First Pitch: Changing My View on Neil Walker

Over the weekend I was talking with John Dreker, who brought up an interesting question. He asked me whether the 2012 season for Neil Walker would be considered “lucky”, or if the 2013 season would be considered “unlucky”. To answer the question, I started digging into the numbers between the two seasons. By the end of the analysis, I had a higher opinion of Neil Walker’s skills than before the question.

My Original Opinion on Walker

I’ve felt that Walker is a decent player, but that his overall production amounts to a league average second baseman. He puts up above average offense at the position, and below average defense. He also has dealt with injury problems throughout his career, and struggles against left-handers. Walker tends to be rated higher than he should due to the Pittsburgh connection. He’s the hometown kid, he gets interviewed after every game even if he didn’t play a part in the game, and the result is that the spotlight on him in Pittsburgh is bigger than it should be.

This leads to the annual extension discussions, which I’ve always been against. The Pirates have Walker under team control through the 2016 season. He will be 31 years old when he becomes eligible for free agency. Extending him would be signing him to a big deal at the ages of 31+. That’s not a good approach for an overall average second baseman with injury concerns.

2012 vs 2013

In 2012, Walker had a .280/.342/.426 line in 530 plate appearances. In 2013 he dropped down to a .251/.339/.418 line in 551 plate appearances.

The lower average hid the fact that Walker saw an increase in his walk rate and his power. Despite having an average that was 29 points lower in 2013 than 2012, he had an OBP that was only three points lower. The walk rate didn’t lead to all of this, since he only jumped from 8.9% to 9.1%. Walker actually saw a big increase in getting hit by pitches. He was hit a career record 15 times. Compare that to getting hit nine times in his Major League career prior to the 2013 season, and I’m not sure how sustainable this would be. It’s one thing if it’s Starling Marte, who is a magnet for baseballs. Unless Walker changed his approach at the plate (possibly moving closer), I don’t see how this could be viewed as a repeatable skill.

That said, the walk rate has been showing annual improvements. It went from 7.2% in 2010 to 8.2%, 8.9%, and now 9.1%. The league average is 7.9%, which means that Walker has gone from below average to above average since entering the majors. All of that will help maintain a strong OBP if his average comes up, even if the HBP issue goes away.

The other increase for Walker came with his power. Again, despite a 29 point drop in average, his slugging percentage only dropped eight points. A big reason for this was that he had a .167 ISO, compared to a .146 ISO in 2012. Walker wasn’t hitting as much in 2013, but he was hitting for more power. I’m not sure you can bank on that ISO. He had a .167 ISO during his first year in the league, and he matched that in 2013. In 2011 and 2012 he had a .134 and .146 respectively. So it’s hard to say where he ends up in the future. Is the upward trend legit, leading to a high level of power in the future? Or is it a case where Walker could just as easily revert to being a .134-.146 ISO hitter?

An Unlucky Average

There are question marks about Walker. Will he maintain the HBP numbers? Where will his power end up? One question I don’t have is whether he can hit for average.

Walker hit for a .251 average last year. That was a career low, and I think it’s bad luck. He had a .274 BABIP in 2013, which is down from his career .312 line. The previous low in his career was .315 in 2011. I’ve mentioned that Walker struggles against left-handers, and I thought that might have led to this problem. However, Walker saw a career low in plate appearances against lefties in 2013. He also had a .275 BABIP against right-handers. Compare that to previous years:

2012: .342 BABIP vs RHP

2011: .320

2010: .346

I think it’s safe to say that Walker’s average will be coming back up. If I had to guess, I’d say he will end up in the .275-.280 range. That’s the starting point to build the overall player, which is the next step.

If Neil Walker can continue hitting for the power he showed in 2013, he could end up a top five offensive second baseman. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

If Neil Walker can continue hitting for the power he showed in 2013, he could end up a top five offensive second baseman. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

What Will Walker Do in 2014?

The big question marks are whether Walker maintains his HBP and whether he can continue with the power he saw in 2013. I’m going to assume that the HBP numbers were a fluke, although I reserve the right to change that opinion if it turns out that Walker was standing closer to the plate or doing something that led to an increase. I’m also going to go conservative with a .275 average as a starting point, which seems fair considering his career .273 average. I’m also going to assume 550 plate appearances.

The walks have been pretty consistent, so let’s say that between the walks and getting hit, he gets on base an extra 9.5% of the time. That, plus his .275 average, would equal a .344 OBP.

Then there’s the power. If he reverts to the .146 ISO range in 2012, he would have a .421 slugging percentage with a .275 average. But if the .167 ISO is legit, then he’d have somewhere around a .442 slugging percentage. That would be one of the better marks of his career, falling only behind his half-season in 2010.

Overall I think the power plays a difference here. If Walker is showing actual signs of improvements, then you’re looking at a .275 or better hitter with an OPS of at least .786, which would be the second best mark of his career (again, 2010), and would have also ranked right up there with Dustin Pedroia last year among the qualified leaders at second base (Pedroia had a .787 OPS).

If Walker’s power regresses to the level of his first two full seasons, then he will pretty much end up at the OPS level he’s been at the last three years, somewhere in the .750-.760 range. He would see an increase in average, but a drop in his power would negate that added value.

My New Opinion on Walker

I still wouldn’t extend Walker, at least not this off-season. The only way I’d extend him is if he came under a Jose Tabata level deal. That said, if he answers some questions in the future, he could look like a good extension candidate.

The key thing will be the power. Walker already has above-average offensive numbers for a second baseman, but he’d be in top five territory if his power really is trending upwards.

A bonus would be the hit by pitch numbers turning out to be legit. If this was a result of a new approach at the plate, then you’re talking about a second baseman with an OPS over .800. That’s Chase Utley/Jason Kipnis offense, and would definitely be worthy of an extension. It would also come with added injury risks, which is the downside. Then again, the walks have also been trending upward each year, so perhaps he can show improvements in that area, and improve his ability to get on base without getting hit.

The defense is still below average. But the added offense could be enough to take Walker from an overall average second baseman to an above average second baseman. That might be worthy of an extension, especially if you take the view that Walker could eventually take over for Pedro Alvarez at third base. Walker would definitely need that added offense to provide value at third.

Basically I’ve gone from being convinced that Walker isn’t worthy of an extension, ever, to saying it might not be a bad idea if he answers the right questions about his game going forward. The 2014 season will be a big year to determine whether he’s extension worthy.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season. Today the countdown resumed with #15 – Joely Rodriguez.

**Pirates Announce 2014 Minor League Managers and Coaches. Includes a breakdown of the new coaches and all of the system moves.

**Small Market Teams in Baseball: A League of Takers? Wrote this on Sunday, and as usual there was some great discussion in the comments.

**Winter Leagues: Gonzalez Helps His Team To Playoff Victory.

**Winter Leagues: Update On Marte’s Back Injury.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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  • freddylang

    With Walker turning 29 this season I would think he is running out of time for a “breakout” year.. With what appeared to be bad luck last year, a better top of the lineup in front of him, some improvement vs lefties…if he can play 145-150 games he should come very close to career highs in just about all stats…and he could even put up a 5+ WAR if his defense stays where it is or improves a little. I will go out on a limb and predict Walker will edge his career best OPS of .811…not by much but I think he will squeak past it. I hope they get him signed up for 3-4 years if they can get a hometown discount. 3-4.0 WAR 2Bs aren’t that easy to find. For what it’s worth Walker’s WAR through almost 4 seasons is 10.4 and Brandon Phillips was 7.1 in a similar amount of games.

    • Cato the Elder

      Walker put up a career high 2.7 WAR last year. Barring the miraculous, +5 is out of the question – that would be equivalent to his last 2 seasons combined – while +4 is exceedingly optimistic. A better lineup has no impact on a player’s WAR…if everything breaks right 3-3.5 WAR isn’t out of the question, but the over under has to be 2.75. So while 3-4 WAR 2nd basemen maybe hard to come by, 2.5-3 wins 2nd basemen are less so. We’re talking, in addition to Walker: Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Marco Scutero, Brandon Phillips, Ian Kinsler and Jed Gyrko. Good, but not great company.

      • freddylang

        Walker had a 3.9 WAR in 133 games last year. That works out to about a 4.8 WAR in 162 games. 4.8 WAR with a .251 AVG leaves room for expansion.

    • esd4

      Walker “turning 29″ is somewhat disingenuous, since he won’t turn 29 until September 10. Nonetheless, his age is definitely important to any discussion about him, so I’m glad you brought it up.

      Basically, whatever Walker does this year he will be doing as a 28-year-old, meaning he should be expected to get worse in the future. Given the dismal history of mid-tier 2B entering their 30s, you can emphasize that point. Sustaining last year’s power or HBP success in 2014 will not augur a continuation of those things in the future.

      The other thing to be mindful of is Walker’s splits. Tim mentioned it, but it probably deserves more consideration. He was platooned much more effectively in 2013, facing LHP only 17% of the time, compared to 26% in 2012 and 27% in 2011. Whatever gains he sustains in his power or HBP would likely be negated if he were allowed to face LHP regularly. So he remains a platoon player. Pedroia, Utley, and Kipnis are not platoon players. Having a .780 OPS in a platoon role is not nearly as valuable as a .780 OPS in a full-time role, and Walker will never be Pedroia. And he only get to that not-Pedroia level if he improves his BAbip while maintaining his power.

      Basically, Tim, I think you were wrong to change your opinion of Walker. You were right the first time: he’s an average player in the prime of his career.

  • The Masked robshelb

    .
    I’m looking at other 2014 projections for Neil Walker (up-dated yesterday). RotoChamp loves him, CAIRO not-so-much. I wish someone would explain why the relatively big differences (in some cases) between different projection systems. Wassup with that ??

    CAIRO is projecting a .256 batting average and a .710 OPS.
    Steamer, a .272 BAVG and a .777 OPS
    RotoChamp ?? A .285 BA and an .806 OPS.

    And I also don’t know which (if any) in recent years has been more predictive/accurate than the others.

    And furthermore, of course, if Neil’s back goes on the fritz again, then I suppose all bets are off. The 2014 team isn’t going to have a lot of infield depth.

    Everybody, keep your fingers crossed !!
    .

    • PirateFanMan

      I’m going to have to argue against you on the whole lack of depth thing. (btw Steamer usually does a fairly good job, about as good as you can get with projection.) Important to remember that this year we have a healthy D’Arnaud and Mercer for a full year. If Walker goes down then Mercer at 2nd Barmes/D’arnaud at SS and D’Arnaud providing a league average bat off the bench.

      • The Masked robshelb

        .

        PirateFan,

        Sure hope you’re correct about Chase being ready to rock ‘n roll — that is, if necessary/if needed. When he’s in overdrive, he sure is fun to watch.

        Otherwise, we get to choose between Mr. Barmes, Mr. Harrison, or Mr. Andino. I sure hope Andino works out, but given the fact that he was only offered a Minor League contract, I’m not sure I’d say we’ve made a serious effort to bolster the infield (so far) during this off-season.

        regards
        .

      • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

        If d’Arnaud could provide a league-average bat off the bench, he’d be spending the season in Pittsburgh. His offense projects as basically Clint Barmes with a little more speed.

        The 2014 Pirates have plenty of infield depth, just not a lot of backup middle infielders who can hit. That said, the proper term for a backup middle infielder who can hit is a “starting middle infielder,” so it’s not all that surprising.

      • freddylang

        d’Arnaud does not give anyone any warm and fuzzies.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I not only think we should work out an extension for Neil Walker possibly for an additional 2 or 3 years, but I see him as being very valuable to the Pirates because of his natural athleticism that places him as a possibility to help us at two other infield positions moving forward. I have been talking about Neil getting about 20 starts at 1B against RHP’s between April and July. I think he can be that partner to Gaby Sanchez, and could possibly be a full time 1B in the future, if Alen Hanson continues his march to the majors. We have had this discussion before, but for my money, the Fielding %age + Range Factor give me all I need to know about his ability to defend at 2B, and I see him as an above average defensive 2B. I think he could be even better defensively at 1B. Can we afford to have a 1B hitting .275 with 20 HR/yr power and an above average glove. He could not only serve a present need, but give the Pirates that promise for the future, while making room for Hanson, who I think will take over leadoff from Starling Marte in a year or two.

    I have only been talking about an extension for Walker for the past 2 years, so I am patient, but the bottom line has a strong chance of increasing, and a very minor chance of decreasing, so why not now? Lock in at least the remainder of his Arb years and add 2 FA Years and a Vesting Option for the 3rd year. While we are at it, sign Marte long term before his worth gets way out of hand, and add some big numbers to ‘Cutch’s contract sort of like how the Brewers did to Braun, and the Rays to Longoria. Did you see that the overall worth of the club increased by big numbers over the course of the 2013 season? Forbes had them at $479 in March 2013; Bloomberg estimated their worth at $610 mil in Oct 2013. And 4 Pirate games being picked up for National telecasts? The Pirates are media darlings right now – take advantage and wrap up the guys long term.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    and on the flipside there’s the “was that low BABIP an outlier or the beginning of a trend”?

    2014 will be a huge year, but I’m still not signing him to an extension unless it is team friendly, as you suggest.

    and, he STILL needs a platoon partner which lowers his value even more.

  • Cato the Elder

    The key words are: “under team control until 2016.” So any talk of an extension is talk about Walker’s value 4 seasons from now. Presumably the Pirates will have both Mercer and Hanson on the roster by then and unless you think Walker has the bat to play a corner infield position (hint: he does not) then you are paying a premium for a guy who doesn’t have a position, or only represents a marginal upgrade over cheaper, internal options. That money would be far better spent in an actual 1st/3rd baseman. Frankly, I don’t imagine a huge market for a league average 32 year old 2nd baseman anyway, so there is reason to suspect that we could get a team friendly deal then. There is absolutely no reason to negotiate against ourselves right now. The absolute worst case scenario is that Walker takes a huge step forward and becomes one of the base 2nd basemen in baseball over the next 3 years so that we are unable to afford him as a free agent. But guess what, that will mean we have have gotten 3 all star level seasons at a reasonable price, and those seasons will almost certainly represent his prime: still no reason to pay for his decline.

    • freddylang

      Good point on the team deal down the road. You just take the risk of a breakout year messing up the plans. Like I said he is approaching moving out of where a player will have a breakout so I don’t have a problem with the fo rolling the dice on Walker. Especially since he has had some back issues. But if he stays healthy and becomes a .275/20 HR guy then you have an upper 10% 2B. If he could only hit Lefties I think the ext would be a nobrainer. Nobody wants a platoon in the MI.

  • AlvarezRiverBall

    I think it might be possible that since it is January and we are 3 months removed from a Pirates live game that you have forgotten how bad Walker fails the eye test hitting from the right hand side of the plate. At one point in the season he was delagated to hitting in the 8th spot against lefties and sac bunted twice in the same game. That is not Chase Utley or Jason Kipnis or even Jose Tabata. Stats are one thing but the eye test is another. It’s easy to evaluate numbers after a season and make an opinon one way or the other but during the long baseball season it was easy to see how he failed the eye test.

    • freddylang

      We have to do something to get us to mid-February! This is definitely the time fans sit and dream of what-ifs.

  • Cato the Elder

    Tim, if I understand what you are saying, it boils down to: if the power surge is real and the low BABIP is a fluke, then we might expect a regression of Walker’s BABIP back towards his career average and thus an increase in his BA, etc. But, that presumes that the low BABIP was a matter if poor luck. Isn’t it more reasonable to likely that, if the increased power AND decreased BABIP are functions of an increased FB% and decreased GB% (+/- 5%) or rather his GB/FB going from 1.26 to 1.00? This conclusion is further supported by a DECREASE in Walker’s average flyball distance: 283.48 last year was down from 292.42 in ’12. It seems to me then the higher ISO is the result of batted ball distribution and thus should not be assumed to hold steady while BABIP improves; the two aspects seem likely remain inversely proportional.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

      I think you are probably correct. His FB% went up, which can be good, but he had a career high in IFFB%. That’s always bad.

      Either way, a guy who has had a .324, .334, and .333 wOBA in the past three seasons, respectively, should be reasonably expected to put up similar numbers in his age 28 season.

      He is at least league average overall, and his arbitration salaries are way below market value. Walker is a big time value.

      • Andrew

        I agree with the above opinions, for what that is worth. Most likely outcome for Walker’s 2014; BABIP will regress upward, (career BAPIP is .312), and ISO to come down a bit, (career ISO .150). I am going to repress my cynicism and overlook that drop in batted ball distance, chalk it up to the hand and oblique injuries.

        I also think Cato is correct regarding the extension, the Pirates would be paying a premium for 31 year old middle infielder. Tim has cited Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson as comparison when discussing Neil Walker extension and stated the Pirates were lucky both rejected the extensions. If the argument that an extension may make sense rests upon the Walker adding power, I just do not see it.

        • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

          FWIW, Fangraphs age regressions curves shows power peaks much earlier than thought. Per their studies ISO actually peaks around age 25.

          • Andrew

            I am aware of the finding, but I am not sure what you are suggesting?

      • emjayinTN

        “Walker is a big time value” – I agree wholeheartedly. Are we still assigning a $5.5 mil value for every point of WAR? Total WAR 2010 thru 2013 for Walker is 9.7 which is a little north of $50 mil in value, and during that period we have paid him a total of $4.7 mil. Those are the WAR numbers from fangraphs which include offensive and defensive evaluations, and do not distinguish whether he batted L or R. And, his value to the Pirates is not only measured by the stats alone. A Local kid, who worked his way up the hard way through the minors, had Maz working with him to make the transition to 2B from 3B, and no remembrance of Clemente is complete without a reference to Neil’s father. It’s a helluva PR package from which the Pirates have benefitted greatly, and we are considering whether to extend the kid?

      • Cato the Elder

        Right, the consistent wOBA is another clue that the increase in ISO was directly tied to the decrease in BABIP (and/or BA). Flyballs have a lower BABIP than do groundballs, but Flyballs also have a greater expectancy of extra base hits, so I player that swaps 5% of ground balls for flyballs (like Walker did last year) should expect to see an increase in isolated slugging, and a drop in BABIP. And I guess what I am saying is that there is little reason to anticipate a better batting average on balls in play if he continues to hit flyballs to groundballs at an equal rate and similarly their is little reason to expect to see him maintain his ISO if he goes back to a 1.26 FB/GB, especially since that increase in isolated slugging was not accompanied by in increase in average flyball distance, so it is as if he got stronger all of the sudden and warning track flyouts were turning into homeruns (in fact his HR/FB went down from 11.2 to 10.6).

  • https://www.facebook.com/bruce.humbert Bruce Humbert

    I actually hope they can get Walker to try going full time left-handed in spring training – if not I am hoping that the Pirates use Josh Harrison more against lefties.

    I really think he would fare better batting consistently down in the order – maybe full-time #8…

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

    My opinion is if they have money earmaked for AJ Burnett and he does retire or signs elsewhere, they should look to use that money to front load an extension on Walker. If they give him more money up front they can lessen some of the financial risk in the latter years of a deal. If his play does decline at age 30 they aren’t saddled with an albatross of a contact. $8 million for a 1.5 WAR player would be a whole lot better than $12 million for a 1.5 WAR player in 2017. Also helps make the player more tradable down the road.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

    Terrific article, Tim. Good discussion from the crew. The comments are just as much fun as the article today. (Tim scores a walk off double.)

    I would add only this to the estimable posits above: PRNW has been a steady major league baseball player. Given injury, I would bet some of his numbers have been slightly depressed. Still, nobody is considering the KIND of professional he is. So here goes…

    I think the man loves his team and his city and is one of those rare (extinct?) guys who could play his entire career in one place. He appears to me to be the kind of player – sort of like Cutch’s approach – who constantly is trying to hone his game. Don’t think he doesn’t know he can’t hit lefties. I would think his off season regimen would have something to do with this obvious hole in his game.

    And if he puts up this year, I think it makes sense to extend him. He needs to show he’s not in a decline. Further, he needs to show he’s capable against lefties. I think there is merit to the argument he could flip to third and first in the coming year and be at least major league average at those spots as a fall back.

    Steady Eddy wins the race. And I think Neil Walker is that guy.

    Best to all. Your conversation this morning has made my winter morning very, very acceptable.

    -Wabbit

  • Deuce999

    Maybe it time for a First baseman glove for Neil walker?? Hansen a true shortstop. Mercer fills in better at second base, and we all know if your not going to get Alvarez to commit to a viable contract you might want at least at bat that is close to compare able to pedro