In this next installment of The State of the Pirates I turn to Neil Walker, who now has the most plate appearances on the team. Walker is a contentious topic for Pirates fans. Many people tend to overrate Walker because he is from Pittsburgh. On the other hand, I think that this often leads to him being overly criticized by the more statistically oriented Pirates fans. I will try here to strip that away by looking at the numbers.
General Offensive Stats
2012: Plate Appearances: 229; Slash Line: .275/.329/.367; wOBA: .311; wRC+: 94; Steals/Caught Stealing: 5/0; Home Runs: 3; Runs: 18; RBIs: 24; Wins Above Replacement: 1.0
2011: PAs: 596; Slash: .273/.334/.408; wOBA: .322; wRC+: 103; S/CS: 9/6; HR: 12; R: 76; RBI: 83; WAR: 3.0
Career: PAs: 1400; Slash: .279/.336/.414; wOBA: 328; wRC+: 104; S/CS: 17/9; HR: 27; R: 156; RBI: 173; WAR: 5.6
A few things stand out for Walker here. On the positive side, Walker has become a good second baseman. He has hit at around a league average clip every year that he has been an every day player and has improved his defense to the point where the metrics (and my eye test) say that he is an average defensive second baseman. Also, he is extremely dependable, missing very little time to injury. This makes him a slightly above average second baseman
Unfortunately for Walker, this is also more or less what he was when he was called up for good a couple of years ago. In fact, his offensive numbers have gone in the wrong direction every year. Considering that Walker is supposed to be a young player who will improve, this is troubling. Especially concerning is the erosion of Walker’s power. Over the last three years his slugging percentage has gone from .462 to .408 to .367. In order to improve, Walker needs to regain his power stroke to accompany his improved defense.
2012: Walk Rate: 7.9%; Strikeout Rate: 19.7%; Walk to Strikeout Ratio: 0.40; O-Swing %: 31.6%; Z-Swing %: 63.9%; Swing %: 45.1%; O-Contact %: 68.4%; Z-Contact %: 93.8%; Contact %: 83.4%; Zone %: 41.8%
2011: BB%: 8.2%; K%: 16.9%; BB/K: 0.48; O-Swing %: 31.1%; Z-Swing %: 65.0%; Swing %: 45.6%; O-Contact %: 78.9%; Z-Contact %: 93.8%; Contact %: 83.4%; Zone %:42.9%
Career: BB%: 7.9%; K%: 17.9%; BB/K: 0.44; O-Swing %: 30.1%; Z-Swing %: 65.4%; Swing %: 45.5%; O-Contact %: 74.6%; Z-Contact %: 90.0%; Contact %: 84.2%; Zone %: 43.6%
Nothing here really stands out to me. Walker is striking out a little more than he has in the past, but all of his underlying numbers are almost identical to what he did the last few years. There is nothing here that I think is a possible explanation for his recent lack of power. Walker’s plate discipline and approach is essentially the same as it was when he entered the league. While it would be nice to see some improvement, his approach is certainly not a problem. Walking in around 8% of plate appearances while striking out slightly less than 20% of the time works for a lot of hitters, especially if they add power.
Batted Ball Profile
2012: Batting Average on Balls in Play: .335; Isolated Power: .090; Line Drive %: 24.5%; Ground Ball %: 42.9%; Fly Ball %: 32.5%; Infield Fly Ball %: 9.4%; Home Runs per Fly Ball: 5.7%; Infield Hit %: 4.3%
2011: BABIP: .315; ISO: .134; LD%: 21.2%; GB%: 43.9%; FB%: 34.9%; IFFB%: 6.4%; HR/FB: 7.0; IFH%: 4.7%
Career: BABIP: .326; ISO: .135; LD%: 22.0%; GB%: 40.9%; FB%: 37%; IFFB%: 5.8%; HR/FB: 7.1%; IFH%:4.8%
Three main things about Walker’s batted ball numbers jump out at me; two of them worry me and one is encouraging. The first thing that worries me is Walker’s consistently decreasing isolated power. I’ve mentioned Walker’s power production a lot, but that’s because that’s where I see an improvement coming from. In his rookie year, his isolated power was .167. Last year, it was .134. This year, it is (or was when I started this piece) .090. This suggests that something has changed for Walker that has resulted in decreased power. The second number that disturbs me is that Walker is hitting a lot more infield fly balls than he has in the past. This not only means that these at bats are ending in outs, but also suggests that he is missing the ball, getting under it and popping up.
What gives me hope, and contradicts the argument that Walker is just missing the ball, is that Walker’s line drive percentage is significantly higher this year than it was last year. This means that he has been making really good contact with the ball. If he maintains his line drive percentage, his high BABIP could also be sustainable, which would be great for Walker.
2012: Stolen Bases: 5; Caught Stealing: 0; Ultimate Base Running: 0.6
2011: SB: 9; CS: 6 ; UBR: 3.2
Career: SB: 17; CS: 9; UBR: 3.9
Walker is not exactly a speedster. Prior to this year, he stole bases at a rate that does not justify a large number of attempts. This year however, he has not been caught once. If Walker can continue this, then it would add another dimension to his value. However, I would be surprised if he continued to steal at a very high rate.
That said, Walker does add value on the basepaths outside of stealing bases. He does not do so at an elite level, but adding between two and three runs on the bases is very good. Walker adds a pleasantly surprising amount of value on the basepaths.
2012: Ultimate Zone Rating: 0.6; Defensive Runs Saved: 1; Fans Scouting Report: N/A
2011: UZR: -3.2; DRS: -3; FSR: -3
Career: UZR: -13.4; DRS: -10; FSR: -4
Walker’s defensive metrics all essentially agree on Walker’s defensive performance. They indicate that when he started playing second base in 2010 he was very poor defensively. This makes sense, given that Walker was learning the position that year. They also agree that he has gotten markedly better since then. While this year’s numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt because of the small sample size, it seems likely that Walker still has room to improve defensively. He has only played the position for two and a half years and his athleticism was always touted as a prospect. Additionally, I think that most people who watch him can see the improvement in the field. Therefore I think that he will be an average defensive second baseman at the very least, with the potential to become above average in the field.
Neil Walker is a league average second baseman. Obviously the Pirates would love to have a league average second baseman for the foreseeable future. That being said, if Walker doesn’t amount to more, I will be disappointed. In his first season (not counting his cup of coffee) he produced offense significantly better than the average hitter. With room to grow defensively at second base and more time in the majors, it was conceivable that he could turn into a great player at the keystone. Instead, his offense has fallen off to the league average, which has made him an average player with his improved defense. If Walker can rediscover his power stroke, he will become a very good player for the Pirates going forward. If he can’t, he will be an average second baseman. He would be a good player, but I think that it’s fair to hope for more.
The statistics may be dated, as I started this piece a while ago. All statistics found at fangraphs.com.