The Situation: Neil Walker(notes) was one of the best rookies in the National League last year and it ended up landing him in a controversy over the Rookie of the Year vote. To recap: Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovacevic gave his first-place vote to eventual winner Buster Posey(notes), then snubbed Jason Heyward(notes) by giving his second- and third-place votes to Neil Walker and Jose Tabata(notes) of the Pirates, neither of whom received any other votes that high. Kovacevic explained that he was just trying to draw attention to Walker and Tabata and in another year, he might have gotten away with it. But Posey and Heyward were historically awesome rookies and the race was too tight for such a tactic to go unnoticed.
The sneering over Kovacevic's ploy is unfortunate, because Walker really did have a great year. His glove was fairly suspect, but that's unsurprising for a catcher-turned-third baseman who had never played second base in his professional career before 2010. But he was a top-10 hitter at his position, despite only playing 110 games. The Bucs have a lot of question marks in their lineup, but along with young stars Pedro Alvarez(notes) and Andrew McCutchen(notes), Walker is about as close to a cornerstone as Pittsburgh possesses.
The Analysis: In many ways, Walker is already a success story: A Pittsburgh native, he struggled in the minor leagues before breaking out in Triple-A in 2010, pushing his way to the major leagues, and keeping a hot bat the rest of the year. But his glove was below average and, as John Sickels pointed out in September, he had two offensive red flags in 2010: an "unattractive BB/K ratio of 24/76, and a high BABIP." (He ended the year with a 34/83 BB/K ratio and a .340 BABIP; his minor league BABIP was .302.)
After hitting .273/.322/.441 in 686 games in over 2,800 plate appearances in the minors, his .296/.349/.462 rookie mark was a very pleasant surprise, though the batting average was undoubtedly boosted by the unsustainably high BABIP that Sickels mentions.
If he can become a league-average defender and keep producing an .800 OPS, he'll be one of the better second basemen in the game. But if he remains as bad a fielder as he was last year, and he's unable to keep hitting at that rate because of his inability to walk and over-reliance on a high BABIP, he'll be more like the fringy non-prospect that he was in the minors from 2004 to 2009. That's a pretty wide gap between best-case and worst-case scenario. In order to assess Neil Walker's likelihood of building on his terrific 2010, I'll analyze his background, offense and defense, then look at his projections for 2011 from the Bill James Handbook and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS.
Background: Neil Walker has a baseball bloodline and pedigree: His father Tom Walker went 18-23 in six seasons as a reliever in the '70s, and Neil was drafted with the 11th overall pick of the 2004 amateur draft out of Pine-Richland High School, 15 miles north of Pittsburgh's PNC Park. He was a two-sport star in high school who passed up an opportunity to play football at Clemson to sign with his hometown baseball team. But he had a long road through the minors, reaching Triple-A for the first time in 2007 at the age of 21, but seemed to stall at that level, struggling there over the next two years. After the team drafted third baseman Pedro Alvarez with the second overall pick in 2008, it became clear that the team would not have an opening at third base any time soon, and Walker showed rumblings of frustration in 2009, saying, "This just might not be the place for me." After he switched to second base in 2010, though, everything finally clicked, and he won the major league job from the ineffective Akinori Iwamura in May.
Offense: Walker always had good power in the minors, as evidenced by his .168 minor league isolated power (ISO), which is above average for a third baseman and very good for a middle infielder. (Last year, major league 3B had an average ISO of .155, and major league 2B had an average ISO of .124.) His ISO in the majors last year was .167, virtually identical to the minor league rate. But his walks and strikeouts both increased. He struck out in 17.7 percent of his major league plate appearances, after striking out in 15.6 percent of plate appearances in the minors. After walking in just 6.4 percent of his minor league plate appearances, he walked in 7.3 percent of his major league plate appearances last year — still below average for a major league hitter, but a good step in the right direction. The increases in both were proportional, so his overall walk-to-strikeout ratio remained virtually unchanged from the minors to the majors. His ability to increase his walks while keeping his power constant (and learning an entirely new defensive position) is a good sign for the future, but an eye should be kept on his increased strikeouts. A 17.7 percent rate is fine for a power hitter, but power hitters need to walk more than Neil Walker currently does.
Defense: Can he stick at second? The advanced defensive stats uniformly pan his performance in 2010, but that's understandable considering that he'd never played second before, and Fangraphs' R.J. Anderson notes that he actually "excelled" at turning the double play. Charlie Wilmoth of SBNation isn't so sure:
Still, athletic might be enough. No one expects Walker to turn into a Gold Glover. Because his bat is so above-average for his position, it would be fine if he maintained a merely below-average glove. As long as he isn't atrocious, the Pirates will be willing to carry him at second. He was pretty close to atrocious in 2010, though, so definite improvement will be necessary, or he may need to make the third position change of his career.
I don't think Walker's poor defense at second this year was the result of his not understanding the position, but of him not quite having enough range. Walker is athletic, but he isn't fast.
Projections: Both Bill James and ZiPS believe that Walker will revert to his established minor league levels of on-base and slugging, rather than repeating or improving on his rookie numbers, and their projections are very close to one another. Bill James predicts a line of .270/.324/.438, with 16 homers, 73 RBIs, and 44 walks in 154 games; ZiPS predicts .271/.321/.453, with 18 homers, 94 RBIs, and 43 walks in 154 games. That would be very good for a full-time second baseman. Only seven second basemen produced a .750 OPS in 2010, and two of them, Dan Uggla(notes) and Martin Prado(notes), graded as below-average fielders like Walker. (Prado moved to left field this offseason to accommodate Uggla, the newest addition to Atlanta's lineup.) So, as I wrote above, Walker doesn't have to turn into a Gold Glover. He just needs to field as well as Dan Uggla.
The Forecast for 2011: James and ZiPS are remarkably consistent on Neil Walker, and their projection looks very plausible. The lower batting average accounts for Walker's unsustainably high BABIP in 2010, and the power is consistent with his major and minor league performance. So I agree with their predictions. Assuming he stays healthy, the second base job is his to lose, and if he plays 150 games he'll hit somewhere around .270/.325/.445, with homers in the teens. After all, he's already 25, older than most sophomores, and entering his offensive prime. The wild card in all of this, and the only thing that could keep him from being a top-10 second baseman would be his glove. With his athleticism — which made him one of the best high school quarterbacks in the state, and prompted the Pirates to believe that he could handle two separate position changes, he is a good bet to improve at his position. And if he can settle in as a solidly below-average second baseman, then he will be one of the best second basemen in the league. The bat is there already. He may not have been one of the best two rookies in the league in 2010, but he could be one of the better middle infielders in the league in the coming years.
Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?, Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?, Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?, Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?
- Neil Walker