After 58 games, Neil Walker finally took a seat. • Walker suited up and took the field for every game this season, including a doubleheader in New York, until manager Clint Hurdle gave him a break in the final game of the series against the San Diego Padres this week. Walker's constant presence on the field has been a luxury after injuries shortened his previous two seasons.
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"This is the most healthy I've been since the 2010-2011 seasons," Walker said. "That's a pretty direct correlation to what I've been doing. It's certainly not [in] any way me looking for excuses for poor play in between there, but that's the way I feel."
In 469 plate appearances in 2010, Walker's first extended exposure to the majors, he had a .349 on-base percentage and a .462 slugging percentage. In 253 plate appearances entering this weekend, Walker had a .349 OBP and a .458 slugging percentage.
As of this past week's update, Walker's performance at the plate was good for third place among National League second basemen in All-Star voting, behind Philadelphia's Chase Utley and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dee Gordon.
A herniated disc in Walker's lower back hampered him in the final months of 2012 and forced the Pirates to end his season early. Walker twice went on the disabled list last season, once when he was spiked in a play at second base and later with an oblique strain.
Injuries affect players on two levels. Aside from the actual pain, which prevents them from swinging, throwing, running or whatever the case might be, an injury that boots a player from the lineup disrupts his timing and rhythm at the plate. Healthy and able to take the field every day, Walker has taken advantage.
"All your focus and energy is toward the game as opposed to getting yourself healthy, worrying about getting the right amount of at-bats, being consistent, trying to play catch-up," Walker said.
His average has settled at .278 this year, but he increased his power. He had 11 home runs entering the weekend, one shy of his 2010 total and five away from his career high of 16 last year.
"I don't consider myself a home run hitter," Walker said after hitting his 11th, when he drove an outside curveball out to the opposite field at Petco Park Tuesday night. "I don't consider myself a guy that's going to run a lot of balls out of the ballpark. But I do consider myself a guy that's able to find the barrel."
The Pirates control Walker's contract status for two more seasons. He qualified for salary arbitration early as a Super Two player, and his performance this season will likely lead to substantial raises in relation to his $5.75 million salary for 2014. A contract extension for Walker, 28, would provide the Pirates extra years of control and cost certainty, but Walker said an extension has not been discussed.
"The way I see it is that I'll be arbitration-eligible after this year and it'll be the same as this past year and the following year," he said. "Obviously at some point, those talks will have to happen, but they just haven't happened yet."
Walker has long said he prefers not to discuss contracts in season, when his focus should be on the field. That approach has worked fine for him this year.
Pitching: the inside story
No longer does baseball rely on the eye test. Teams attempt to quantify everything, even intangibles. Pitch-framing, hard contact, baserunning -- they have metrics for all of it.
Add the effects of pitching inside, considered an important part of the game forever, to the list. Manager Clint Hurdle said the Pirates have data on what happens in an at-bat after a fastball in off the plate for every player in the league.
"One fastball in, or double-up on fastballs in at the plate, and what can happen in the at-bat," Hurdle said. "I'm sure most teams do."
Hurdle continually stresses to his pitchers the importance of pitching to the inside part of the plate, which partly resulted from his previous work under Don Baylor while in the Colorado Rockies organization.
"[Baylor] said, 'If you'll pay attention to the game, more often than not, the highest percentage of elite players are those that have ownership over the inside part of the plate, whether it be a pitcher or a hitter,' " Hurdle said.
In addition to the difficulty of getting good wood on a ball up under the hands, an inside fastball gets into the hitter's head. Perhaps he doesn't dig in as much, or scoots back in the box slightly. Hurdle referenced Cy Young winner Don Drysdale, who developed a reputation by leading the league in hit batters for four consecutive years -- then hit more than 12 only once in the final eight years of his career. He ranks 18th on the all-time list.
"Compared to what the story [said], it's almost like a folklore," Hurdle said.
When those fastballs venture far enough inside to hit the batter, they can serve the same purpose. Hurdle said hitters now take offense to pitches inside, and the body armor they wear can mitigate the effect.
"I kind of equate it to water polo," Hurdle said. "You have a camera above the water and then that camera under the water shows you a whole different game that goes on. And there's a different game that goes on in Major League Baseball and all baseball as far as the inside part of the plate. Not just the inner third, but from the edge of the plate to the white stripe. And there could be another part played off the white stripe. It's real. There's some pitchers that use it very effectively."
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