Around this time last year, Neil Walker was making his debut with the Pirates as a September call-up after a scorching-hot August in which he finally resembled the prospect that Pirate fans all thought he was in 2006. I wasn’t terribly impressed with him then and he didn’t do much in his limited chance that fall to change my mind about him. He hit just .194/.275/.222 in 40 plate appearances with the Bucs in September and I remember wondering at the time if we’d ever see him again.
Just a few months later I was in Bradenton, though, and watching his defense at third base made me start to reconsider him just a bit. He was pretty clearly at home in a position he’d just started playing a year earlier and his defense stood out in exactly the way things tend to not stand out at all in spring training games. He was trying to impress people and though I doubt I made the list of people he was trying to impress, I started to wonder if maybe he could make a career out of being a utility guy with a decent bat and an excellent glove.
He went back down to Indianapolis after spring training and for the first time since his promotion to Triple-A in 2007, he really started to light the International League up. By mid-May, I thought it was time to give him another shot with the Pirates and see what he could do with an extended chance rather than a handful of appearances limited mostly to pinch hitting. That was mostly because Aki Iwamura and Andy LaRoche obviously weren’t working out with the Bucs, but Walker obviously had things to work out last September and it was clear from spring training and his time with Indy that he’d been working on them.
Since then, he’s been excellent. After another big game last night, he’s hitting .312//353/.496. He’s got 105 hits and 39 of them (26 doubles, three triples, 10 homers) have been for extra bases. He’s been even hotter over the last two weeks, going .404/.424/.825 with seven of his doubles and half of his homers. He’s starting to get some Rookie of the Year attention, though I doubt he’s got much of a chance to win given that he won’t play in 120 games and he’s a Pirate. FanGraphs took a look at his season last night and pointed out that while he’s been great, his ugly strikeout/walk numbers mean that he’s got to sustain his .372 BABIP to continue being a very good hitter instead of a good or average one.
That’s something that’s important to keep in mind; I’ve pointed out again and again that his career minor league OBP is .322 and his career Triple-A OBP was .307. He’s young and he’s athletic and he’s obviously made some adjustments so that means that we shouldn’t completely count out his surge this year as fluky. Young players do get better, so I think the best question for Pirate fans is why he’s found so much success this year as opposed to his struggles in the high minors.
The answer turns out to be an easy one: his line drive rate is through the roof. In Indianapolis in 2008, his LD% with Indianapolis was 20.4%. In 2009 it was 18.5%. This year with the Pirates, it’s 24.2%. He’s also hit just three of his 107 flyballs in the infield, which would give him one of the best IFFB% in baseball, if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Still, using the Hardball Times’ xBABIP calculator to estimate his BABIP from line drives, fly balls, ground balls, and pop-ups, he’s still out performing his line a bit. His batted ball data suggests his BABIP should be around .320 and not up above .370 where it is now.
In a lot of ways, Walker’s season this year reminds me of Freddy Sanchez’s breakout in late 2005/2006. Sanchez has never drawn a ton of walks in the majors, but after struggling a bit early in his career Sanchez started lining the ball all over the park in 2006. 27.5% of his balls in play were line drives the year he won the batting title, which let him hit .368 on balls in play. He never quite matched that rate again, and that’s why he only won one batting title. This year his LD% is down to 21.3% and he’s not a very good hitter at all.
The good news is that Walker is only 24 this year, whereas Sanchez was 28 when he broke out and so there’s still room for improvement in a lot of aspects of his game. So even if Walker’s BABIP regresses back a bit next year, he could improve his patience a bit (his walk rate at Triple-A was seemingly improving a bit this year before his call-up though the sample was small and it was his third go-round in the IL) to even things out. Or he could develop some more power to make up for the high strikeout numbers. He might not do either, of course, and turn into another Pirate disappointment, but he’s come a long ways in the last 12 months and I’ve learned better than to write him off.