WALKER, KEYSTONE DANGER?

After reading over my fellow Fantasy Assemblers’ second base keeper/dynasty rankings, one thing stood out to me. Well, one person, as it were. Neil Walker. I ranked Neil Walker number eight amongst second basemen for fantasy keeper/dynasty rankings. Now, only one other, clearly sharp, individual even ranked him in the top ten. The other four ranks ranged from 12-18. 18?! My mission was immediately made clear to me, defend my ranking of Neil Martin Walker.

In 2014, only two, yes two, second basemen topped 20 home runs. Unless you think I am pulling some sort of trickery here, you can probably guess that one of them was Neil Walker. The other is Brian Dozier, in case you were wondering. Now, I am not one to say that homers are the end all be all of a baseball player, but it gives us a good place to start. In fact, as I look through my 2014 fantasy leagues, it looks like, for the most part, the teams that were amongst the leaders in dingers, made the playoffs. So, home runs, while not as weighted as much as, say, touchdowns in fantasy football, are generally something you want to stock up on early. At a position where only two players topped 20 homers, getting power at that position doesn’t come easy. Now Walker’s 29, so he is still several years away from a downturn and should plateau at a home run total in the low 20s and while there are gents like Javier Baez who could start crushing dingers right away, home runs from the keystone are few and far between.

In 2011, eight second basemen had 20 or more home runs, so you would have a good shot at scoring some pop at the position back in them days. In 2012, the number of second basemen with 20 or more home runs dropped to four. In 2013? You guessed it, the number dropped again, down to just three second basemen. Now, it is possible, like I said, with guys like Baez, that the numbers go up, but Walker should stay in the top five for home runs at the position for the next few seasons, which is a nice benefit on your fantasy roster. Of course, as I previously mentioned there is more to life and fantasy baseball than the long ball, no matter how much chicks may dig it. So, let’s talk about some other categories like, oh I don’t know, runs and RBIs.

Walker scored 74 runs and drove in 76 runs during the 2014 campaign. Now, while neither number really blows you away, they were both good enough to land Walker smack dab in the top ten at his position, this past season, being number four in RBIs. Those numbers also would have been good enough for the top ten at the position in 2013, as well. One of the best ways to really get a nice picture of Walker’s production is weighted runs created, or wRC+. This number combines all the production numbers and, while this is most likely not a category in your fantasy league, I think you will find that the tops in this league usually correlate pretty well to fantasy goodness.

The top four in wRC+ for 2014 were Andrew McCuthchen (168), Mike Trout (167), Victor Martinez (166) and Jose Abreu (165), so, as you can see, it’s a decent measure for hitting. In 2014, Neil Walker tied for 31st in the majors with a 130 wRC+. If you whittle that down and just judge him against second basemen, that puts him tied for third in that category, yes third, with Anthony Rendon. Now, while this is the highest wRC+ for Walker’s career, it has gone up each of the past three seasons. That being said, you are probably looking at the peak for Walker, but, can expect a nice leveling off from here on out in the offensive production categories. So, if Walker does level off, how can we expect that to hold up at the good ol’ keystone? Well, I am glad you asked, let’s go back, so we can move forward.

So, let me be, what I believe to be conservative, with projecting the plateau numbers for Walker. I think you get 17-20 homers, 70-75 runs and 70-75 RBIs from Walker over the next three to four seasons. Four, six, six, four, three. No, that’s not my PIN number, those numbers are the amount of second basemen that have hit all three of those tallies over the past five seasons. Those numbers drop by one or two each season if you add the fact that Walker should hit around .270, pretty consistently. Other than an off 2013, Walker has topped that .270 number in every other full major league season. Other than steals, which you won’t get, you are looking at top ten numbers for his position for the next few years. But, okay, it can’t all be kittens and rainbows, right? Sure, there are some qualms, like his hitting of lefties.

My esteemed colleague Fantasy Assembly colleague, Jim “Don’t call be Jimbo” Finch brought up an interesting point about Walker.

“Keep in mind that over the past 4 seasons, only 3 of Walker’s 64 HRs have come from the right side of the plate. Walker has been somewhere between mediocre and inadequate from that side, so a future platoon could be a possibility.”

Okay, so let us go ahead and address this. There is no arguing that Walker experiences a considerable power outage from the right side of the plate. I mean, you could argue it, but you would really have no data to support your claim. Okay, so we’ve got a power outage, from the right side, but how does he perform otherwise from the right side?

Walker’s batting average was 11 points higher from the right side than from the left, in 2014, but it is .264 over his career, 12 points lower than his career number from the left side. Seems like even from inside that third base side batter’s box, Walker his hitting about on par with his overall numbers. Plus, if Walker’s OBP was actually higher from the right side. Even more interesting is that Walker’s batted ball rates are pretty much the same from both sides of the plate, the only difference is the HR/FB rate is much lower from the right side. Part of that could be where Walker plays his home games.

PNC Park is very tough on right-handed hitters as far as the long ball is concerned. According to RotoGrinders’ Ballpark Factors PNC has the lowest home run percentage for right-handed hitters of any park in the majors. The same hold true for extra-base hit percentage as well. This is not to say this is the lone or even primary reason, that Walker is like Superman around Kryptonite when he swings from the right side, but it certainly don’t help. That being said, the average is still stable, but yes, the lack of power from the right side does exist and could detract people from keeping Walker. But should it?

So, he doesn’t have much power from the right side, big deal. Walker still put up top ten numbers at the position with that holding him back, right? I mean his wRC+ was 111 from the right side in 2014, which isn’t terrible. That wRC+ was equal to what Pablo Sandoval posted in 2014 and, would have still landed Walker at number seven amongst qualified second basemen in 2014. Plus, what we are forgetting is that Walker batting from the right side only made up about 20% of his plate appearances. I’m going to get somewhat simplistic, here, for a moment and say that, in theory, you would have had a top five second baseman for 80% of the time and a top ten second basemen for 20% of the time. I’m mathologist, but that should still equate to top ten at the position, right? Like I said, that is super simplistic, because  wRC+ doesn’t necessarily translate to fantasy numbers. Certainly, if you were t0 expand his numbers from the right side over a full season, they would actually be a bit poor by fantasy standards. Really, you can still probably expect like a top 15 second baseman 20% of the time, which is still workable.

Basically, Walker is not flashy, by any means, but he should show somewhat consistent production numbers over the next few seasons. You know what you are getting and really the pop compared to the rest of the field at second is good to have. You lose out on steals, sure, but those can be found in other spots. If you want to pass up on 17-20 homers, 70-75 runs and RBIs and a decent average over the next few seasons, at a position which is in a transition in the fantasy world, be my guest. As for, me, I’m seeing Walker as at least top ten at the position for the next few seasons, mark my words!

Will Emerson

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Affectionately know by close friends as Willie Moe, Will is back living in Boston after brief, 11 year stint, in upstate New York. Will loves numbers and baseball, so it is no surprise that he has been addicted to fantasy baseball for over two decades. That’s right, Will was playing fantasy baseball since before the internet was providing up to the minute stats and standings, and you had to get your hands inky checking box scores in the newspaper.

6 thoughts on “WALKER, KEYSTONE DANGER?”

  1. Good article Will.

    I agree there are not many 2Bs with more power potential, but I think the downside risk of lost ABs has me a little concerned about his long term value. For 2015 alone, I would definitely put Walker in the top 10, but I will happily take young upside from players like Wong and Baez first in a dynasty league.

    1. Thanks Tommy! If there is a loss of ABs, I think it is a ways off. I always prefer young upside at any position, but really Baez is the only one right NOW, IMO who threatens to provide as much power at the keystone. Baez is still unproven, but certainly has all the upside to be top 5 at the position in 2-3 seasons. I still think Walker is top ten at 2B the next several seasons.

  2. I agree more with Will than Tommy. I don’t think he’ll lose much playing time while in Pittsburgh. The issue with weekly lineups is that he does have bad months or weeks, so it’s excruciating when he hits .235 (April 2014) or .209 (August). At least he did have 5 HR in April to offset the lower BA.

    I actually had him riding the bench in one league for the 1.5 months of the season, because even though he did pretty well in terms of power and points, I had Cano at 2B and Ortiz at DH. I simply didn’t trust Walker to keep up the hitting because he does have a history of hot and cold spells. Turns out most of the time I would’ve been better off with Walker instead of Cano, but that’s how it goes.

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