You can’t choose your last name. Otherwise, we might have to quibble with Neil Walker’s choice, considering his career walk rate is below league average. His impatience doesn’t come with a poor knowledge of the strike zone, however, and that’s probably what helped fuel a semi-breakout season at 29 years old, despite a four-year low in walk rate.
Swinging more actually allowed Walker to take advantage of one of his best skills: contact rate. His swinging strike rate has never been league average, and for his career, it’s two points lower than the league’s (9.4%, his is 7.6%). But watch his swing rates, they’re all going in the right direction:
Walker may not be walking more, but he’s certainly become more selective. Even when seen against the league average, he’s reaching less on pitches outside the zone and swinging more at pitches inside the zone.
The only asterisk might be that he’s aging like Benjamin Button, since players usually take more pitches as they age. And, of course, since he’s post-peak, the stolen bases have fallen off and robbed him of that five-category value. Either way, though, he managed to put up the seventh-best rotisserie value at second base this year, so you’ll take the bad with the good.
The question then becomes one about his power. The increase in terms of isolated power was modest:
But there’s still the fact that he outpaced his previous high in home runs by seven, or almost an extra 50%. Once again, though, his simple peripherals provide us hope. His home run per fly ball number last year (13.9%) isn’t so far off from his career total (10.1%). Regression will rob him of some power, but if you regress him back to his career mean, you’ll still have a good homer total, particularly if he continues to hit fly balls more every year like he has recently. For example, a simple MARCEL type projection of his HR/FB total would give you 12.4% home runs per fly ball next year, with a 1.05 GB/FB. That would produce 20 homers next year with the same amount of balls in play.
With above-average ability to make contact, above-average power, average-ish speed, and a balanced batted ball profile, Walker has the ability to improve on his batting average from last year. Steamer, for example, projects him for a .302 batting average on balls in play next year. If you buy that he’s made real gains in contact rate and strikeout rate, you could take the over on Steamer’s .272 batting average next year. That’d be a reasonable bet.
But don’t get too excited. A simple MARCEL would give him the same 16.2% strikeout rate next year that Steamer puts him down for, and that doesn’t include any aging. And there’s the matter of his spike in infield fly balls. Those are automatic outs, and his 4.2% pop-up rate last year was above average (3.7%). The year before, he was slightly worse than average (3.8%) in that department, and generally he’s hit more popups as he’s begun to hit more fly balls.
Eventually, the law of aging says that Walker will return to the lesser-powered days of his youth, only this time with no stolen bases. He’s not a great long-term asset therefore. But next year, at 30, he should be able to produce a .270+ batting average and more than 20 homers, and once again be a top-ten option at his position.
Just maybe a little bit less valuable in on-base percentage leagues than his name might suggest.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.