Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Quiet Man - Neil Walker

Hey, the Buccos have had a lot of heroes in the first half of the season. J-Mick, AJ, Jason Grilli, Hanny, Cutch, Pedro, and even Drew Sutton have all drawn the fans' (and media's) love.

Funny thing, though. The guy who never takes a day off, yo-yos in the lineup without complaint, stings baseballs from both sides of the dish, gets dirty in the field and is a local boy to boot has been relegated to the back burner. That, of course, is the pride of Pine-Richland High School, Neil Walker.

Tough to miss a guy who is in the midst of a twelve game hitting steak with a slash of .291/6/41 and just coming of a 5-for-5 performance, but he's been lost in the backlash of Pirate storylines this year.That's surprising, not only because of his roots but because by performance, he should be in the conversation among the top Pirates at second in the last 50 years - Maz, Dave Cash, Rennie Stennett, Phil Garner and Freddy Sanchez.

Everyone knows his story. A first round pick out of high school in 2004 and with MLB bloodlines as the son of former MLB pitcher Tom, he started out catching. Ryan Doumit looked like he was the Bucco answer behind the plate (little did we know) and so The Pittsburgh Kid was moved to third. Then came Andy LaRoche and Pedro Alvarez, and it looked like his destiny was to go from the top pick to a utility man.

His bat didn't play in the minors as a big bopper corner guy. He had a career .273 BA and .322 OBP with just a 16% K rate, but only 77 HR in seven seasons though with a respectable .441 slugging %.

The Aki Iwomura came along in 2010, and gave The Kid his opening. Called up as a role player after Iwamura ate his way out of the position, his role quickly switched from bench guy to everyday second baseman.

He hit .296 in 110 games with an OPS of 119, and drew some votes for Rookie of the Year. Walker followed with a .273/12/83 slash last year to solidify his spot as one of the up and coming second sackers in the NL. His bat may not have qualified him as a corner masher, but it played well as a middle infielder.

For sure, he looked like a catcher in the infield at the start, more adept at tackling baseballs than gloving them. But once he got the hang of it - he had only played 21 games at the position in the minors, a crash course in 2010 when it became apparent Iwamura wasn't quite as advertised - his UZR/150 improved every season from -17.5 to -2.5 to this year's 1.2.

Billy Maz with the leather he ain't, but competent he certainly is, especially when factoring in his gridiron physique of 6-3, 215 pounds. His footwork and pivot have improved every season, honed by the spring tutoring of the master, Maz. In the past two years, his range numbers have exceeded the league average a bit, so The Kid gets around pretty well for a big galoot.

His career BA is .280, and his RISP-BA is .293, with an OBP of .340 and slugging % of .412. With that blend of coming through in RBI spots, gap power and a knack for getting on base, he's spent most of his career batting juggled between the two and five holes. That flexibility is big time in any lineup, but especially for the Pirates, who generally have more holes in their order than a Dutch dike. And his switch hitting has made life easier for Clint Hurdle, who uses him to break up same-side stacks in the order.

His WAR over the past three years have been 2.0, 3.0, and 2.0, which puts him smack dab in the middle of the second base pack. And at 26, he still has some upside both with the bat and in the dirt.

More impressive has been his durability. Along with Cutch, The Kid has been in the lineup virtually every day in the past two seasons, on the field for 241 of the 246 Bucco games played between 2011-12.

Winning clubs need their All-Stars and breakout players. But it's tough to beat day in, day out consistency from a guy who is automatically penciled in every lineup, and that's what Neil Walker brings to the table. He may be quietly having another solid year, but his presence speaks loudly in the Pirate success story of 2012.

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