NEIL WALKER, SECOND BASEMAN
|Born: September 10, 1985
Height: 6′ 3″
Drafted: 1st Round, 11th Overall, 2004
How Acquired: Draft
High School: Pine-Richland (Gibsonia, PA)
Agent: Doug Schaer & Kevin Christman, Diamond Talent
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|Their top pick in the 2004 draft, Walker was identified early as a target for the Pirates, given their desperate need for hitting prospects. Regarded at the beginning of his senior year in HS as a likely 2nd round pick, he got better and better, moving up quickly as the draft neared, becoming universally regarded as the best available catcher. The Pirates probably would have selected SS Chris Nelson over Walker, but he was taken before their pick. Walker made it up the ladder to AAA without struggling excessively but also without ever really breaking out. The main issue with him from the start was an unwillingness to take pitches. The Pirates put added pressure on his hitting ability by switching him from catcher to third when he reached AA. At that point, they’d had some reservations about his defense behind the plate, but given his age, which was generally young for the levels he was at, the concerns always seemed premature. He proved to be a good defensive thirdbaseman, but he didn’t adjust well to AAA pitching. In 2010, however, he finally had a breakout season and ended up as the Pirates’ regular secondbaseman. A football star in high school, Walker is a good athlete who has around average speed, so the idea that he’d be able to play several positions isn’t surprising.
Did well in debut in GCL, although the plate discipline issues surfaced from the start. He threw out 22% of base stealers. The Pirates moved him up to Williamsport for eight games at the end of the season.
Had a solid season in his first full year, but his willingness to take pitches quickly became a concern. At one point, he went nearly two months without drawing a walk. He said that he intentionally expanded the strike zone because “nobody walks to the majors,” which should have created some concern about the quality of the coaching he was getting. He had a high PB total (22), but otherwise played reasonably well defensively. He threw out a very good 37% of base stealers. He moved up to Lynchburg for a few late-season games. After the season, he hurt his wrist taking a swing in the Arizona Fall League and had to have surgery.
Returned to action at Lynchburg in May and struggled initially, as the aftermath of the surgery sapped his power, which is typical for hand and wrist injuries. He began to run into doubts about his defensive ability, although the Pirates maintained that he improved defensively while at Lynchburg. The concerns seemed exaggerated, as he threw out 29%, and cut his PB total dramatically to four in 54 games. He again got a brief, late-season promotion.
Moved to third in AA. The move probably was less a product of inadequate defense at catcher than of the desire to get his bat to the majors sooner, as well as the fact that the Pirates had a hole at third and seemingly had some depth behind the plate. He had 25 errors and a .915 fielding percentage at Altoona, which wasn’t alarming considering that it was his first year at third and he was making the transition at a high level of the minors. Walker started off slowly at the plate, but got hot in May, hitting seven HRs, then posted an OPS over 1.000 in June. He stopped hitting then, with only one more HR the rest of the season and an OPS just over .600 in July. He had a significant platoon split, hitting RHPs much better than LHPs. He had easily his best-ever walk and K numbers. Despite the slump, he was promoted to AAA late in the season and struggled there.
In AAA, Walker’s plate discipline regressed badly and he never hit with any consistency all year. He hit for good power in the first half of the season, but otherwise did very poorly, with a dismal .267 OBP at the All-Star break. He got his average up a little after that, but stopped hitting for power. He didn’t have much of a platoon split. He cut his errors to 19 and was voted the top defensive thirdbaseman in the International League.
Continued to struggle at the plate, then missed most of June and half of July with knee problems and a broken finger. By the end of July, he was hitting just .231, but he got hot in August and hit 339/368/578, earning a September callup. Walker created controversy before his strong August by complaining that the team’s new management wasn’t giving opportunities to players drafted under Dave Littlefield. (Evidently, he forgot to check with Andrew McCutchen and Steve Pearce, both Littlefield draftees who were starting in the majors at the time.) Despite the callup, former manager John Russell was clearly unenthused about giving Walker opportunities. Most of his playing time came about because Andy LaRoche got sick.
With Walker still struggling with the strike zone (even in that one hot month at the end of 2009 he continued to exhibit little patience at the plate) and Pedro Alvarez in AAA, Pirates moved Walker off third. The plan was for him to play different positions with the hope that he’d make it as a utility player. Maybe due to the career crisis, he finally started being more selective at the plate, resulting in a breakout season. He played left, second and first, but with Akinori Iwamura struggling badly in Pittsburgh, he eventually began playing second primarily. In late May, the Pirates finally benched Iwamura and promoted Walker. The team expressed hesitation initially about playing Walker regularly, saying he’d be a utility player. Walker, however, played well offensively and adequately defensively from the start, leaving little choice to be made. He eventually took over the #3 spot in the order, roughly equaled Andrew McCutchen as the team’s best hitter and posted a higher OPS than all but five regular secondbasemen in MLB. He also finished tied for fifth in MLB in RBIs after the All-Star break. Initially, he didn’t hit LHPs well, to the point that teams would go to LH relievers against Walker rather than waiting for Garrett Jones and Alvarez, who batted 4th and 5th. He eventually turned things around and finished with only a nine-point difference in OPS between RHPs and LHPs. His plate discipline was marginal. He never looked out of his depth defensively, but his range wasn’t good. Both the UZR and plus/minus systems rated Walker well below average, although a four-month sample size isn’t adequate for those measures. He’d played only 21 games at second prior to reaching the majors, which made any judgments about his defense premature.
Walker had a disappointing season, although his line was still good at secondbase. He started off well, posting an .815 OPS in April, but slumped badly in May and June. His strikeout rate was way up early in the season and he may have adjusted by toning down his swing. He hit more consistently in the second half, but his power was down. In the first half, his ISO was .134 and he hit eight HRs while driving in 59 runs. In the second half, even though he hit better overall, his ISO dropped to .117 and he hit only four HRs while driving in only 24 runs. His K rate, however, dropped from over 20% to under 17%. He had a strong platoon split, hitting .773 against RHPs and .672 against LHPs. Defensively, the stats show him improving from bad to a little below average. He’s very good on plays up the middle, possibly because he has a strong arm, but his range to his left is weak. He committed only six errors and finished second in the NL in fielding percentage.
Walker took a step forward in 2012. He got off to a slow start, with a .647 OPS and just two extra base hits, both doubles, in April, and just a .648 OPS in May. He had a huge month in July, hitting 358/423/674. On August 15, three days after a 5-for-5 game, he dislocated a finger. At that point he was hitting 290/353/452. He came back after a few days, but shortly after that went out with a herniated disc. He played only sporadically in September and was shut down with a week to go. After the finger injury he went just 10-for-52 with one extra base hit, a double. Walker’s K rate increased and he swung at more pitches outside the strike zone, but his power improved and he continued to hit line drives at a high rate, in fact the highest (24%) of his career. One negative in his hitting was his platoon split, as he struggled severely (246/314/288) against LHPs. Defensively, both UZR and +/- show Walker to have improved to about average at second, part of a significant overall improvement in the team’s defense.
Despite a career-low batting average, Walker had a good season at the plate. He improved his plate discipline and had a career-best ISO. Much of that was due to a late-season hot streak in which he hit six HRs in his last nine games. Walker’s struggles with LHPs became more extreme than ever, as he hit a career-worst 225/281/238 against them, with just one extra-base hit, a double, in 80 ABs. Over the last couple months, the Pirates started platooning him at second with Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. Against RHPs he hit a very good 256/350/455. Overall, his 115 OPS+ made him a well above average hitter for his position. Defensively, he continued his steady improvement. UZR showed him to be average, the Fielding Bible’s +/- system to be above average. Walker twice had short stints on the disabled list, in May with a right hand laceration and in July with soreness in his side. For some reason, after getting hit with only nine pitches in his first three seasons, he got hit 15 times, the third most in the NL.
Walker had his best offensive season, increasing his power and becoming the first Pirate secondbaseman to hit 20 HRs. He apparently made a concerted effort to pull the ball more often, although in the process he actually lowered his K rate. He also reworked his right-handed swing, resulting in an improvement to 280/353/374 against LHPs. He had some health issues, missing time in June due to appendicitis and playing sporadically in August due to back tightness. Probably not coincidentally, those were his two worst months, but he bounced back strongly both times. The defensive metrics show Walker to have slipped from about average to below average. As I explained on Starling Marte’s page, though, I have some doubts about all the advanced fielding stats for the Pirates in 2014. On the other hand, given his age, it’s certainly possible that Walker’s range, never his strong suit, has declined.
Walker had a mildly disappointing season, producing a career-low OPS+, although not by a large margin. No one specific thing went wrong. Some of his HRs from the previous year turned back into doubles; he hit slightly fewer line drives and fly balls, and slightly more groundballs; he walked a little less often and struck out a little more often. The Pirates didn’t exactly platoon Walker, but he often sat against LHPs. Only one-sixth of his plate appearances came against them, compared to one-quarter in 2014, although some of that resulted from the Pirates facing remarkably few LHPs. Walker managed only a .575 OPS against LHPs, with no HRs, compared to .793 against RHPs. His defensive range continued to decline and most metrics regard him now as well below average, down from about average in 2012-13. There’s still the problem, though, of the Pirates’ shifts, as defensive metrics don’t account well for shifted defenses, which may skew the Pirates’ defensive stats.
The subject of a contract extension for Walker has been a constant topic in the local media, all the more so because he’s generally the “go-to guy” for quotes for local sportswriters. Walker has made it clear that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, so it’s apparent that that Pirates aren’t interested in an extension. Walker also likely will receive a boost through arbitration to eight figures in salary. Assuming Jung-Ho Kang recovers fully from his knee injury, the Pirates will have multiple options at second in Josh Harrison and Alen Hanson. For all these reasons, it’s generally assumed that Walker won’t return in 2016. It’s doubtful, though, whether the Pirates would trade him just to get rid of him. He still has value; FanGraphs rated him at 2.4 WAR. Whether he leaves will likely depend on whether the Pirates can get commensurate value in a trade. Walker’s still easily an above-average hitter for his position, so he should bring a meaningful return.
2013: $3,300,000 (avoided arbitration)
|Signing Bonus: $1,950,000
MiLB Debut: 2004
MLB Debut: 9/1/2009
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2016
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2008
Options Remaining: 1 (USED: 2009, 2010)
MLB Service Time: 5.166
|June 7, 2004: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 11th overall pick; signed on June 18.
November 20, 2008: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.