Pittsburgh Pirates Positive Regression Candidates: Neil Walker

Regression is a funny word. It has developed a negative connotation, probably because it is most often used to describe players who are over-performing their advanced metrics, and who are expected to regress down to their expected performance levels. But regression can work both ways. It can be the usual decline in numbers, but it can also talk about a potential improvement in numbers.

Last year we spent a lot of time talking about “regression” when it came to Jeff Locke, and we’ve taken the same approach on this site whenever any pitcher has a BABIP, strand rate, and/or HR/FB ratio that suggests he won’t continue putting up strong numbers. So it’s only fair to point out regression in the other sense, when a player is under-performing his numbers.

The problem with this kind of regression is that it comes with the fear that there could be something behind the numbers leading to the poor performance. If a pitcher is out performing his advanced metrics, people don’t question it. In fact, in my experience, people revolt when you do question it, and start the usual “maybe he has figured something out” bargaining to explain why the player is over-performing. It’s similar with the good regression. The bargaining for the bad regression involves something the player is doing beyond the numbers. The bargaining for the good regression is the same — wondering if the player is doing something wrong to lead to these issues.

As I look at the offense for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I see a lot of good regression candidates. Some of those candidates are prime for some serious regression, based on their BABIP. If you’re unfamiliar, BABIP stands for batting average per balls in play. It measures the percentage of balls hit into play that drop in for hits when you exclude home runs. For pitchers, the expected rate is .290-.300. For hitters, the rate isn’t limited to .300, but usually a hitter will stay in the same range throughout his career. So if a hitter has a .340 BABIP, that’s not considered lucky because it’s above .300, as long as the hitter has shown a tendency to consistently put up this BABIP over his career.

I thought about writing all of these players up in an individual article. Then I started analyzing the first player, and the article ended up over 1100 words. So I decided to split these up and release one per day. It’s easier for you to read them in shorter articles that are spread out throughout the week, and I don’t have to write an entire novel in one day. The first player we’ll look at is Neil Walker.

Neil Walker

Currently, Walker has a .217 BABIP. His career line in the majors, in over 2300 plate appearances, is .308. He’s hitting for a .235/.291/.431 line in 111 plate appearances this year.

There are some positives here, with the big positive being his power production. Walker has a .196 ISO, which is an improvement on his .167 mark last year, and represents a career best. His line drive percentage has dropped, although he’s not seeing an increase in ground balls, but instead is seeing an increase in fly balls. His strikeout rate has also dropped to 11.7% — another career best — but his walk rate has taken a fall to 5.4%, after climbing every year in his career and finishing at 9.1% last year.

So what does this tell us? A big reason for the drop in BABIP would be the movement from line drives to fly balls. In terms of BABIP, a line drive has the best chance of dropping in for a hit, while a fly ball has the worst chance of dropping in for a hit (especially when you exclude home runs). While this is likely part of the result of Walker’s low BABIP, I don’t think it’s something to worry about.

Walker currently has 16 line drives and 39 fly balls. If just four of those fly balls went for line drives, this his ratios would be normal. That doesn’t suggest that he’s forgotten how to hit line drives. It’s just a small sample size issue. That’s part of Walker’s low BABIP, although his BABIP on each hit type is lower than his career norms.

Hit Type

Career

2014

Difference

Grounders

0.248

0.206

-0.042

Fly Balls

0.133

0.061

-0.072

Line Drives

0.668

0.563

-0.105

The increase in his isolated power might indicate that he’s hitting the ball harder, but a look to his advanced metrics shows that he has a 15.4% HR/FB ratio, which is above his 9.4% career rate. This means he’s getting a bit lucky with fly balls leaving the yard. His career numbers say that he should have four home runs right now, and not six. Four of his home runs this year have come in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, which are both home run friendly parks. So that explains the above average rate, and shows that this isn’t an indication that he’s somehow hitting the ball harder.

The encouraging thing with Walker is his strikeout rate. The drop indicates that he is doing a better job of making contact. A look at his contact rates confirms this. Walker is making contact with 88.3% of pitches that he swings at, up from 83.2% in his career. He also has 5.7% swinging strikes, down from 7.5% in his career. The strange thing with the lack of walks is that he has actually slightly reduced his percentage of swinging at pitches outside of the zone.

Walker is doing a better job so far of making contact, and laying off pitches out of the zone. This has led to a lower strikeout rate, and should eventually lead to a better walk rate. I’d expect his BABIP to rise, as I think the decrease in line drives and the increase in fly balls is a sample size issue.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing here is in Walker’s splits. Traditionally, Walker does well against right-handers, and struggles against lefties. In his career, he has a .791 OPS against right-handers, and a .669 OPS against lefties. Last year he had an .805/.518 split. So far this year he is dominating left-handers with a 1.083 OPS. That’s a very small sample of 22 plate appearances. Against right-handers, he has a .656 OPS in 89 plate appearances. That’s where the improvement should come from, as I don’t think Walker has completely forgotten to hit right-handers. On the flip side, I wouldn’t say he has figured out lefties in such a small sample size.

Walker seems like a good regression candidate, with the ability to bounce back from his current hitting woes. I chalk the poor BABIP up to bad luck in a small sample size, rather than something that might be wrong with him. His improved contact skills further support this theory, as it shows improvement with his approach at the plate.

The overall difference? If Walker would have been hitting for his career BABIP, rather than the .217 mark this year, he would have an additional eight hits on the season, which is almost one month old. If all of those were singles, and using Walker’s current BB% and ISO, he would have a .314/.360/.510 line. I don’t think he will have that going forward, since I expect the home run totals to regress. However, I could see him putting up an OPS over .800 the rest of the year if his improved contact skills stick around, and that’s a feat he hasn’t reached since 2010.

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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  • http://www.acme-tv.com LongJohnSilver

    By definition, regression means to go back or to a less perfect state. So maybe we should call it reversion which is defined as returning to an earlier state :)

  • lfhlaw

    I think also having his back being healthier and not so problematic as last year has to help too. With Back pain, i doubt you could swing through the torso region with the bat and hit with authority when it’s bothering you. Yes you can still play, but I would guess it would sap a bit of power. so possibly just being healthier is helping him this year.

  • leadoff

    IMO, a manager can change those numbers if he wants to. The Reds manager moves a guy from the 3 hole to the 2 hole and the team adds a run a game to their stats. Another manager moves a guy into the 4 hole that cannot hit in the 4 hole and his team and that player flounders, so the present regression stats IMO can only apply if everything stays the same. The 4 hole hitter I am talking about (Alvarez) is a much better hitter in the 6 or 7 hole, therefore his numbers would change IMO with a lineup switch. They could also change their Philosophy with Marte and just let him swing at the first pitch and quit worrying about getting walks, instead of getting walks, he gets into the 2 strike hole and he strikes out, he needs to do what the Brewers do with Gomez, let him go up their hacking and forget he is the leadoff hitter and Marte’s numbers would change a lot IMO.

    • S Brooks

      Yeah, the current plan Marte is carrying to the plate clearly isn’t working. He’s all but spotting pitchers an 0-2 or 1-2 count, and for a guy who already has a fair bit of swing and miss in his game (highest swinging strike % of any regular on the team), that’s not a great strategy. Seems to me it’s not worth the extra walks he’s getting, and he just doesn’t look natural up there.

      • bucsws2014

        Then again, maybe Marte just isn’t very good.

        • S Brooks

          Do you really think that’s the case? I think it’s possible he won’t break out and that what we saw last year is the ceiling, but to suggest he isn’t very good – how do you explain the numbers he posted last year?

          • piraddict

            Marte’s good. He just isn’t a leadoff hitter. Bat him 5th or 6th and give him a green light to swing at whatever pitch he likes and he’ll hit .290+, though maybe only a .325 OBP. He is a great guy to hit down in the order, driving in runs. Think Marlon Byrd with speed.

            • S Brooks

              Couldn’t agree more. Now that said, moving Marte down in the lineup still leaves a hole at #2, but I maintain faith in Walker. Your opening day 2015 lineup: 1. Polanco 2. Walker 3. Cutch 4. Davis 5. Marte 6. Alvarez 7. Sanchez 8. Mercer, with the potential for Allie and Hanson waiting in the wings.

              • AwakenedAngryAmerican

                I don’t see Polanco as a leadoff hitter. I say for management to get out of Marte’s head and let him swing at first pitch strikes. I’m sure he will lay off of the first pitch if not in the strike zone. The good ones usually do The great ones always do.

  • piraddict

    Great article Tim, love the analytical approach.