Neil Walker Is More Than Just a Ben Zobrist Plan B

All along, it seemed like the Mets were the clear frontrunner for Ben Zobrist. The Nationals and the Giants hung around in the periphery, but the Mets were among the earliest suitors, were perhaps most vocal suitor, and the fit made plenty of sense. It came down to the wire, enough for Mets fans to truly get their hopes up, but seemingly at the last minute the Cubs swooped in and made Zobrist their own. Turns out the Cubs had been in on Zobrist all along, but the public didn’t know that, and to New York fans, missing out on Zobrist must have felt like a crushing blow. Zobrist is the kind of player that any team would like to have.

One day after missing out on Zobrist, though, the Mets did what they perceived to be the next-best thing. They acquired Neil Walker from Pittsburgh in exchange for left-handed starter Jon Niese. Niese is set to earn a little over $9 million this season, with a pair of similarly-priced club options in the following two seasons. Walker is in his final year of arbitration, projected for $10.7 million by MLBTradeRumors, and for those reasons, Walker’s been an offseason trade candidate from the start. The Mets could’ve used a second baseman, having lost Daniel Murphy, and having something of a surplus of starting pitching. The Pirates needed starting pitching, having lost A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ, and having something of a surplus of infielders. This is what the offseason is for.

Yet, in reading reactions to the trade, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed the consensus was that Walker was a somewhat disappointing fallback plan to Zobrist. A lesser option, or a little brother, or a poor man’s Zobrist. They’re both switch-hitters, and they’ve both been around for a while, and they both play second base, and they were both targeted by the Mets, and they’ve both experienced success (even if Zobrist’s peak has been higher than Walker’s) and so the comparison isn’t surprising.

But I think to categorize Walker as anything less than Zobrist’s equal, at this stage in their careers, would be unfair to Walker. Regard their performance over the last three seasons, with Zobrist’s defensive numbers only coming from his time spent at second base:

Ben Zobrist vs. Neil Walker, 2013-15
Name PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ BsR tDEF/1000
Ben Zobrist 1887 0.274 0.356 0.413 0.139 0.338 118 3.2 2.0
Neil Walker 1725 0.264 0.336 0.438 0.174 0.338 118 1.9 -0.5
tDEF/1000 = Composite run value of DRS, UZR and FRAA, prorated to 1,000 innings

With the bat, they’ve been absolutely identical. Each has been 18% above league average over the past three seasons, in a similar amount of playing time. Zobrist is better at getting on base — he both takes more walks and makes more contact — but when Walker makes his contact he tends to do so with more authority, and it’s not like he’s an on-base liability, either. Walker has struggled against lefties throughout his career, and last year especially, but the year before that he was above league average against southpaws so it’s not like he’s strictly a platoon bat, and if you’re going to have a switch-hitter struggle from one side of the plate you’d prefer it come against lefties. Both are fine baserunners — mostly average — and while Zobrist has had an edge in the field, neither sways too far toward either end of the spectrum.

Walker is coming off his worst offensive season in years, though he still was an above-average hitter, and Zobrist is coming off his worst defensive season in years, likely due in part to his early-season knee surgery on a torn meniscus that kept him sidelined for a month. While it’s easier to point to the potential bounceback when you can attribute a drop in performance to an injury, it’s worth noting that Zobrist is entering his age-35 season, and defense peaks early. At this stage in Zobrist’s career, it’s not unreasonable to view him as an average-at-best defensive second baseman, mitigating the one advantage he’d held over Walker (discounting his versatility) over the past three seasons.

And to that point, there’s the fact that Walker is five years younger than Zobrist, and that the Mets have just one year and $9 million dollars committed to Walker and seem likely to receive draft pick compensation for him after next year. The financial obligation for 2016 is roughly the same as the Cubs owe Zobrist,and, while we’re here, here’s next year’s offensive forecasts:

2016 Steamer projections

  • Walker: 113 wRC+
  • Zobrist: 115 wRC+

Looking just at 2016, there shouldn’t be much expected difference between Walker and Zobrist, offensively or elsewhere. And then consider that, now, the Mets don’t have to worry about what paying $12 million to a 38-year-old infielder might look like four years down the road. There’s the case to be made about the security that the Cubs have in multiple years of Zobrist, but maybe by next season the Mets will feel that Dilson Herrera is ready to take over as an everyday second baseman anyway.

It’s an understandable reaction, when you’ve gotten your hopes up for an exciting new present and you’ve already pictured how much fun it’s going to be, to be let down when you get a slightly different model. Doesn’t always mean the model you got is any worse than the model you thought you were going to get, though.

We hoped you liked reading Neil Walker Is More Than Just a Ben Zobrist Plan B by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Weston T
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Weston T

I wonder if Ben Zobrist plan B is better than the generic stuff