The most notable thing about Neil Walker’s season might end up being the fact that he went 0-for-19 in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. That was a poor finish to a decent season for Walker as the starting second baseman. This is the third full season that Walker has been the starter at second, and he has emerged as an average to slightly above average option. The hometown player put up a 2.7 WAR, which tied with two other players for ninth out of 17 qualified MLB second basemen.
Walker learned the second base position in 2010, making the switch from third out of necessity at the major league level. He has been improving defensively, although he didn’t see a big improvement this year. From 2011 to 2012 his UZR/150 went from -4.4 to -1.4. This year it only improved to -0.8, which ranks 12th out of 19 qualified second basemen.
While he has been below average defensively, his offense has provided most of his value. Walker’s .757 OPS ranked eighth out of 26 second basemen with 400+ plate appearances. His 114 wRC+ ranked ninth and his .333 wOBA ranked tenth out of those same 26 second basemen.
Walker isn’t a bad offensive option at second base. When you look at the rest of the league, there aren’t a lot of impact hitters playing the position. There are two issues that stand out with Walker. The first issue is that he’s largely inconsistent and very streaky. We saw this in the final weeks of the season. He went on a huge hot streak in the final week to boost the Pirates to home field advantage in the Wild Card game. Then he went on a massive cold streak in the NLDS. The hot streak followed a cold stretch in early September. Here are his monthly OPS numbers, to get an idea of how streaky he is.
April – .693
May – .877
June – .679
July – .735
August – .822
September – .734
That’s not just the 2013 season. In 2012, Walker had four months with an OPS under .650. He had one month with a .785 OPS, and one month with a 1.097 OPS. In 2011 he had two months with an OPS under .700, two months with an OPS in the .721-.734 range, and two months with an OPS over .800 (.815, .889). In every full season he has had two huge months which have brought his overall numbers up. He’s not a bad offensive option, but he probably should be moved down in the order going forward. That way his bad months won’t be such a liability, and his two good months will be a huge bonus when they arrive.
The second issue with Walker is that he is a platoon player. He had an .805 OPS against right-handers, and a .518 OPS against lefties. In his career, he has a .798 OPS against right-handers, and a .655 OPS against lefties. A popular idea is to have him bat left-handed against left-handers. The problem with this idea is that Walker has had next to no experience batting lefty against a left-hander. I asked him about this over the summer, and he said it would be worse than batting right-handed.
The Pirates seem to have solved the problem by actually putting Walker in a platoon. Toward the end of the year he was losing playing time against left-handers to Josh Harrison, who did well against lefties. That would be a good strategy for the Pirates to employ going forward. They can still get all of Walker’s production against right-handers, but they improve the production from second base when a left-hander is on the mound.
Josh Harrison doesn’t have enough playing time to get accurate numbers, but his UZR/150 in his career at second base is -1.6. That spans 274 innings, which is less than a full season. If that’s his skill level, then he’s about the same as Walker defensively. Offensively, Harrison could be the answer if the Pirates are looking for a platoon at second base. He doesn’t have a good track record of hitting lefties, but stepped up this year with a 1.007 OPS in 112 at-bats between Triple-A and the majors. That’s a small sample size, but it should earn him more opportunities going forward.
Jordy Mercer played the second most games at the position, but was largely used as the starting shortstop at the end of the year. Mercer has a much better track record of hitting left-handers than Harrison, and a lot of people point to Mercer as the better option for a platoon partner. However, Mercer’s value lies as a starter at shortstop. This year he had a .285/.336/.435 line, which out-performed Walker at a position where offense is even more scarce.
The Pirates have Walker under control for three more seasons, and have Harrison and Mercer under control for that time. So in the short-term, their second base situation is set.
As far as prospects go, you don’t really have second base prospects. Most second basemen move over from a position on the left side of the infield. Two prime examples are Neil Walker and Josh Harrison, who both came up as third basemen in the minors. The Pirates have some candidates who could shift to second base down the line. They traded one of the top second base prospects in the system away when they sent Dilson Herrera (who moved over to the position from shortstop) to the Mets in the Marlon Byrd trade.
Dealing Herrera didn’t really impact the long-term look at the position. Second base will ultimately be decided by what happens at shortstop. Alen Hanson is the top shortstop prospect, and Jordy Mercer did well enough this year to lock down the position next season. The long-term middle infield currently projects to be Hanson and Mercer, although the order is up in the air. A lot of that will depend on whether Hanson can stick at shortstop. He has the defensive skills to play the position, but sometimes lacks focus and makes errors on routine plays.
Even if Mercer stays at shortstop and Hanson moves to second, the Pirates will be getting good offensive production from the second base position after Walker leaves. The Pirates probably wouldn’t see a drop off in production with that combo, since both players have the capability to match or beat Walker’s offense and defense. The Mercer/Hanson combo could be ready in 2015, allowing the Pirates to deal Walker away for prospects with years of control remaining.