Neil Walker has become something of a forgotten man on the Yankees. The second baseman’s playing time came under fire early in the year when the Bombers quickly called up Gleyber Torres. When Torres and others fell to injury, Walker became a mainstay in the lineup and produced for a time. Now, with the likes of Torres and Didi Gregorius healthy and the import of Andrew McCutchen, Walker is once again drifting to the periphery.
It’s a bit of an unfortunate end to the season for the veteran. There just isn’t much room for him on a deep and talented roster, not when he has struggled through so much of the year. Yet the cruelest irony for Walker has been the fact that even in a down season, he looks very much like the player he always was.
At a glance, Walker appears to have had a dreadful year, and for the most part, he has. The 32-year-old has recorded a miserable .221/.304/.340 slash line, good for a 74 OPS+. Even for a player progressing into this 30’s, this downturn was surprising. Walker had been one of the most dependable players in the National League for almost a decade, posting an OPS+ between 108 and 126 every year since 2010, and never dropping below 2 fWAR over that span.
After years of consistently providing average to above average production, Walker looks to have declined considerably. Dig deeper, though, and the fundamentals that made Walker so solid for so long are still almost all present. He’s exhibited a couple signs of age-related decline, but otherwise, Walker still mostly profiles as the capable player he’s been forever.
The one facet of the game where Walker seems to have slipped is in pure bat-to-ball skills. He’s exhibited more swing-and-miss this year, running a career-high swinging-strike rate of 9.5%, per FanGraphs’ plate discipline numbers. His 79% contact rate is three points below his career mark. He’s made contact with both pitches out of the zone and in the zone at lower rates than his career.
Yet those figures are not far off from his overall norms, and represent only a minor erosion of his contact ability. The added swings-and-misses have led to a career-high strikeout rate above 21%, which still comes in below the league average. That’s the only area in which Walker has obviously regressed, and his regression hasn’t even been all the noticeable. He has otherwise maintained solid discipline at the plate, posting a quality 9.9% walk rate in line with his career rate of about 9%.
Moreover, Walker has been much the same player when he puts the ball in play. He’s never run high groundball rates before, and this year has been no different; his groundball rate is below 38%, and about a point lower than his career rate. He isn’t popping the ball up more, nor is he seeing a decreased number of his fly balls going for home runs. His soft contact rate is in line with his overall norms, and his 37% hard contact rate is actually four points up over last season.
In spite of an extremely similar batted ball profile to his previous seasons, Walker has simply seen far worse results on contact. His .118 isolated slugging and .261 BABIP are each about 40 points below his career average and league average. Walker, by all accounts, has struck the ball as well as ever this season, but just hasn’t seen the hits drop in.
We can see this further with the help of Statcast’s expected wOBA metric. While the stat’s bonafides are still being debated, the theory behind it is sound: xwOBA uses the quality of a hitter’s batted balls and their strikeout and walk figures to estimate what their wOBA should be. Earlier in his career, Walker’s wOBA and xwOBA numbers were unsurprisingly consistent. He posted wOBAs of .351 and .346 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, to go along with xwOBA figures of .355 and .351.
This year? Walker owns a disastrous .283 wOBA, but his xwOBA has only fallen slightly to .340. By his “expected” numbers, Walker has been nearly as good a hitter as last year, but the results just have not been there to show it.
Perhaps there’s something hidden beneath the numbers, some age-related loss of skill that hard-hit rates and expected metrics can’t capture. Maybe Walker is toast at age 32. What seems most likely, though, is that Walker didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin this year. He looks the part of the player he’s been the whole time, not someone who’s fallen off a cliff as he advances to the latter stages of his career.
That’s too bad, because on paper, Walker’s signing looked a perfect fit. The Yankees had a loaded roster with a potential hole at the keystone, and Walker was among the most dependable second baseman around. It just hasn’t worked out. Fortunately for the Yankees, they’ve had other infielders step up. Walker himself has not shared in that good fortune.