Monday, March 25, 2013

Projecting The Offense: Second Base

Neil Walker is firmly entrenched as the Bucs second baseman and he’s accumulated 8.5 wins above replacement since he converted to the position in 2010. Offensively, only four second basemen that would have qualified for the battle title surpassed Walker’s park adjusted wRC+ of 111 in 2012, only dropping to seventh on the list over the 2010-2012 period with a 112 wRC+ (.336 wOBA). While Walker has become a solid contributor offensively, there is an area where he could improve. 

2012: 530 PA, 27 doubles, 14 home runs, .280/.342/.426,.334 wOBA, 7 stolen bases 

2013 Projections: 
Bill James: 647 PA, 40 doubles, 2 triples, 17 home runs, .275/.337/.435,.336 wOBA, 9 stolen bases 
ZiPS: 617 PA, 35 doubles, 3 triples, 16 home runs, .270/.332/.430, .328 wOBA, 8 stolen bases 
Oliver: 584 PA, 29 doubles, 3 triples, 15 home runs, .270/.332/.423, .331 wOBA, 8 stolen bases 

Summary: The projections for Walker are fairly safe; they’re right around his career numbers. Interestingly, all three projection systems are predicting a little more isolated power from Walker in 2013; however they are also predicting a slightly lower on-base percentage – due to a little less luck with balls in play. 

If Walker is going to provide more value than the 3.3 wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs) that he was worth in 2012, he has two areas where he can improve: defense and performance against left-handed pitchers. Walker has progressed immensely at second base since he moved to the position on a full time basis in 2010 – both visually and statistically. UZR rated him as above average for the first time in 2012 (1.4 UZR), although this statistic is prone to year-to-year fluctuations and he’s still not had an above average season according to DRS. If he can remain around average defensively, he's probably a lock for a three win season.

Walker’s power numbers took a nice step forward overall in 2012 and his HR/FB ratio jumped to 11.2%; however all of his home run power came when facing right-handed pitching. He could still make strides offensively if he can get close to eliminating his platoon split – or the club could improve the offense as a whole by sitting the switch-hitting Walker against some left-handers. Walker hit  just .246/.314/.288 from the right side of the plate in 2012 (.271 wOBA), with a batting line of .267/.323/.360 (.301 wOBA) over the course of his career when facing lefties (in comparison, Walker’s wOBA when facing right-handed pitching was .356 in 2012, with a career wOBA of .345). 

Looking closer to Walker’s 2012 splits highlights how finding power when facing left-handers is the key to his improvement. He may have also hit for a lower batting average when facing southpaws; however luck played a big part. His batting average on balls in play dropped from .342 against right-handers to .279 against left-handers. He also walked more (9.4 BB% v 8.7 BB%) and struck out less (13.8 K% v 21.3 K%) when facing left-handed pitching. While he also didn't hit for a lot of power in 2011 (1 home run, .081 ISO), Walker did hit left-handers for power in 2010 (.170 ISO with 3 home runs). 

FanGraphs recently ranked Pirates second basemen sixth in their Positional Power Rankings, highlighting how good Neil Walker has been in comparison to other Bucs second basemen over the past 25 years. Walker has been very solid at the plate since he arrived in Pittsburgh for good in 2010, however he could take a further step forward if he can improve his numbers when facing left-handed pitching. Nonetheless, second base is one of the few areas of concern for the Pirates – in 2013 and beyond.