By John Perrotto
Neil Walker has always prided himself on being an aggressive player, going back to his days at Pine-Richland High School, whether it was in baseball, football or basketball.
“It’s the only way I know how to play,” the Pirates second baseman said. “I believe that you have to make things happen. You can’t sit back and just wait for things to happen.”
Walker showed his aggressiveness on Sunday while scoring the winning run in the ninth inning as the Pirates rallied for a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at Chicago. Walker came all the way around from second base on Pedro Alvarez’s infield single as the Pirates rallied from a 4-3 deficit.
However, it has been Walker’s ability to tone done his aggressiveness at the plate that has allowed him to break through as a major-league regular. The switch-hitter was notorious for being a free swinger in the minor leagues after the Pirates selected him in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft.
Walker’s indiscriminate ways at the plate caught up to him, though, once he reached Class AAA Indianapolis in 2008. Experienced pitchers caused Walker to get himself out by chasing pitches outside the strike zone.
That flaw, coupled with general manager Neal Huntington’s belief that offenses should be built around hitters with good plate discipline and on-base percentages, caused Walker to fall out of favor in the Pirates’ eyes.
At this time last season, it appeared Walker had no future with the Pirates as he was being converted into a super utility player at Indianapolis and was no longer the third baseman of the future because of the presence of Alvarez in Indy’s lineup.
However, according to a scout who has watched Walker regularly since he reached Class AA in 2007, his approach at the plate has gotten better and given him the opportunity to be successful in the major leagues.
“He does a better job of waiting for his pitch now,” the scout said. “He used to try to force the issue at the plate. He’s still not the most patient guy and he’s not going to walk 100 times a year but he doesn’t give away many at-bats either.”
Walker struck out 83 times and walked 34 times in 469 plate appearances last season as a rookie season while hitting .296 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs. The most encouraging sign was that Walker didn’t chase more pitches than the average major-league hitter, according to statistics from Inside Edge.
Walker chased only 15 percent of non-competitive pitches, those deemed to be not near the strike zone. The major-league average in 2010 was 18 percent.
Walker was right at the major-league average of chasing pitches outside the strike zone with less than two strikes at 17 percent. With two strikes, he was slightly under the 36-percent average at 35 percent.
Just four games into the season, it’s too soon to detect any plate discipline trends this season. However, this much is certain: Walker is showing that his rookie success wasn’t a fluke. He is 7-for-17 (.412) with three doubles, a grand slam home run that won the opener against the Cubs in Chicago last Friday and seven RBIs.