Before the season, Neil Walker basically epitomized the term “blah” when describing his fantasy baseball prospects. He was expected to contribute a little here and a little there, but not stand out in any one category. These types of players always seem boring, but are typically undervalued as the perceived value of their across the board contributions are less than those from the speed demons or big power hitters. Surprisingly, we had a bit of disparity in our pre-season rankings, as they ranged from 9 to 15, with a consensus of 13. I personally came in at 15, which provides yet a second surprise given the fact that I boldly predicted that Walker would earn top five value at second base.
Zach Sanders’ valuation calculator tells us that my bold prediction was quite off, but Eno Sarris and I both nailed his ranking at 15, as he earned $7. Of course, Walker’s value was hurt by a back injury that limited him to 472 at-bats for the season, including just 26 in September. Before that back injury, Walker was having another one of his typical ho hum seasons, hitting four homers and swiping seven bases over the first three months, while batting .269.
Then something happened in July and he went ballistic. He hit seven homers alone in that month, while ISO’ing a massive .316. His FB% jumped to the highest mark he recorded during the season, and of course, his HR/FB ratio catapulted above 20%. Obviously, no one expected this to be sustained, but given his age (26 at the time) and solid power in the minors, it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that we were witnessing the beginning of a breakout. Then he fell back to Earth in August and his back acted up in September and we were left with the same Neil Walker we had gotten used to from previous years.
You have to wonder how long his back was bothering him, and given that he was diagnosed with a bulging disc, it may explain why he stole zero bases in the final three months, while getting caught on all four of his attempts. Back issues are always tricky business, so who knows if he will truly be fully healed next season.
Let’s assume he is healthy next year and try to determine what his power potential might be. Below are his power stats from his past three seasons.
|Year||HR/FB||ISO||“Avg FB + HR Distance|
Although the HR/FB ratios and isolated slugging rates have bounced around, his distance has been rather consistent. In 2012, the average distance was about 274 feet, so Walker has shown pretty strong marks over the years. Given the distance, it seems pretty surprising that he had only managed to muster HR/FB ratios in the 7%-9% range previous to this season. This year’s mark seems to match the distance figure much better. Given that he’ll be that magical age 27 next year, I think his current true talent is closer to this year’s HR/FB rate than previously. I expect his overall ISO to jump next year as well.
Looking beyond his power, this year Walker’s strikeout rate increased as he swung and missed more frequently, especially at pitches outside the zone. At the very least, it gives him some batting average upside next season if his contact rate does rebound, as his combination of high line drive and low IFFB% skills should help him sustain an above average BABIP.
On the whole, assuming his back injury is no longer a concern, there are reasons to be optimistic once again on Walker next season. There are multiple opportunities for improvement and he should once again be a nice source of across the board production.