If Neil Walker were an ice cream flavor he would be vanilla. That has nothing to do with pigment and everything to do with performance. He doesn't do a single thing extraordinary and while he contributes to all five fantasy categories--he does so unspectacularly. There is never much debate on draft day about his ceiling, much like there isn't much debate about his floor. He just is what he is. It is almost too easy to peg him as the Pirates poster child given that he is a born in Pittsburgh and raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh only to be drafted by the Pirates in the first round in 2004, but that is exactly what he is. The Blue-Collar, Vanilla flavored option for fantasy second baseman.
Walk with me a bit as I try and explain who exactly Neil Walker is. He joined the Pirates organization in 2004 as an 18 year old and hit .276/.316/.422 across two levels (Rookie and Low-A). Then in 2005 he hit .298/.325/.444 across two more levels (Class-A and Advanced-A) showcasing what would become classic Neil Walker power with 12 home runs. In 2006 he again played across two levels (Advanced-A and Double-A) where he would post a combined .271/.329/.403 line with only five home runs (it was an injury shorted season). He spent 2007 split again across two levels (Double-A and Triple-A) where he posted a .277/.349/.434 with 13 home runs and 10 steals. He spent all of 2008 at Triple-A where he posted a .242/.280/.414 line with a minor league career high 16 home runs and 10 stolen bases. Notice the .280 OBP? Yeah that is terrible and was a direct result of his 29:102 BB/K ratio and appears to have just been a blip in the radar for Walker. The blip was big enough to have him start 2009 back at Triple-A and despite some minor injuries he posted a .256/.304/.469 line with 15 home runs and five stolen bases and his first cup of coffee with the Pirates as he appeared in 17 forgettable games (.194/.275/.222). He returned to Triple-A in 2010 and caught fire early as he posted a career best .321/.392/.560 (the only .300+ average in his career at any level) along with six home runs in only 43 games before taking over full time in Pittsburgh.
As a member of the Pirates, Neil Walker has gone onto to post middling statistics across the board. His rookie season of 2010 saw him post what has been a career major league high triple slash line of .296/.349/.462 along with 12 home runs and 66 RBI's in only 110 games. It was his rookie season that gave people hope he would be the next great thing at second base, at least for fantasy purposes, but the fact of the matter is the minor league track record of hitting .273/.322/.441 with about 10 home runs a year is more of who Walker was.
He followed up his rookie campaign with a mild sophomore slump as he posted a .273/.334/.408 line with only 12 home runs and nine stolen bases over 159 games. However, his saving grace (for fantasy) came from the fact that he had 83 RBI's, which was fourth in all of baseball from the second base position, behind only Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Ben Zobrist.
In 2012 owners where hoping Walker could pair his rookie season triple slash line with his sophomore season RBI production and turn the corner as one of the up and coming second basemen in all of baseball. Needless to say that didn't happen as he showed signs of turning the corner in July of 2012 after posting a very Neil Walker-esque first three months of the season (April: .278/.342/.306 with 0 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB; May: .238/.292/.356 with 2 HR, 11 RBI, 1 SB; June: .292/.370/.415 with 2 HR, 17 RBI, 5 SB). In July he caught fire and posted a .358/.423/.674 line with 7 HR and 21 RBI's in only 95 official at-bats.
That was basically the beginning and the end of Walker's season as he would only go on to play in only 28 games after July due to a bulging disc in his back. The injury dashed his hopes of breaking out and ultimately the Pirates hopes of having their first non-losing season in 20 years. Walker finished the season with a career high 14 home runs and a triple slash line of .280/.342/.426 with 69 RBI's and seven stolen bases.
So what can we expect from him in 2013?
More Power: Basically this whole article I have been telling you that Walker is a guy who just is what his numbers tell you he is. A .275-.280 hitter with 12-15 home run power and 70-80 RBI's who will chip in 7-10 steals over the course of a full season. While for the most part that is true I came across an interesting article about Walker on Fangraphs that discusses his HR/FB numbers throughout his career with relation to his average FB and HR distance. Walker saw his FB/HR ration jump from 7% to 11.2% from 2011 to 2012 and his ISO jump from .134 to .146 respectively despite the average distance of his home runs not fluctuating much. This coupled with the fact that he swung at more pitches outside of the zone than in previous seasons it is likely that he will see his batting average improve as he improves (or normalizes) his contact and increases his LD% and decreases his IFFB% thus improving his BABIP. Look for Walker to boost his batting average closer to the .285-.290 range and look for his 11.2% HR/FB to result in around 17-19 home runs in 2013 over 620+ PA.
5-Category Contributions: While Walker doesn't dominate in any one category he is pretty much average to slightly above average in every category for his position. That matters because over the course of a full fantasy season those middling months add up and the end result is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Walker is very much capable of posting a fantasy line that will hold down the fort at second base and give owners the opportunity to spend big at other positions. He can give you a .280 average which would have been good for 9th in all of baseball at second base in 2012. He can give you 15 home runs which would have been good for 11th in all of baseball at second base in 2012. He can give you 75-80 runs scored which would have been good for 13th in all of baseball at second base in 2012. He can give you 80-85 RBI's which would have been good for second in all of baseball in from a second baseman in 2012. He can even chip in 7-10 steals which would have been good for 16th in all of baseball from a second baseman in 2012.
Magical Age 27: For whatever reason when batters turn 27 years old something clicks. It is basically a phenomenon that exists in Major League Baseball and had been identified as early as 1982 by Bill James and then refined by Nate Silver to basically state that hitters peak between ages 25 and 29. I would argue that if Neil Walker was ever going to break out it would be this season. He showed the early signs of a break out in June and July of 2012, his age 26 season, and then got derailed in August. If he is able to put that back injury behind him (pun intended) and come out healthy for 2013 I fully expect him to carry his improved ISO and HR/FB numbers forward and turn in his best season yet. There are strong peripherals to suggest he will be able to do this and there is a real chance that the once vanilla Walker will be adding some flavor to his counting stats in 2013.
TO SUM IT UP: Neil Walker is a five category fantasy contributor who despite being slightly boring can be a top 10 second base contributor easily. He will likely last longer than most on draft day and could be a great bargain. Entering age 27 season could break out big time.
2013 Bold Prediction: .287/.338/.468 with 19 HR, 82 R, 91 RBI, and 11 SB in 654 PA