Neil Walker was above average offensively at second base, with below average defense. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Second Base

Neil Walker was above average offensively at second base, with below average defense. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Neil Walker was above average offensively at second base, with below average defense. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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 Future

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.

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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, 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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  • Stephen Brooks

    I’m starting to warm up to the idea of keeping Barmes on a team-friendly contract and pushing him to the backup middle infielder role, spelling Walker against lefties and/or late inning defensive replacement for Mercer. That, in turn, opens up Harrison to back up third. The only downside – maybe – is that it parks d’Arnaud at Indy for yet another year.

    Oh, and four words if Barmes decides to move on: FREE IVAN DeJESUS JR. Certainly better and cheaper than picking up the next Farmer John McDonald.

    • jamminjoe66

      Bench players have to be PH candidates. Barmas CAN’T hit. It’s time for him to get on with his life’s work as a little league 1st base coach.

      • Stephen Brooks

        He hit lefties well enough to be a bench bat (.741 OPS) and spot starter – certainly hits them better than Walker does. And his defense – rated best in the NL by most metrics – was a key factor in the Bucs’ run prevention. As long as he doesn’t face many righties, he is more than capable of contributing to a major league roster.

        Little league will have to find its first base coach somewhere else.

      • stickyweb

        Back up SSs don’t need to hit as well as other bench positions. After all, if they could hit and play good defense, they’d be starting somewhere. If you go with Harrison as back up SS, you get a little more bat (probably) than Barmes, but the defense suffers. You can’t have everything in a back up, or else they wouldn’t be a back up.

        And look at how poor STL’s bench is this year. With Adams pressed into starting, they literally don’t have anyone to pinch hit. They’d probably be better PH some of their starting pitchers, but that would offend their bench. And they seem to be doing fairly well this year.

    • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

      DeJesus plays horrid defense. Although he can hit, he can’t even play 2B adequately, let alone backup SS. Harrison is better here, especially since he learned to hit LHP this year both at AAA and in the pros. I hope they get Barmes back cheap, his defense is worth it.

  • CalipariFan506

    I don’t know where else to put this but it seems to be an active article.

    Wally Bell, MLB umpire and Boardman Ohio native, passed away a few hours ago from a heart attack. He umpired the Pirates NLDS series last week. Sad day around baseball and to top it off he is a local guy as well.

  • CalipariFan506

    Tim, do you think Aldaberto Santos has any shot of replacing Harrison’s role in the near future? He is an on base machine through his minor league career and has pretty good position flexibility.

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