Coming into the 2014 season, there were questions about which Neil Walker would show up. The second baseman had shown some positive trends the last few years, and if those trends continued, he could have been primed for a huge season offensively. That’s exactly what happened in 2014. Here is a quick look at those trends, and the 2014 results.
2010 – .167
2011 – .134
2012 – .146
2013 – .167
2014 – .195
The biggest improvement Walker saw this year was in his power production. His ISO has risen every year since 2011, after dropping from 2010 to 2011. Coming into the year, it was hard to say whether Walker was the 2010/2013 version, or the 2011/2012 version. His production in 2014 indicates the former. I don’t know if Walker’s power will continue to trend upward, and I don’t know if it will stay as high as his .195 ISO this year. But I don’t think it’s out of the question to project him for at least .167 going forward.
2010 – 17.7 K%/7.2 BB%
2011 – 16.9/8.2
2012 – 19.6/8.9
2013 – 15.4/9.1
2014 – 15.4/7.9
One encouraging thing about the 2013 season was that Walker posted a career low in strikeouts. He matched that mark in 2014. Unfortunately, the 2010-2013 seasons saw a steady increase in his walk rates, and that stopped in 2014 when he dropped down to a 7.9 BB%. Walker’s career walk rate is 8.3%, and I think that’s something you can expect going forward, rather than a return to the 2012-2013 numbers. If he hits for average, that would still put him in the .340-.350 OBP range.
As for the strikeouts, the fact that he’s putting the ball in play more often might be leading to his increase in power numbers. Along with the fact that his strikeouts are down, his ground ball rate is down the past two years. He was in the 42-44% range in 2011-2012, but dropped to he 38.5% range in 2013 and 2014. In turn, he saw an increase in fly balls, which combined with his HR/FB ratio, led to more homers. Walker was at a 13.9% HR/FB rate in 2014, so he’s probably not going to repeat his 23 home run season. His career 10.1% HR/FB ratio would have put him at 17 homers this year. That’s still good, but indicates that he probably won’t repeat the home run totals or the high ISO in the future.
2010 – .340
2011 – .315
2012 – .326
2013 – .274
2014 – .288
Walker’s BABIP took a huge drop in 2013, leading to his lowest average yet. He increased those results in 2014, and his .271 average was closer to his career mark of .273. The instinct here would be to assume Walker could still see more improvements with his average due to his BABIP getting closer to his career .307 mark in the future. While that is certainly possible, it ignores what we know about the changes Walker saw in 2013 and 2014. As noted above, he had an increase in fly balls. Typically, fly balls lead to the lowest BABIP of all hit types. The fact that he’s hitting more fly balls the last two years explains why his BABIP has dropped. He probably should be counted on to hit near .270 in the future, rather than expecting an increase in production.
2010: -16.4 UZR/150 / -8 DRS
2011: -4.4 / -3
2012: -1.4 / -4
2013: -0.8 / 9
2014: -8.4 / -2
Walker had a huge year offensively in 2014. However, the defense was a disappointment. The UZR trends heading into the year were strong, indicating that Walker was learning the position after a rough first year. This year he struggled at the position, and the eye test confirmed that he wasn’t the best defender at second base. Defensive numbers work best when taking multiple years of data, rather than one year. His career UZR/150 is -5.9 and he averages around negative 1-2 DRS each year. Walker continued a lot of good trends offensively, but did not continue the improvements defensively, and probably shouldn’t be counted on for strong defense going forward.
Walker had a breakout season offensively, but his defense raises questions about his future at second base. There have been calls to move him over to first base, although that raises two problems. For one, his bat doesn’t profile well at the first base position. His OPS this year ranked third among qualified second basemen. Even if he’s closer to his 2012-2013 numbers, he’d be top five offensively among second basemen. That same OPS this year would have ranked 10th out of 23 qualified first basemen. His 2012-2013 numbers would have ranked him closer to 15th out of 23 first basemen offensively. Walker is a top offensive second baseman, but would be below average at first base.
The other issue with moving Walker is that the Pirates currently have no option to take over at second. Josh Harrison could be an option, although he’s currently slated for third base. The other option in the future would be Alen Hanson, although he won’t be ready to start the 2015 season.
The Pirates moved Hanson to second base this year. Part of that was due to his struggles at the shortstop position, combined with the fact that Jordy Mercer has locked down his spot in the majors at shortstop. The Pirates also moved Hanson in order to speed up his timeline to the majors and get him on track to arrive in 2015.
Hanson has the bat and skills to be a leadoff guy and an above average hitter at second base. He should be expected to arrive in the majors in 2015. If he does well in his jump to the majors, he could take over as the starter at second base in 2016, at which point he would be the starter of the future. JaCoby Jones is another possibility for the long-term. He played shortstop in West Virginia, but it is doubtful that he will end up at that position in the majors. Second base seems more likely.
As for Walker, his future might depend on what happens with other positions, and how he follows up this career season. If he can show that it is more than a career season, then he could make sense at a corner position (although I’m not sure if third base is an option, due to his defensive struggles at second). Due to his rising cost in arbitration, it would seem more likely that Walker won’t be with the Pirates beyond 2016, if not sooner.