The team that eventually signs Neil Walker will be getting a player who has been consistent and dynamic over the course of his career. Those descriptions come courtesy of the 32-year-old free agent himself — and they’re pretty accurate. In his eight full big-league seasons, Walker has averaged 2.7 WAR annually, with the ebbs and flows remaining within a reasonably narrow range. Ditto his OPS, which has always been higher than league average, but never north of .823.
A first-round pick by his hometown (give or take a few miles) Pirates in 2004, Walker was Pittsburgh property prior to being traded to the Mets in December 2015, and then to the Brewers last August. Along the way, he’s remained steady-as-she-goes productive, as well as a positive influence in the clubhouse.
“I’ve been able to fit into many roles with the teams I’ve been on,” Walker told me at the tail end of last season. “I’ve hit at the top of the order and the middle of the order. I’ve been a run producer and a run scorer. I’ve played pretty decent defense. I feel I’ve been a fairly dynamic and consistent player.”
He changed positions multiple times in his developmental days. Drafted as a catcher, Walker moved to third base in his fourth professional season and then to second base after reaching Pittsburgh. He pointed to those transitions in explaining why he doesn’t like to put expectations on himself. In Walker’s words, “You never quite know.”
But again, he’s remained essentially the same player since establishing himself as a big leaguer in 2010. All that’s really changed — besides his uniform — are his pre-swing mechanics.
“I’ve always been kind of an even, closed-stance guy left-handed,” described Walker, who has been a switch-hitter since high school. “I used to be a little bit more open right-handed, but I’ve kind of gone back to an even stance on that side, too. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to simplify things a little more. One thing I’ve done is gotten rid of my toe tap, from both sides.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the changes weren’t made at the same time. In 2016, he stopped toe-tapping from the right side. In 2017, he stopped toe tapping from the left.
“It’s simpler to keep things very similar, but over time you realize as a switch-hitter that you see the ball a little differently,” said Walker. “You attack the ball a little differently. You’re pushing off your back leg a little differently from each side. From the right side, I felt I needed to make a change. I didn’t want to change left-handed, but as pitchers have gotten a lot better at slide-stepping and throwing in the upper 90s, I found myself having a hard time with my timing. That’s the main reason I got rid of the toe tap.”
His explanation made sense, but a clearer picture was needed. I asked Walker to elaborate on why he waited a year to make the change to what has historically been his stronger side.
“Mostly I didn’t want to completely overload,” responded Walker. “But I also didn’t have a reason to do it left-handed, because I’ve always put up pretty good numbers as a left-handed hitter. I was hesitant to do it from that side for that reason. But again, with the way baseball has been trending with so much velocity, I felt that eventually getting rid of the toe tap would be beneficial from the left side, as well.”
Another beneficial change has come more naturally. Over the course of 14 professional seasons, the Western PA product has grown from the neck up.
“That’s the thing that’s probably changed the most in my career,” opined Walker. “And it’s far and away the most important thing. Understanding the game, understanding how it works, how you’re pitched, how you’re approaching the day-to-day experiences, and getting through the grind… this is a huge mental game. Over these last three or four years, I’ve kind of come into my own from a mental standpoint. That’s helped me stay more consistent, which is something you need to do to stay in this game.”
Being dynamic aids that cause, as well, which is another reason Walker is heading into the 2018 season with “Mr. Reliable” on his resume. Thirty teams recognize that, and — despite the continued uncertainty of a controversial offseason — eventually one of them will bring him on board. Whichever one does will have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.