Being Yankees fans, we all know that feeling of anticipation when Brian Cashman adds a shiny new piece to the team over the offseason. In our collective imagination, the acquired player goes on to become a key contributor to the team, getting hits where previous lineups failed or putting up zeros where last year’s pitching staff would have faltered. But reality is harsh, and sometimes new additions struggle out of the gate.
It’s a tragedy all too familiar, and it’s happening again this year. A player known for his patience and power, formerly regarded as a first-division regular in the National League, has done nothing but frustrate fans since donning the pinstripes. I’m talking about Neil Walker, of course. I mean, who else on this team fits that description—oh. Well. Not a great first month for new Yankees, eh?
Overwrought introduction aside, Walker has been a massive disappointment so far, running a 5 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances. That would be acceptable from a starting pitcher, but from what I gather, Walker is an infielder and not a pitcher. Shohei Ohtani gets all the attention for being a two-way player, but Walker’s doing something just as amazing—he’s succeeding in no way at all.
However, I think that (unpopular take alert) Walker’s still probably worth keeping around until Greg Bird’s return. Here are my reasons why: his lengthy track record, his not-too-bad peripheral numbers, and the regression of Tyler Austin.
Firstly, it’s too early to say that Walker is toast, because guys with his track record don’t suddenly just fall off a cliff. Walker is the owner of a career 112 wRC+, and save for his 17-game MLB debut back in 2009 he's always posted above average offensive numbers. Admittedly, Walker has shown some signs of decline in recent years, most notably his declining production against left-handed pitching. It's safe to say that Walker is a platoon bat at this point in his career.
However, this fails to explain why Walker has cratered against all kinds of pitching so suddenly this year. If we can't really point to a damning feature of Walker's game that suggests he's done, chances are positive regression is going to kick in and he's going to approach his career numbers going forward. If so, why not keep him around instead of cutting him and letting some other team enjoy the ride?
The argument above only holds water if Walker's peripheral numbers are decent enough to suggest his skills are intact. This brings me to reason number two - while there are some red flags in Walker’s profile, there’s nothing that suggests he is deserving of a collapse of this magnitude.
Those of you who want to believe in Walker can take solace in the fact that his plate discipline hasn't disappeared even during his current slump. His O-Swing (33.9%), Z-Swing (63.8%) and overall swing rate (46.9%) aren't far off from his numbers in 2012, when he ran a 112 wRC+. Despite this, Walker's running career-worst strikeout and walk rates (23.5% and 5.9%, respectively). This is because he's swinging through pitches like never before, as his swinging strike rate stands above 10% for the first time in his career.
So, it's not like Walker is hacking at everything at the plate - rather, he's whiffing at the pitches he wants to hit. This is a troubling development for sure, but this still doesn't fully explain why Walker is struggling so mightily. After all, while his whiff rate is a career high, it's barely higher than the league average mark (10.6%). This just doesn't look like the profile of a guy with a wRC+ of 5.
Now, even when he does make contact, Walker's having a hard time getting hits. Some of this is due to luck, as he's currently running a BABIP of .217. However, some of this is earned, because Walker is making more soft contact (21.7 Soft%) and hitting more ground balls (48.3% ground ball rate) than ever before, while his line-drive rate has cratered (11.7%, carrer low). But it's not all doom and gloom here, either - Walker's fly ball rate is right where it needs to be, and his contact rate of 40% is actually higher than it's ever been. All he needs to do his cut down on his ground balls to get back on track.
Finally, while Tyler Austin, Walker’s direct competition for the backup 1B job, is having a great year so far, a closer look reveals that his success doesn’t look so sustainable. The gains Tyler Austin made in his plate discipline have all but vanished, as his O-Swing, Z-Swing, and swinging strike rates are now all well within his career averages. In addition, while he's had success against right-handed pitching this year, his 4.2 walk rate and 45.8% strikeout rate against them means that he's going to have to keep slugging .600 against them to stay productive. He...probably isn't going to keep doing that.
Austin is essentially what he's always been - a relatively free-swinging, strikeout prone power hitter who needs to be platooned with someone who hits righties. As someone who has historically hit righties very well, Walker fits that bill. Until the return of Greg Bird (hurry back), there is a role for Neil Walker to play on this team. He just needs to play it better, and there's reason to suggest that he will.