicating.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MZXNLUELV4O54XDBZCA3CYICDY The Big K

    I think Walker is somewhere between what he is now and being a .265./.320./.400 guy. He’s athletic enough and has a nice enough swing that I think his BABIP will always be above average, albeit never again as high as it is now.

    The walk rate is simply not up to par for any big leaguer, especially not a three-hitter who will soon be batting in front of Pedro Alvarez for a whole year if he stays there. His OBP should be .365 at least. All that would take is 20 more walks in the 360 AB he has.

    The power is genuine, though, and it will always be above average for a second baseman. The only second basemen with better ISO are Cano, Uggla, Pedroia, Weeks, Johnson, and Utley. Walker has hit for more pure power than Phillips, Prado, and Hudson.

    His wOBA is also better than all but seven 2B, including Phillips and Kinsler.

    Walker’s bat is for real and will be good for a long time. It’s his patience that needs refining. He’ll always get hits, but he won’t be a great player if the OBP doesn’t get up.

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