“What to do with Neil Walker?”
That was the question posed by Bob Smizik on his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blog this morning. I wanted to respond on his site, but, once I started doing some research, I realized that there was plenty of information for a full SABERBUCS article.
Neil Walker has been very good – and even more popular player – with the Pirates. He hit for an .809 OPS last year, third best among MLB second-baseman, with a 3.7 WAR. He has helped the Pirates reach the post-season in both of the last two years – after 20 consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball. And he is a hometown boy.
What’s not to like, right?
Well, Walker is a 29-year-old Super 2 player, who is in his third year of arbitration, has had significant problems with his back, and his fielding fell to a -8.4 UZR/150 last year (26th of 31 2B, who played at least 500 innings). He will make either $8 million or $9 million through the arbitration process this year and probably something around $11 million through the same process next year..
Those figures are actually a bargain for the Pirates. I put Walker’s current WAR-based free agent value at $15 million per season. But the question for the Pirates is not what Walker is worth now, but, rather, what he will be worth from ages 31 through 34.
So, I set out on a little search to find players who were most comparable to Walker – from ages 26 through Walker’s 2014 season age of 28 – in the key predictive areas of BB rate, K rate, and power.
And I struck gold! A former Pirate is near the top of the list of Walker’s comparables and he was in much the same situation with the Pirates that Walker is in now.
In the last three seasons, from ages 26 through 28, Walker posted an 8.6% BB rate, a 16.8% K rate, and a .170 Isolated Power (“ISO”; slugging percentage minus batting average).
From 1975 through 1977, at ages 26 through 28, former Pirate Richie Zisk had a 9.8% BB rate (1.2 points better than Walker), the same K rate as Walker at 16.8%, and a slightly higher ISO of .180.
Zisk was 94.1% comparable to Walker in those 3 key, predictive hitting statistics.
Richie Zisk was arguable the Pirates best player in 1976, at the age of 27. He led the team with a 4.6 WAR, ahead of Al Oliver, who produced the second most wins above replacement with 3.9. Zisk’s 21 HR tied for the team lead with Bill Robinson. And he had a batting line of .289/.343/.465 — .808 OPS. He had one more HR than Willie Stargell and his OPS was 12 points higher than Stargell’s.
But Zisk was one year away from free agency and the Pirates traded him after his superb 4.6 WAR 1976 season. And he never again produced a WAR better than 2.5. He continued to hit well, but his fielding declined greatly – something which is a great concern with Walker, given his -8.4 UZR/150 at 2B last season and history of back trouble.
The Pirates won 96 games – without Zisk – in 1977, but they finished second in the National League East to the Phillies who won 101. Zisk would not have made the difference. He posted a 2.5 WAR with the White Sox that season, The relief pitchers whom the Pirates acquired from the White Sox in exchange for Zisk – Rich Gossage and Terry Forster – gave the Pirates a total of 5.1 Wins Above Replacement that season.
The Pirates became a better team in 1977 for having traded their best player after the 1976 season.
The current team would be wise to attempt to trade Neil Walker after the 2015 season, just as Harding Petersen traded Richie Zisk after the 1976 season. But they should look for upper level prospects who will be under team control for 6 years, rather than a couple of relievers like Gossage and Forster, who left the Pirates as free agents after one season.