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.