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.

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, 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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