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Is Neil Walker becoming a star?


PNC PARK – We know Neil Walker is a consistent, useful player. Walker tallied 2.6 Wins Above Replacement in 2011. He produced 2.6 WAR in 2012. He totaled a 2.7 WAR in 2013. If you examine just that one metric that attempts to boil a player’s ability down to one number, Walker looked like a solid but stagnant player entering his Age 28 season this spring.

But quietly Walker has been improving in some important areas over time, and perhaps those improvements are accelerating in 2014.

*Walker is making more contact. His strikeout rate continues to decline from 19.6 percent in 2012, to 15.4 percent in 2013 to 11.5 percent this season. What’s interesting is this decline is occurring at a time when strikeouts are up considerably throughout the game


(Walker also has two walk-off hits this season … the first two of his career)

*Walker’s zone contact – the amount of times he swings and makes contact with a ball in the strike zone – has improved from 88.6 percent in 2010 to 90.5 percent in 2012 to 93.8 percent early this season. That’s an elite contact rate, ranking 37th in the game this season.

*Not only is Walker making more contact, he’s hitting with more power. His isolated power and home runs have increased every year since 2011 and this year it’s taken an early spike. His isolated power is in slugger territory at .250. Yes, I know it’s early, but Walker has hit as many home runs as the Royals (6).

*It’s early but Walker is hitting .429 as a right-handed hitter. Remember when everyone wanted Walker to give up switch hitting? Well, he went to work on it to shut every one up this offseason.

“I’ve worked on so many different things mechanically over the last several years but the only thing that I worked on this offseason was getting my hands into a little bit better hitting position, similar to my left-handed swing,” Walker said. “That was my focus. I wanted both my sides to be somewhat similar. It makes maintenance easier, understanding what my body is doing, what is going on if things go haywire.”

Oh, he isn’t done.

*Walker has also improved his strike zone judgement. He posted a career-best walk rate last season (9.1 percent). His out-of-zone swing percentage has dropped five points early this season.

Walker has improved as an offensive player in three straight seasons. Perhaps this early spike in 2014 is more, real improvement. And perhaps with more patience, and more power, if it holds, Walker can become a 4-win player. Perhaps Walker is becoming more than Local Boy Done Good. Perhaps he is becoming a legit star.




  1. TJA says:

    And, he has become a pretty darned good 2nd baseman, too. Learned a whole lot from one of the best to play the position – Maz.

  2. NMR says:

    I know you like to pimp your articles, but maybe wait a tad more than 16 PA before taking a victory lap.

    I have as much hope of Walker becoming an average hitter against lefties as I do of Charlie Morton figuring our that changeup.

  3. Jim S. says:

    C’mon, man! I think that is kind of harsh. Travis did preface the righty hitting with “It’s early.” He’s just speculating, which is what we do here. If we waited long enough to have definitive proof about these topics, by that time we wouldn’t be interested in talking about a lot of them any longer.

  4. Jim S. says:

    I wonder if anyone has done a study on whether northern players develop less quickly than southern players because they play less frequently and against lesser competition growing up? I know these travel seasons are endless nowadays for top players, so maybe it is not an issue at all. But, maybe not when Walker was 15/16.

  5. NMR says:

    You’re right, Jim. It’s a pet peeve of mine when writers do this, but I do understand that not everyone reads as much baseball as I do and it is their job to get their work spread around as much as possible.

    Rough morning, shoulda left work at the office and not take it over to the Blog! ;)

    My apologies, Travis.

  6. NMR says:

    I gotta imagine anything he missed out on as a teen has been made up through eight years of pro ball, but I could see some logic in varying degrees of which high schoolers are polished heading into the draft.

    Overall, though, I just don’t think much teaching matters as an amateur, especially out of high school. I bet most organizations would prefer LESS coaching before getting into a pro-style system.

  7. Jim S. says:

    I think you’re right about that. Teams probably have to untrain a lot of stuff out of players once they hit pro organizations.

    I heard Joe Madden last week on MLB Radio trying to delicately explain that dad isn’t always right. He said that it is not good advice to tell a kid to always use two hands when catching the ball, but 99.999999% of youth players are taught to do that on every throw to them. I think he said something like, “Dad isn’t always right about everything in baseball. But, he’s right about everything else.”

  8. mrwirez says:

    I think its a good article.. This early in the season, baseball writers are lost behind the NFL Draft and NHL playoff headlines.

  9. Jim S. says:

    MLB Trade Rumors linked this article in their NL Central section today.

  10. Foo says:

    Nice article, TS.

  11. NMR says:

    Love that quote, Jim!

  12. NMR says:

    Thought it was an interesting show of faith by Clint Hurdle when he briefly placed Walker between Pedro and Davis.

    Absolutely have to have a guy who can hit lefties in that spot late in games.

  13. NorthPirateFan says:

    The short answer is no he’s not. For as long as I’ve lived here Pittsburgh has always suffered from a bit of little big man syndrome when it comes to its fan favorite sports figures … hyping certain ones beyond their actual value and trying to convince everyone they’re “stars.” Neil Walker seems to have always been the recipient of that sort of attention because of his local origins.

    If a player finds looks around and finds half a dozen at his position out producing him year in and year out and another half dozen right on his heels he’s not distinguishing himself enough to be called a star. Neil Walker is a good second baseman, very good perhaps, Andrew McCutchen is a star, they are not in in the same class.

  14. WDE says:

    Clemente was a star, the jury’s still out on

  15. Andrew says:

    Outside last year Neil Walker has always had around a league average OBP against left handing pitching, but he never really brought much power. If you regress his splits you get a regressed performance of .340 wOBA vs RHP, and .312 wOBA vs LHP. League average for 2nd basemen has been .316 wOBA last three season. I am skeptical that Walker can perform at league average vs LHP but of the areas of potential upgrades I think a platoon at 2nd is far down the list.

  16. Jim S. says:

    I respectfully have arrived at a different conclusion on Walker, North. I admit that I could have it wrong because I don’t live there, any more. So, maybe there is much more praise lavished on him than I see on a daily basis in the times I interact with the locals. I do most of that interacting in sites like this. I see a lot of people who seem to downgrade Walker, in part at least, based on where he is from because it is always brought up in a negative light. I read the same “Neil Walker gets way more credit than he deserves simply beause he is from Pittsburgh” comments every week.

    But, I have yet to read anyone saying Neil Walker is a superstar or anywhere near as good as Cutch. No one but a truly uninformed person would say such a thing. But, the fact is that Neil Walker is a good player, and he appears to be improving as a hitter – at least as a lefty hitter.

  17. NorthPirateFan says:

    But that could be part of what you’re missing by not being here any longer. Since Walker’s arrival the conversation locally has always been that he’s part of the young core that needs to be retained … when McCutchen signed his contract there’s wasn’t a single article written about it that failed to call for Walker to be the next candidate for a similar deal … the conversation has always been McCuthen, Alvarez AND Walker as if they’re equal in terms of value to the team. So while few are foolish enough to try and claim outright that Walker is as good as McCutchen the effort to imply it by working him into conversations about the other two is always there.

    TS’s question was, is he becoming a “star” and to me a star is someone who out shines his peers, those on his team and in comparison to the rest of the game and Walker just doesn’t do that. Even if the improvement in the early going this season is for real, there are still a group of five second basemen in the major leagues clearly out performing him, another group of five or six just slight behind … good but not great and not a star outside of the Pittsburgh market.

  18. Steelkings says:

    Uncle SK —9

    1. Anyone concerned yet that the Pirates are 7 behind the Brewers? This team does not hit. The offense provides no margin for error for the pitching staff. That formula simple does not work often. Certainly not two years in a row.

    2. Forbes magazine says that the 2001 Oakland Athletics were the last team to make the playoffs after being 10 back in the division at any point in the season. If the Pirates lose to the Reds today the Cardinals can put them away this weekend. And its only April.

    3. Because I couldn’t spell Ishikawa, I for one am glad he didnt accept the Minor league assignment and said ” see Ya, Pirates. I thought it was an odd career choice though. Where else could he go where the position he covets has such instability? Try and resist the urge to explain to me how Ike Davis is stability.

    4. Gregory went 0-3 with a strike out last night to lower his average to a putrid .403

    5. Want to know whats wrong with the Pirates. This guy ——–> Jeff Branson….Why?
    Walker .247
    Tabata .213
    Slender Gaby .206
    Mercer .196
    Alverez .173
    Barmes .167
    You simply cannot have half of your available offensive roster hitting under .250. You just cant. Not if that is your job.

    6. 24 year old Jacob Daniel Brigham is missing a lot of bats. 20 k’s in indy in 15 innings. Vinny Mazzaro has been in 4 games and has yet to give up a run. Casey Sadler is still throwing it well. 1.67 ERA after 27 innings. On the other hand there is Jeff (Charlie Brown) Locke, who is busy getting beat all over the ball park. 5.70 ERA in 11 innings.

    7. Hey! Guess what former Pirate has the highest BA and is 4th in Dingers, with 5, for 1st basemen in the majors? If you said Justin Morneau, you would be right.

    8. Marlon Byrd update, you ask? He would fit right in with the rest of the Bucco’s. .238 with a Marte like 27 K’s. How bout that AJ Burnett? Last two outings with a sports Hurnia. 14 innings 2 total runs with 10 K’s against the Dodgers and Braves.

    9. Whats our record?, Larry! 9 and 13…..How’d we ever win 9?….. its a miracle!

  19. NMR says:

    1) Forget about the hitting…this team cannot catch and throw the ball right now. Begins and ends with defense.

    2) 2nd Wild Card makes that stat useless.

    9) Sums up my thoughts quite well.

    Keep ‘em comin’, Steel!

  20. NMR says:

    Oh, and as for 3)…Ishikawa stinks. Ishikawa has always stunk.

    File this one in your “Spring Training Stats” and “Hurdleism” memory bank. If the best thing you can say about a guy is some ambiguous statement like “he takes professional at-bats”, then the guy probably stinks.

    Ike Davis also stinks, although he at least has a chance of being a competant platoon guy.

    The guy to watch is Stetson Allie. It’s only been 15 games and 64 PA, but this kid has cut his K-rate by 8% and has already crushed 5 homeruns…all while making the jump to AA.

  21. NorthPirateFan says:

    Wouldn’t it be an interesting contrast of front office competence if Allie becomes even a decent major league hitter. One previous group took one of the best hitting prospects drafted by the team and for no apparent reason destroyed his career by trying to turn him into a pitcher and another takes a struggling pitching prospect and turns him in a hitting prospect.

  22. Andrew says:

    1) MLB team are 51-201 when scoring two or fewer runs, 37-180 when allowing five or more, so niether are good strategies, the Pirates cannot not hit, pitch, or field right now.

    5)Pirates team BABIP .268 worst in the NL, pray for regression.

    6)The bullpen is full of guys without options, so if you call a guy up you had better be sure because it will cost you an arm.

    7)That thin air will do wonders.

    And the Pirates held a player only meeting, so there is that.

  23. Jim S. says:

    A couple of things I noticed, Andrew, are:

    * The Bucs have hit 28 HR, 2nd most in the league. HR don’t count in BABIP. Leading the league in HR would bring down their BABIP just a bit.

    * They have only hit 23 doubles. I assume some of it is that a few balls have gone over the fence that could have been doubles. But, maybe it also means they are not hitting the ball as hard into the gaps, overall? More flyballs, less line drives, maybe? Or, maybe just bad luck.

  24. Jim S. says:

    Stetson seems to be getting more comfortable with a bat in his hands, bit by bit.

  25. NMR says:

    Jim, homeruns do not hurt or help BABIP. Along with walks and strikeouts, they do not factor at all.

  26. Jim S. says:


    Thanks for clarification. I definitely do not have the perspective of someone living in Pittsburgh.

    I’m not advocating that he’s a bona fide star. I think he’s an above average 2b, and he seems to be getting better.

  27. Jim S. says:

    Yeah, I know. I said that. But, they do hurt in that they are positive results (hits) that do not positively affect BABIP. If a HR, which is the best hit you can have, hits the top of the wall, it helps your BABIP. If it goes a foot higher, it doesn’t affect it.

    The Bucs are hitting an unusually high # of HR so far, and an unusually low # of 2b. I don’t know that it would have much of an effect if 6-8 of those HR became 2b, though, given the large # of ABs for the team. Probably a negligible effect.

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