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Neil Walker may have untapped potential

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It may seem odd for a player of his age, but Neil Walker could still have untapped upside at the plate.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

After sitting out on the free agent market far past expiration, Neil Walker was forced to take a one-year deal with the Yankees. Walker’s plight is emblematic of many other middle-tier free agents this winter, with the narrative of the offseason centered around the number of solid veterans unable to find work. The Yankees, with an unclear second base situation, stand to benefit.

As Matt already summed up, there’s no way this isn’t a fine piece of business for the Yankees. Even if top prospect Gleyber Torres proves to be ready soon, there’s no virtually no harm in bringing in Walker as a stopgap/insurance policy given Torres’ inexperience and recent injury history.

What’s more, though, is that Walker may even have untapped potential. That’s strange to say for a player entering his age-32 season, but given baseball’s offensive climate, it’s possible that a veteran like Walker actually has some upside.

You can’t discuss the offensive environment baseball is currently in without coming back to both the juiced ball and the air ball revolution. Home runs, and offense subsequently, are way up. This is due likely in some part to both a livelier ball, and the conscious efforts of batters to put more balls in the air.

With offense the way that it is, a hitter like Walker has something to gain. There’s reason to believe that middle-tier power hitters, ones with a bit of pop but not overwhelming power, stand to gain the most from the current trends. The idea checks out: mammoths like Aaron Judge don’t need an extra few feet for their bombs to sail over the wall, but as the Yankees have seen firsthand with the likes of Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner, players with middling power can reap huge benefits from seeing their flies travel just a bit farther.

Walker could very well be that type of player, the one with okay power that suddenly puts up 25+ homers. The problem is that he just hasn’t quite had the chance to tap into that power potential. There have been signs over that past couple seasons that Walker has been approaching his upside, but injuries have curtailed him.

The home run explosion began after the 2015 All Star Break, and continued in earnest throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Entering 2016, Walker had average power, with a career .431 slugging percentage and a .159 isolated slugging mark. He also had already shown a proclivity for putting the ball in the air, running a below-average 40% groundball rate, per FanGraphs.

As the 2016 season rolled around, Walker, as a middling power hitter who hit a lot of fly balls, looked like a candidate to break out in terms of power. And wouldn’t you know it, in 2016 Walker set a career-low in groundball rate at 35%, and set career highs in home runs (23) and slugging (.476). Yet Walker only appeared in 113 games with the Mets that year, with back surgery ending his season before he could really tap into his gains as a slugger.

When 2017 began, Walker seemed to be continuing to follow the overall power trends in baseball. Through June 14th, Walker was running another career-low groundball rate at 33%, and was on pace for a career-high 25 homers and a .198 isolated slugging. However, I chose June 14th because that is the day Walker went down with a hamstring injury, an injury that seemed to plague the rest of his season.

Walker returned in late July but never seemed to get comfortable again, and his power gains evaporated. His groundball rate rose back up to 40%, and he hit only five homers the rest of the season. Walker’s overall production at the plate didn’t fall too much (118 wRC+ before injury, 108 wRC+ after), but the areas in which he declined are telling.

Walker was able to maintain his production because of renewed plate discipline. His walk rate shot up to 14%, and his OBP was a sterling .376. His power on contact, though, was gone. According to Baseball Savant, his expected wOBA on balls in play plummeted by over 50 points after injury.

This is all to say that injuries have probably kept Walker from hitting his ceiling in this new offensive climate. A Walker that stays healthy and continues his trends from 2016 and early 2017, the ones that saw him hitting tons of balls in the air and hitting with newfound power, is one that could easily set career-bests in power categories. Moreover, check out his spray chart from last season, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Walker showed notable power to right field. It seems likely that taking aim at Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch could give Walker’s numbers even more of a boost.

If Walker simply can stay healthy and continue what he was doing in 2016 and 2017, he should reach a new level of offensive production. Projections currently peg him as a solid two-win player, but there’s a real chance for more if Walker fully reaps the benefits of baseball’s offensive trends. If he can, the Yankees will be thrilled with their new second baseman, and Walker will hopefully be given another chance to break the bank on the free agent market.