Okay, okay, I’ll say more. The in-the-know reader is likely aware of the fact that Neil Walker is currently tied for the team lead with 6 home runs. This is significant, because the season is a mere 19 games young and Neil Walker has never hit more than 16 homers in a season. I will avoid playing the “he’s on pace for . . . ” game, but inspection of some of his peripheral statistics suggest his power, and hitting in general, could see a big boost in 2014.
On his FanGraphs page, I first noticed:
(1) he is currently hitting .275, close to his career average of .273
(2)his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is currently .250, which is down about 50 points from his career value
(3) his walk rate is currently half of what it was last season
(4) his strikeout rate is down 3% from 2013
Walker has seen small improvements to his walk and K rates since becoming a big leaguer. His walk rate decrease is perhaps worrisome, but there is no reason to think that that will not improve as the season progresses. What is more significant is that he is currently hitting at his career average, but his BABIP is much lower than it normally is. This speaks to the fact that Walker has, perhaps, been unlucky so far and his average is due to rise as more of his batted balls drop into play.
I next considered his batted ball data, again from FanGraphs. His line drive percentage and ground ball percentage are down, slightly, while his fly ball percentage has risen. His home run per fly ball rate has doubled from 10% to roughly 20%. His ground ball per fly ball ratio has been trending downward (towards more fly balls) the last three seasons. So more of his fly balls are going over the fence AND he is hitting more fly balls in general.
What about his average fly ball/home run distance, you ask? Baseball Heat Maps provides that information. Currently, Neil is getting an average of 303 ft per fly ball and home run. That is currently good for 23rd place in baseball, nestling him between Aramis Ramirez and Jayson Werth. Neil’s average distance is up a little over 18 feet per fly ball from last year’s 284 ft. For reference, his three years prior to that were 292, 293, and 294 ft. So he’s currently hitting it farther than ever, but not so much farther than years past.
Neil Walker has been a switch-hitter for his entire career. Though, he struggled mightily last year as a right-handed hitter (to the tune of a .225 average); he was even benched against some lefties down the stretch. For his career, Walker is a .265 hitter from the right side with only 5 of his 60 career homers against southpaws. Over the off-season, he worked on and may have fixed his right-handed swing by, get this, matching his left-handed swing. Travis Sawchik‘s article discusses the journey at length. So far, it seems like Walker’s work has paid off. Against lefties, he is 6 for 14 with a home run following a spring where he went 6 for 17 against lefties with a home run. Though the sample size is still quite small, the early results are encouraging, particularly the possibility of more power as a righty.
It is also worth mentioning that Walker turns 28 this season, entering the middle of the range of when players hit their peak or prime. The early home run numbers and improvements against lefties, coupled with some developing trends regarding his batted ball profile all speak to the fact that Neil is due for his best season as a hitter, perhaps one in which he hits 25+ home runs and cracks .280 at the plate. The season is not even a month old, of course, so there is plenty of time to watch all of this develop.
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