Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Neil Walker and the Chase for NL ROY

Honestly, I haven't paid any attention to the National League Rookie of the Year Award until this past week. The Pirates are finishing a miserable season and while they do have some good young players eligible for the Award, none seemed Award-worthy. That's all changed. Neil Walker has gone off. In Walker's last nine games he's hitting .429/.442/.905 for a Bondsian OPS of 1.347. Walker is behind the eight-ball in this race because he was not a heralded prospect coming into the year. It doesn't help that he plays for a team that was out of the playoff race on May 15 and gets national attention only for its incredible string of losing seasons. But I think it's worth doing a little bit of work to see where Walker falls on the list.

For amusement (clearly mine, not most or yours), I'm going to post Walker's case versus one of the other four or five most viable candidates each day and get your comments as to who you would vote for. Obviously the season isn't over, but I will do this over the next week and then update it if Walker continues to rake. It's one of the few points of interest as the Bucs play out the string.

Buster was the fifth overall pick in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft. (The Pirates took Pedro Alvarez with the second pick in that draft.) That year Posey won the Golden Spikes Award given annually to the best player in amateur baseball. Like Walker, Posey was a September call-up last year, but only got 17 at bats, and like Walker, Posey started 2010 in AAA. The Giants started Posey in the minors for team control reasons even though he was clearly their best catcher. GM Brian Sabean got lucky as catcher Bengie Molina started the season on fire, sporting an .880 OPS as of May 12. (Molina was traded to Texas June 30. Since May 13 he is hitting .200/.239/.269 for an OPS of .508 in 245 ABs and 265 PAs. As a point of reference, Aki Iwamura hit .182/.292/.267 for an OPS of .558 in 165 ABs, 193 PAs during his time with the Pirates.) Predictably, Molina cooled off and Posey was called up on May 29. He played primarily first base until Molina was traded on June 30. Since then he has been the Giants everyday catcher with the occasional start at first. Here are Posey's numbers compared to Walker's:

                        G    PA       AB      R       H     2B   3B   HR   RBI  SB/CS  BB  SO   BA/OBP/OPS    OPS+
POSEY:         85     347    319     43    104   19     2    11     55     0/2    21    42   .326/.360/.482  128
WALKER:      85    360    333     45     104   25     3    10     51     2/2    20    71  .312/.354/.495  128
You probably cannot find two players in the major leagues whose offensive numbers are more similar. Walker strikes out a bit more often, but otherwise they are identical. Walker was called up May 25 and won/was handed the starting second base job within a week. Posey was called up May 29 and took over the catching job the end of June. I'm hesitant to cite advanced defensive statistics because we have such a small sample size, but Posey clearly plays the more difficult position and has thrown out 34% of would-be base stealers. While I think Walker has played a reasonably good second base, UZR and +/- have a negative opinion of his defense thus far.
If the vote were held today I don't think there is a reasonable case to make for picking Walker over Posey. In fact, even if Walker continued his torrid streak through the balance of the season it might be difficult to argue for him due to the significant difference in defensive value. Nonetheless, the comparison to Posey is a good one for showing what an excellent offense season Neil Walker is actually having, though it has been largely overlooked by baseball fans and the media.

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