A little over a month ago, the Yankees scooped up the somehow-still-a-free-agent-infielder Neil Walker. Taking advantage of the galactically warped free-agent market, he cost just $4 million, a steal in any year for almost any player, let alone one who could offer the team the flexibility to play both infield corners on top of his natural position of second base. Unfortunately, that flexibility was necessarily tested when Greg Bird went down with an injury, forcing Walker to first. Since then, Walker has flown under the radar. With the high-profile struggles of both Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup, it’s easy to miss that Walker enters Sunday hitting just .188/.264/.208 with a .215 wOBA and 30 wRC+.
Let’s give Walker credit for two things before we examine what’s gone wrong. He’s walking at a rate above his career average, 9.4% this year to 8.7% overall. He’s also striking out less at 13.2%, compared to 17.4% for his career. Were it to continue all year, it’d be his lowest K% in a season by over two percentage points. Does that combination make up for the fact that his SLG is lower than his OBP? Well, no, but silver linings and all that. Another silver lining? Walker has, per FanGraphs, a career high hard contact rate at 39%. Of course, there are caveats–I wouldn’t be writing this if there weren’t.
The first caveat is that this career high in hard contact also comes with a career high in soft contact, 29.3%. His previous high there was 19.3 in 2011 and his career rate is 15.5. The other caveat is in the end result of that hard contact. For his career, Walker has had a solid line drive rate at 22% even. This has been coupled with a groundball rate of 39.6%. This year, those things are completely out of whack. Walker’s line drive rate so far has been a dismal 9.8% and his groundball rate has been 51.2%, meaning all that hard contact is essentially ending in a bunch of worm-burners.
Those numbers–pretty much all of the 2018 ones–are so extreme that they’re bound to progress to the middle at some point. What’s the solution, though, to getting his production back up where it belongs? Perhaps some mechanical tweet to get more air under the ball is in order, but I’m no hitting coach, so I’ll leave that to Marcus Thames.
Walker is definitely not this bad of a hitter and will no doubt give back to the Yankees. Fortunately, the Yankees will not be relying on Walker to provide a ton of offense. Even as a starter, he’s in a support role near the bottom of the lineup and his ability to play all over the infield gives him value beyond his time at the plate. And, given his contract status, there’s almost nothing Walker could (or couldn’t?) do from here on out to make his signing not worth it.