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Neil Walker’s late signing with the Yankees could be why he has struggled

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Neil Walker has failed to live up to his career standards so far. Is it because he signed with spring training well under way?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

On March 12th, the Yankees signed Neil Walker. Two days later, I was in Tampa Bay, watching a handful of Yankees taking batting practice before a spring training game against the Tigers.

Walker, Bill McKinney, Miguel Andujar, and a few other hitters jockeying for position on the Yankees’ roster were getting their work in on a backfield that morning. As they concluded their hitting session, some young fans entreated Walker to come sign autographs. He declined, exclaiming something to the effect “I just got here, and opening day is in two weeks!,” before hurrying off to some other exercise.

Maybe Walker was just looking for a way to not get bogged down signing baseballs, but he did sound like a man in a hurry to get some work done. Opening day was mere days away, and he had only just gotten into camp. Walker had precious little time to prepare himself for the coming season, and he seemed to know it.

After the first month or so of the season, Walker has indeed looked like he needs to shrug off some rust. He has hit a woeful .189/.282/.222 in 103 plate appearances, good for a 41 wRC+. His career mark is 113. He has zero home runs, after hitting 76 over the previous four seasons combined.

Could Walker’s slow start be attributed to his lack of time for preparation? Walker was one of many veterans afflicted by the slow free agent market. He signed deep into spring training, and was perhaps left without the requisite time needed to adequately prepare for a season in the big leagues. It certainly seems possible that coming in late has left Walker in a position to fail.

Look around at the rest of the league, and Walker isn’t the only late-signing veteran struggling. Logan Morrison broke out with a 38-homer season in 2017, but is hitting .182 so far with the Twins. Lucas Duda also posted a 30-homer campaign last year but has a .651 OPS with the Royals. Old friend Eduardo Nunez, who posted an .892 OPS after being traded to the Red Sox last year, has a .625 OPS this year.

Anectdotally, there certainly appears to be a number of veterans that signed deep into the offseason and have gotten off to awful starts. Is there a trend here? To try and find out, I looked at all the players that signed major league deals after February 19th, the date most teams had their first team workouts for spring training. I compared these players’ preseason projected wOBA figures, courtesy of ZiPS, to the actual wOBA’s they’ve posted so far:

Late-signing Veteran Free Agents

Player Projected Actual Difference
Player Projected Actual Difference
Jarrod Dyson 0.288 0.241 -0.047
Eric Hosmer 0.340 0.390 0.05
JD Martinez 0.390 0.429 0.039
Cameron Maybin 0.304 0.303 -0.001
Colby Rasmus 0.299 0.155 -0.144
Logan Morrison 0.347 0.278 -0.069
Mike Moustakas 0.335 0.364 0.029
Jonathan Lucroy 0.348 0.341 -0.007
Carlos Gonzalez 0.333 0.265 -0.068
Neil Walker 0.344 0.233 -0.111
Chris Young 0.302 0.270 -0.032
Eduardo Nunez 0.318 0.272 -0.046
Average 0.329 0.295 -0.034

Of the thirteen hitters who signed guaranteed contracts to play in the majors, ten have fallen short of their projections. On average, they’ve missed by 34 points of wOBA, a pretty substantial amount. Interestingly, the hitters for whom the malaise hasn’t struck, Eric Hosmer, JD Martinez, and Mike Moustakas, are relatively young for free agents. Perhaps the slightly older veterans that signed after spring training started have had a hard time getting up to speed.

Walker is far from alone among players that signed late and sputtered out of the gate. Walker, and the rest of these struggling vets, surely kept themselves in shape throughout the winter and did their own work. Yet they still joined their teams late, and lost out on valuable time with regards to getting their timing back, getting fully into game shape, and simply getting comfortable. If signing late is the reason Walker has looked out of sorts, it’s hard to entirely blame him.

Is there any statistical evidence that Walker has simply been rusty? It’s obviously only been a month, so the samples here are quite small. It isn’t possible to come to a concrete conclusion. The theory that Walker has been shaking off rust, though, does still appear plausible.

From FanGraphs, here is Walker’s rolling average of swings on pitches in and out of the zone:

Walker has slowly been swinging more at pitches in the zone as time has worn on, and he’s recently cut back on swings on pitches out of the zone. This could be the effect of Walker gradually regaining his timing as he reacquaints himself with big-league pitching.

Also from FanGraphs, here is Walker’s rolling average of hard-hit balls, and line drives:

Again, his line drive rate has slowly increased, and his hard hit has also seen a recent uptick. Also worth noting is how strong Walker’s overall hard hit rate is, suggesting he may also have been unlucky as he struggled to start.

It’s impossible to say for certain that just because many of Walker’s statistical indicators have trended in the right direction as the season has progressed, he simply needed to shake off rust. However, if Walker was struggling because he signed so late, and really just needed a few weeks to get his timing back, then it would probably look something like this.

Plus, for whatever it’s worth, Walker has been much better since the calendar turned to May, reaching base 11 times in 18 trips to the plate. Combine Walker’s small-sample numbers with the pitiful results late-signing veterans have put up this year, and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Walker needed time to adjust after coming on so late. As we’ve already suggested here, the Yankees probably should stick with Walker through his struggles. If he can continue to progress, the Yankees might just be rewarded for doing so.