Welcome to the first installment of Double Play Depth, my column focusing of the daily/weekly travails of the middle infield position and all its inherent glory. My plan for the next six weeks or so was going to be to focus on some of the biggest differences between my personal rankings and the ones that Jason has put together here at Fake Teams. As the 2B list was the first one up, I figured I'd start there. Unfortunately for me, Jason's just too damn good at his job and there was only one player in either of our top-15 second basemen that we were more than 2 spots apart on. Which brings us to the subject of today's post -- the subtle and unassuming appeal of Neil Walker.
The concept which applies to Neil Walker in fantasy drafts this year is the same one that can be seen any night of the year in your non-fantasy baseball lives. It's Friday night and you're out with some friends. The evening has been fun so far and you're trying to decide what comes next. There are two options on the table: 1) go back to your friend's apartment and finish out the evening there knowing it'll be a good time or 2) go to some trendy, crowded bar which has the potential to be a great time (but more realistically, the potential to absolutely suck). The decision you make is likely proportional to what time it is. If it's 10:30, maybe option 2 sounds great. If it's 1:00, option 1 is a no-doubter. The time at which your answer switches from option 2 to option 1 is called the Neil Walker Solstice™.
In 2012 fantasy drafts, this happens right after the top-10 guys at second base are taken, as according to Mock Draft Central, Walker is being taken 11th overall among 2B. This is pretty close to my personal rankings where I have him 12th, but not so close to the FT ranking of 18th (I'm bumping him up two spots since I didn't rank Young or Cuddy as they didn't get 20 games at the position in 2011).
We'll work in reverse-fable order here and start with the moral of the story. Walker is not an exciting option, but there is value is the relative safety of his numbers. Last year, he hit .273 with 12 HR, 83 RBI, 76 R and 9 SB. Nothing jumps out as being crazy awesome in those numbers, but it was good enough to rank 8th on the ESPN player rater among second basemen -- ahead of Rickie Weeks, Dan Uggla, Danny Espinosa and Kelly Johnson. So why did this happen? It's all about the counting stats. Walker's 83 RBI were 4th in the majors among 2B qualifiers (behind only Cano, Pedroia and Zobrist) and his 76 runs were good for 10th among qualifiers. This is not a fluke as he took 563 out of his 662 plate appearances in either the 3rd, 4th or 5th spots in the Pirates lineup. A murderer's row it is not, but lineup positioning is often half the battle when it comes to counting stats -- and this does not look likely to change in 2012.
Another positive sign for Walker's value going forward is that by looking at his underlying stats, he actually improved as a hitter in 2011 despite taking a step back in some raw numbers. His BB/K rate improved from 0.41 to 0.48 and his swinging strike rate decreased from 7.4% to 6.4% -- both good signs, as more contact equals more stats. Also, while his HR rate and batting average dipped from Walker's 2010 levels, they coincided with similar drops in his HR/FB rate and BABIP -- which are stats that will regress to the mean over time. And for those of you who dare say that his 2011 BABIP of .315 is due for regression anyway, Walker's xBABIP of .326 says otherwise.
Clearly if you're an upside chaser, Walker is not your guy. He's extremely unlikely to hit over .300 or hit 20 HR, but sometimes the five-category vanilla player is a better value than the "next big thing". Take Danny Espinosa for example -- he was pretty good in 2011 and Walker still outperformed him for fantasy. Do we think Espinosa will suddenly hit either 30 HR or have a .270 average? I sure don't. I like Walker to hold serve (or even slightly improve) on his 2011 numbers, and so does Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, which pegs Walker at .271/.326/.422 with 15 HR, 74 RBI, 75 R and 9 SB. Once those top-10 or so second basemen are gone, I'll take that any day of the week.
My 2012 Neil Walker prediction: .279 avg, 14 HR, 84 RBI, 73 R, 8 SB