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Why the Yankees should play Neil Walker over Brandon Drury

Walker over Drury during Torres’ absence seems like a real head-scratcher, but there’s some sound reason behind the call.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The injury bug spares noone in baseball, and the Yankees have certainly been bit in recent times. The latest Yankee to hit the disabled list is young star Gleyber Torres, who is dealing with a right hip strain. Aaron Boone has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the injury, and Torres’ placement on the 10-day DL suggests that he won’t be gone for long. It’s still a bummer to see one of the Yankees’ most exciting players go down, though. Here’s hoping he can get some good rest and fully heal up.

In the meantime, Torres’ injury presents the Yankees with a roster choice: Should they go with Neil Walker or Brandon Drury at second base? According to The Athletic’s Marc Carig, Aaron Boone is leaning towards the former. Understandably, Yankees fans are frustrated. The veteran Walker has done nothing but disappoint so far, while Drury is still 25 and coming off a sizzling Triple-A campaign (.314/.419/.488 in 203 plate appearances).

Now, I’m not sure I agree with Walker over Drury myself. After looking at the numbers, though, I’m convinced that there is a case to be made for the veteran being the better fill-in.

I’ve defended Walker in the past, citing his still-adequate plate discipline and batted ball profile as reasons why the Yankees shouldn’t give up on him. Two months later, Walker still hasn’t done much, but his peripherals are still rock solid, if not improving.

Since the writing of that article, Walker has lowered his O-Swing%, raised his walk rate from 5.9% to 9.1%, and shaved his grounder rate by seven percentage points. Meanwhile, his hard-hit rate continues to exceed that of his 2017 campaign, in which he hit for a 114 wRC+. This simply doesn’t look like the profile of a player who owns a 46 wRC+. Walker’s peripherals suggest that, with better luck, he can be a league average hitter going forward.

Of course, the obvious counterargument is that “league average” performance isn’t good enough to justify starting Walker. Drury has age and upside on his side, and he’s already shown that he can hold his own in the majors during his stint with the Diamondbacks. What’s more, his minor league performance and batted ball profile suggests that he may be due for a breakout. All things considered, Drury is certainly a more exciting option than Walker, especially when we’ve seen Walker struggle this badly.

Walker, however, has one more thing going for him over Drury, and that’s his track record as a righty-masher. Walker owns a career 118 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, while Drury’s mark is a subpar 94.

The ability to hit right-handed pitching comes in especially handy for the Yankees at this timing, because during Torres’ absence they’re going to face a slew of right-handed starting pitching. The three-game series with Toronto is probably the only time the Yankees will face left-handed starters, as southpaws J.A. Happ and Ryan Borucki are slated to pitch in games two and three.

After that, the Yankees will play eight games in seven days against Baltimore and Cleveland, both boasting extremely righty-heavy rotations. The Yankees would be wise to seek the platoon advantage during that stretch, and Walker’s track record against righties suggests that he fits the Yankees’ needs better than Drury does.

In sum, Walker’s batted ball profile tells us that he’s been more unlucky than bad, and his career splits against right-handed pitching suggests that he fits the Yankees’ immediate needs better than Drury. These are probably the reasons why the Yankees are going with Walker over Drury for the next 10 games. Let’s hope for their sake that it all goes well.

Statistics courtesy of