Rookie Review: Neil Walker

One great thing about having a team that’s predominantly made up of young players is that sometimes, they actually manage to surprise you. Neil Walker’s rise from afterthought to defensive whiz to productive everyday big leaguer has been well-chronicled here (and everywhere) and it was truly one of 2010′s most pleasant surprises. Of course, the problem is that Walker’s break through only helped the Pirates to 57 wins. That means that any review of his rookie season needs to focus more on what he’s capable of doing down the road and not what he did in 2010.

So what do we know about Neil Walker? Mostly we all think of his minor league career in terms of the wall he hit when he got promoted to Triple-A in 2007/2008, but there’s a bit more depth to his minor league career than that. Consider his career before his first full year in Triple-A:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2004 18 Pirates GULF Rk 52 208 192 28 52 12 3 4 20 3 1 10 33 .271 .313 .427 .740 82
2004 18 Williamsport NYPL A- 8 36 33 2 10 3 0 0 7 1 2 2 1 .303 .333 .394 .727 13
2005 19 Hickory SALL A 120 518 485 78 146 33 2 12 68 7 4 20 71 .301 .332 .452 .784 219
2005 19 Lynchburg CARL A+ 9 45 42 4 11 2 1 0 12 0 0 0 12 .262 .244 .357 .602 15
2006 20 Lynchburg CARL A+ 72 294 264 32 75 22 1 3 35 3 5 19 41 .284 .345 .409 .754 108
2006 20 Altoona EL AA 10 32 31 5 5 0 0 2 3 0 0 1 4 .161 .188 .355 .542 11
2007 21 Altoona EL AA 117 490 431 77 124 30 3 13 66 9 4 53 73 .288 .362 .462 .824 199
2007 21 Indianapolis IL AAA 19 69 64 7 13 3 0 0 0 1 1 2 13 .203 .261 .250 .511 16
AA (2 seasons) 127 522 462 82 129 30 3 15 69 9 4 54 77 .279 .351 .455 .806 210
Rk (2 seasons) 60 240 222 30 57 14 3 5 21 3 2 11 38 .257 .300 .414 .714 92
A+ (2 seasons) 81 339 306 36 86 24 2 3 47 3 5 19 53 .281 .331 .402 .733 123
A (1 season) 120 518 485 78 146 33 2 12 68 7 4 20 71 .301 .332 .452 .784 219
A- (1 season) 8 36 33 2 10 3 0 0 7 1 2 2 1 .303 .333 .394 .727 13
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/4/2010.

That’s really not so bad, is it? His 2005 season in Hickory was solid for a kid fresh out of high school, he wasn’t bad with Lynchburg in 2006, and his 2007 season with Altoona actually kind of looks like what he did in Pittsburgh this year. Walker’s biggest problem when he got to Indianapolis in 2008 was that he seemed to lose his plate discipline entirely. After a 10.9% walk rate with Altoona in 2007, his walks got more than in half in Indy to a 5.3% clip and only came up to a 6.7% clip in 2009. Given that he wasn’t exactly prolific at drawing walks in the low minors, his terribly low on-base percentages seemed like a really bad sign:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2008 22 Indianapolis IL AAA 133 550 505 69 122 25 7 16 80 10 6 29 102 .242 .280 .414 .694 209
2009 23 Pirates GULF Rk 8 32 30 2 5 2 0 1 1 0 1 1 5 .167 .219 .333 .552 10
2009 23 Indianapolis IL AAA 95 390 356 38 94 31 2 14 69 5 2 26 60 .264 .311 .480 .791 171
2010 24 Indianapolis IL AAA 43 189 168 25 54 18 2 6 26 10 1 19 31 .321 .392 .560 .951 94
7 Seasons 686 2853 2601 367 711 181 21 71 387 49 27 182 446 .273 .322 .441 .763 1147
AAA (4 seasons) 290 1198 1093 139 283 77 11 36 175 26 10 76 206 .259 .307 .448 .755 490
AA (2 seasons) 127 522 462 82 129 30 3 15 69 9 4 54 77 .279 .351 .455 .806 210
Rk (2 seasons) 60 240 222 30 57 14 3 5 21 3 2 11 38 .257 .300 .414 .714 92
A+ (2 seasons) 81 339 306 36 86 24 2 3 47 3 5 19 53 .281 .331 .402 .733 123
A (1 season) 120 518 485 78 146 33 2 12 68 7 4 20 71 .301 .332 .452 .784 219
A- (1 season) 8 36 33 2 10 3 0 0 7 1 2 2 1 .303 .333 .394 .727 13
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/4/2010.

With 2008 and 2009 giving context to 2005-2007, Walker’s strikeout rate is worrisome when combined with his ugly walk rate everywhere but Altoona. There was one bit of good news buried in Walker’s struggles in Indy, though. His power actually improved. His isolated power in Altoona in 2007 was .176. With Indy in 2008 it was .172 and back with them in 2009 it was .216.

I think that’s a pretty good indication that all of the extra base hits we saw from Walker in 2010 (29 doubles, three triples, 12 homers in 110 games) are more or less the sort of power he can have as a big leaguer. Driving the ball has never been a problem for Walker, not even when he was struggling with Indianapolis. The problem for him is making enough contact to drive the ball regularly.

The good news is that Walker’s walk rate improved quite a bit in his short stint with Indianapolis this year (10.1%), and his patience generally improved throughout the season in Pittsburgh, to the point that even though his BABIP plummeted in September, his production only saw a slight downturn (Matt at PLC wrote quite a bit about this this year). He seems like he’s pretty clearly past the rut he got stuck in while he was in Indianapolis, so the question that remains is just how far past it he is.

It’s an important question because Walker’s defense didn’t grade out terribly well at second base this year. The Pirates seem convinced he can handle the position (and it’d be great for the club in the long-term if he can, assuming they draft Anthony Rendon). I think Walker can hit well enough to play second (say .750-.800 OPS), but I’m not sure he can replicate his 2010 line every year to be an every day third baseman. I’ve obviously been wrong about Walker in the past, though, and he’s still young enough to be getting better. It’s hard to get a read on him because of how far he fell off the path in 2008 and 2009, but we should have a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of as 2011 wears on.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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