Perhaps it would have been different if Neil Walker were from Topeka, Kansas.
It always felt to me that the lens through which Walker was judged was a distorted one amongst the fanbase. To some, Neil Walker was The Pittsburgh Kid. He could do no wrong and his flaws were never to be discussed. To others, he was scorned as the kid from Pittsburgh, who was selected in 2004 by then-GM Dave Littlefield only because he was a local, signable player. He was never allowed to escape his roots and be judged as a baseball player.
The current front office headed by Neal Huntington felt like they tried to take advantage of his Pittsburgh roots at times. While players such as Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Starling Marte, and Josh Harrison were getting contract extensions around him, Neil Walker and the Pirates never could get into the same sphere. Walker’s camp would propose a deal and then not hear back from the Pirates’ side for months, as Walker would tell me in an interview at Piratefest a few years ago. I suspect that the Pirates tried to lowball him in a manner that would take advantage of his perceived ties to Pittsburgh.
Walker’s Pirate career ends with the following statistical lines:
.272 batting average/.338 on-base percentage/.431 slugging percentage for a 769 OPS
114 wRC+ (14% more offense produced than MLB average) and 15.4 Fangraphs’ WAR
From 2010 to 2015, Walker’s 93 homers were the 5th most by a 2B in all of Major League baseball. Over the same time period, his WAR was 8th most for all 2B.
I’ve described Walker for years as a solid player that allows everyone else to rotate around him in the lineup. He was consistent, not flashy, and gave production in the batting order. Over the course of his tenure, Walker batted in every spot of the batting order. His most at-bats came in the 2nd spot of the batting order, which is also where he was the most productive, putting up an 803 OPS.
Walker had three shortfalls in his career. The first is that his defense, specifically his range, was sub-par. Even with the implementation of the shifts in recent years, it wasn’t enough to overcome his deficiencies. For the defensively-minded front office, this was a huge black mark. Second is that Walker had some back injury issues that may have spooked the Pirates in their long-term evaluation of him. And finally, Walker was a switch hitter that had some noticeable platoon splits. When he was batting right-handed versus lefties, Walker had a career OPS of 656. Conversely, when batting left-handed versus righties, Walker put up a career 803 OPS with 87 of his 93 career homers from that side.
Neil Walker was a player with flaws, but he was not a flawed player. There was value in him as a bat-first 2B. He can be placed in a key spot in the order versus right-handed pitchers, which are the majority of pitchers in the Majors anyways, and then either hidden in the 7th/8th spot or platooned versus left-handed pitchers.
If I were a decision-maker with the Pirates, which for the greater good of the franchise I am not, I would have extended Walker. Theoretically, I would have bought out two of his free agent years through his age-32 season, with an option on his age-33 season. When Walker becomes a free agent after 2016, he’ll be 31 years old. That’s the same age that Daniel Murphy is now as a free agent, so Murphy’s free agent journey will be a good model for Walker’s next year.
Murphy is also defensively-challenged and a bat-first 2B, with a comparable wRC+ of 109 and a triple slash line of .288/.331/.424 (755 OPS). He’s projected to get a 4 year/$48M deal in free agency, at an average annual rate of $12M/season. That’s exactly what I would project for Walker at this point, too.
Walker just built a lavish new home here in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. He’ll set up temporary accommodations in New York this year, but he’ll keep his roots here until he decides on his free agency destination. It’s hard to believe that even if he signs with a West Coast team that he won’t return to Pittsburgh in the offseason. Neil Walker is a Pittsburgher.
For better or worse, being a Pittsburgher was how Neil Walker was judged by both the fanbase and his employer. His ledger says that he did more good than bad during his time with the Pirates. Like with most things in life, once people get some distance from Walker, his time here will be viewed more favorably, I’m sure.