The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have many positions on the field that were held down by just one person throughout the 2011 season. Second base was one of those rare positions. Neil Walker played 159 games at the position, starting 155 of those games. No other player on the roster started more games, and Walker was one of three players on the team that started over 100 games (with the other two being Andrew McCutchen and Ronny Cedeno).
The 2011 season marked Walker’s first full year in the majors. He hit for a .296/.349/.462 line in 426 at-bats in 2010, which for a second baseman is a great stat line, putting him among the best offensive second baseman in the game. Inconsistent play in 2011 prevented him from repeating those same numbers.
Walker got off to a hot start, with a .301 average and an .815 OPS in the month of April. His OPS was as high as .827 by May 20th, but then he hit a slump. Walker hit for a .196/.263/.268 line in his next 138 at-bats, spanning from May 21st to July 2nd, at which point he reached his season-low .691 OPS.
The next day, Walker went 3-for-5, sparking a hot streak that saw him hit for a .383/.426/.511 line through the end of July. In the month of August he hit for a .260/.336/.385 line, and followed that up with a similar .268/.301/.433 line in September. Walker finished with a .273/.334/.408 line in 596 at-bats on the season.
The Pirates’ offense struggled overall, but Walker was one of the bright spots, even if his 2011 season wasn’t as good as his 2010 season. His .742 OPS was third on the team, behind Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones, respectively. His 596 at-bats led the team, as did his 163 hits, 36 doubles, and .273 batting average among qualified players.
A big question about Walker coming in to the season was how his defense was going to progress. Walker had a -17.1 UZR/150 in 2010, which can be expected, as that was his first year at the position. In 2011 he improved to a -2.5 UZR/150, which still isn’t good, but shows a ton of improvement over last year.
The Future For Walker
It’s hard to give a projection on Walker. We saw him have a break out year in 2010, with numbers that ranked as some of the best among second baseman in the league. He needed those numbers with the poor defense at second base, although he was given a pass defensively due to the 2010 season being his first at the position. In 2011 his defense saw major improvements, although his hitting dropped off. We saw flashes of his 2010 hitting, but they were mixed in with some bad stretches, including a horrible run in the middle of the season.
Keeping his offense in perspective, Walker’s .742 OPS ranked 9th in the majors out of 18 qualifying second baseman. His 2010 OPS of .811 would have been good enough for 6th, putting him in the company of Rickie Weeks and Brandon Phillips. It’s hard to say why he saw the decline in 2011. Maybe it was the focus on improving the defense, which can take the focus off of the bat. Maybe it was due to his first year in the league, and the adjustments that were made on him.
To his credit, Walker did show some minor improvements offensively. There were concerns about his K/BB ratio in 2010, specifically with his low walk rates. Walker had a 7.2% walk rate in 2010, which was mostly fueled by an 11.4% mark in September/October. Prior to that, he never saw a month above 6.1%. In 2011 his walk rate was 8.2%, although it was more consistent. His month-by-month walk rates:
The league average walk rate in 2011 was 7.2%. The fact that Walker was above average in four months this season was a positive sign, especially when he was below average for the majority of the 2010 season. His strikeouts also took a dip. In 2010 he had a 19.5% strikeout rate. In 2011 that dropped to 18.8%, which isn’t huge, although he did show improvement throughout the year. Walker struck out 22.1% of the time in the first three months of the season, but cut that down to 15.6% of the time in the final three months. The strikeout and walk numbers are important, because they show that Walker wasn’t overmatched at the plate, and was actually showing some signs of improvement, despite his lower OPS.
The Pirates obviously have offensive problems. They don’t have a stand out power hitter, which is why it’s important for them to get added production from positions like second base. Walker can be a huge asset to the team, but in order to do that, he needs to put up offensive numbers that are in line with some of the best second basemen in the league. We saw him do this in 2010. We saw flashes of this in 2011. Ideally, the full season experience will help him going in to the 2012 season, as the Pirates need a consistent year with an OPS above .800, and passable defense.
The Pirates have plenty of time to develop second base prospects with Walker under team control through the 2016 season. They’d have even more time if Walker was extended, something the team has already started working on. That time is good, because the Pirates have some interesting infield prospects who need some more time in the minors.
One of the top guys is Jarek Cunningham. Cunningham hits for a lot of power for a middle infielder, highlighted by 15 home runs in 310 at-bats during the 2011 season. The problem is that his plate patience needs a lot of work. He spent the 2011 season in high-A, but missed the second half of the season with concussion-like symptoms. He’s currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, getting his first taste of upper level pitching. The biggest concern with Cunningham is that he could be over-matched in the jump to AA next year.
Brock Holt made that jump this year, and handled it well, hitting for a .288/.356/.387 line. Holt profiles more as a top of the lineup hitter, with a good on-base percentage, and a lot of speed. He’s strong in a few areas, such as his K/BB ratios, his contact skills, his speed, and his defensive skills work best second base. He doesn’t hit for a lot of power, which limits his value to more of a utility infielder.
Lower in the minors, the Pirates have some interesting options like Gift Ngoepe, Alen Hanson, Jodaneli Carvajal, and Yhonathan Barrios. Most of those guys are build on speed and defense, and they’re all on the raw side.
Fortunately, the Pirates don’t need a second baseman for awhile. That gives Cunningham some time to work on his plate patience. It allows Holt some time to add some pop to his bat. It gives plenty of time for the lower level guys to develop to their full potentials. If any of these guys reach their potential while Walker is still with the team, the Pirates could either find another position, or use them as a trade chip to fill a team need.