Prior to his season ending injury, Neil Walker was in the midst of his best season as a professional. Walker has been known as a solid MLB player throughout his career but he went above and beyond in 2016. He posted a 3.7 fWAR in just 113 games, his previous career-high was a 3.6 fWAR but that was in 137 games. There are more reasons for optimism other than just his fWAR.
Let’s start by examining the defensive aspect of Neil’s game. His UZR was 9.3, the highest of his career. The Mets are one of the best teams in baseball when it comes to positioning. Players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson (in 2015 for RF and 2016 for CF), all enjoyed their best defensive seasons in years, which can be attributed to their improved positioning on the field. The other thing to keep in mind, the Mets are a strikeout heavy staff. A fielder can certainly benefit from a lack of exposure in certain scenarios, for example, the 2015 NLCS.
The next part of Walker’s game to analyze are the changes in his swing and batted balls. While his swing hasn’t undergone the drastic “Kevin Long Change” like Daniel Murphy and Asdrubal Cabrera, he made a small but effective change to his swing against lefties. He ditched his toe-tap and that enabled him to produce a .330/.391/.610 slash line against the southpaws.
Now for my favorite part, and yes, that means numbers and lots of them. A growing theme in baseball has been for hitters to hit more balls in the air. Balls hit into the air tend to lead to more dingers and more runs. The overall production of hitters also tends to increase when they follow this approach.
A few players who have taken a liking to this approach are J.D. Martinez, Brian Dozier, and yes, Daniel Murphy. Did you really think we could go through an entire article on Neil Walker without mentioning him? Back to Walker, he definitely adopted this philosophy. His GB/FB rate was at .82, easily the lowest of his career. Naturally with that metric just presented, his groundball rate was at the lowest of his career and his flyball rate was at the highest of his career, both were 35.4% and 43.4% respectively.
A little perspective to those rates, Yoenis Cespedes had a GB rate of 37.1% and a FB rate of 41.4% in 2016. Walker’s home run flyball to home run ratio was 16.2%. For comparison, Lucas Duda had a FB/HR rate of 15.9% in 2014 and 16% in 2015. I think we could all tolerate Neil having a 130 wRC+ similar to Duda and Cespedes did in the years I highlighted.
Okay, at this point you’ve probably skimmed to the comments to either curse me out, bring up Murph, or to talk about something that just broke via Twitter. But I have just a few more things I want to point out, I promise. We have to address the Summer slump of Walker.
Two comps to Walker’s changed approach I use a lot are Murph and Dozier. Murph had been working throughout the 2015 season on his swing with Long, but his first few months were not too good. In April he posted a 61 wRC+. In May he had a typical Murph month where he had a lot of singles and only had a .087 ISO (isolated power, which is slugging percentage – batting average). He was hurt in June and his July was like his April, only a 66 wRC+. His August and September were career months (at the time), he posted a 135/.217 and 130/.258 wRC+/ISO respectively. Dozier was similar to Murph, he had a 65 wRC+ in April 2016 and a 71 wRC+ in May 2016 with .149 and .101 ISO in each month respectively. He then had a career year hitting 42 homers, 132 wRC+, and a .268/.340/.546 slash line.
Will Walker turn into these two guys? I won’t go that far, it really is not fair for anyone to project that out of anyone. With that said, he did have a 201 wRC+ in August .278 ISO. Two more notes, He did rather well with men on base, posting a .331/.409/.563 slash line and a 159 wRC+. In his 34 plate appearances for “high leverage situations” as measured on Fangraphs, he posted a .300/.382/.700 slashline along with a 187 wRC+. These are two situations that the Mets have certainly struggled in at times.
Neil Walker had a very good 2016, but I think he’ll be even better in 2017 for the reasons I’ve outlined above. Walker’s impact now goes beyond just the numbers too, his leadership last season should not go unnoticed. He was a big part of the clubhouse, often talking to reporters during the tough times, and he would even hold the young guys accountable. He will need to take on a similar role this season with the uncertainty surrounding David Wright. Thanks for reading and hopefully you share my optimism of Walker and the Mets. LGM!
Editor’s Note: I want to welcome Dilip to the MMO team for the 2017 season. I always love it when we are able to add a solid writer to our ranks straight from the Metsmerized community, and I have no doubt that you will enjoy Dilip’s insights and the analytical way he goes about articulating his ideas. Congrats on your debut article, Dilip!- JD