Part two in the loosely affiliated series of posts that anticipate what I think are the most important issues in the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates’ season.
There is no baseball player in Pittsburgh that’s as consistently mis-evaluated as Neil Walker. Walker is The Pittsburgh Kid, of course, and as a result there’s a huge portion of the Pirate fanbase that see his RBI numbers and lap up his photo opportunities with Bill Mazeroski every spring and put Walker on a pedestal equal to Andrew McCutchen in the hierarchy of the current Pirates. As a result, there’s a backlash against Walker by some very smart, very vocal Pirate fans that point out all of Walker’s flaws: his low minor league OBPs, his bad second half last year, the way advanced metrics don’t like his defense. It’s hard to even talk about Walker because people often read what they want to read and hear what they want to hear.
Walker’s neither a great nor a bad second baseman. He’s a pretty good, but definitely not great, hitter for the position. His defense was bad in 2010, but it noticeably improved in 2011. That was both something you could see with your eyes and something that was borne out in the metrics. That doesn’t make him a good fielding second baseman, but it makes him a good enough fielding second baseman that he can play the position and be valuable there so long as his bat allows it. He’s 26, which means that he’s young enough that he might still improve but not so young that it’s something that we should necessarily be counting on. If you’re a playoff team and Neil Walker is your starting second baseman, you have no problems at second base. If you’re the Pirates and you’re trying to find complimentary pieces to help Andrew McCutchen, it’s worth trying to figure out exactly what you have in Neil Walker.
There are two aspects of Walker’s 2011 season that concern me. The first is his power outage in the season’s last 110+ games. Walker hit his sixth homer on May 20th, his 43rd game, and was cruising along at a .288/.361/.466 line. He only hit six homers in his 116 games after that, hitting .268/.324/.386. He played in 159 games last year, so it’s hard to ascribe his struggles to an injury. If you want to try, though, I could point out that he did miss a game on June 30th and then didn’t play on July 1st until pinch-hitting late in the game due to the back problems that occasionally plague him. Walker’s two worst months by a decent margin were May and June (he was cruising in May until the 20th, then just basically stopped on a dime and the last ten days tanked his whole month’s totals), so it’s a little tempting to think that maybe his back bugged him and he played through it around that point in the season. I wouldn’t dismiss the thought entirely, though the evidence of that is pretty scant. Post-June, though, Walker hit .298/.347/.434, which is quite solid for a second baseman and much better than his final line for 2011. Of course, we could keep going in circles like this and point out that he wasn’t all that great in August (.260/.336/.385) or September (.268/.301/.433). The main idea, though, is that his season would look much different if he didn’t have those six ugly weeks in May and June, and I think that stands either way.
My other concern about Walker for most of last year was his ability to hit from the right side of the plate. It’s hard to get handedness splits by the month, but I know that on July 12th I mentioned he was hitting just .216/.280/.289 against lefties. That’s obviously abysmal and unacceptable and way, way worse than he was in 2010 from the right side, but he finished up pretty strongly. His final line against left-handed pitching was .269/.322/.350. That’s obviously not great, but it’s a clear improvement on the mid-season numbers, especially when you consider that he only had about 70 plate appearances to pull his line upwards. That’s a good sign from the second half of his season, even if you’re a little discouraged by his August and September performances.
It’s not easy for me to make a solid conclusion as to what all this means for Walker going forward. On one hand, you can say the same thing that I said about Tabata earlier this week: if Walker’s an average hitter, average hitters will have good months and bad months and it can be wishful thinking to say that if he can just eliminate the bad months he’d be a better hitter. On the other hand, those ugly numbers in May and June are pretty atypical of Walker’s short Pirate career to date. Walker was very consistent in 2010 and he was mostly consistent in 2011 beyond those two months. On the third hand, you could say that his consitency in the Majors is the outlier based on his minor league performances. Still, even if you want to say that his struggles in the middle of 2011 were due to his back problems being worse than we knew (and again, it’s not that that’s an unreasonable position but it is one that’s incredibly hard to prove from our vantage point and that makes it a dangerous assumption to make), that’s not good news either because he’s already missed some spring training time and back problems tend to not just up and go away.
For now, there are a few things worth noting. Walker is improving based on where he was in the minors. His Triple-A walk rate was 6.3%; he’s up to 7.9% with the Pirates. His discipline was the weakest part of his game in the minors. That it’s improving (and continuing to improve: he went from 7.2% to 8.2% in 2011) is good news. If you asked me to guess, I’d say that I’m cautiously optimistic that Walker will improve on his 2011 line in 2012 and that I don’t think it’s out of the question that he approaches his 2010 numbers over the course of a full season this year. I think it’s encouraging that his patience improved last year, even if his overall numbers didn’t, and I think it’s at least worth noting that his worst struggles were confined to a small part of the year. That being said, there’s just not enough information here to draw a strong conclusion. It’s certainly possible that the fact that he was terrible in June and not all that great in August or September is a sign that pitchers are figuing him out and he’s going backwards at the plate and it’s not a problem that can be easily solved. I hope that’s not the case, obviously, I just don’t feel like I know enough to say for certain that it isn’t.