Bob Smizik: How do the Pirates handle Walker?

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Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who is a switch-hitter, had the perfect answer last week when it was suggested that considering his lack of success batting right-handed against left-handed pitching, he might consider batting left-handed all the time.

He said: “I'll always be a switch-hitter. The critics can say this or that about hitting left-handed (full-time). But if they'd ever try to hit a left-hander's slider (while batting) left-handed, they'd reconsider.”

Lefties hitting lefties is, as Walker suggests, a common MLB problem and it’s not a method he should use to curb his considerable difficulties in this area. These are his battling lines hitting right-handed against left-handed pitching in his four full MLB seasons.

2010: .295/.344/.464 -- .809 (112 at bats)

2011: .269/322/.350 -- .673 (160 at bats)

2012: .246/.314/.288 -- .602 (118 at bats)

2013: .225/.281/.238 -- .512 (80 at bats)

In view of his performance the past three years, there’s no figuring the success Walker had in 2010. Only a cockeyed optimist would expect him to return to that level of play. The Pirates probably would be happy with just stemming the precipitous decline and working back toward better days.

Although all of those recent numbers are terrible, what really jumps out is his slugging percentage. Among all National League batters last year, slugging percentage on the average was 73 points higher than on-base percentage. But while batting lefty, Walker’s slugging percentage was 43 points lower than his OBP. In his 80 ABs last season vs. lefties, he had one extra-base hit, a double. He has not homered against a lefty since 2011.

Walker has gone from successfully handling left-handers (2010), to having some problems (2011), to being overmatched (2012), to being a flaming liability (2013).

The one piece of positive news on this front is the predominance of right-handed starters in the National League and particularly in the Central Division. Among the other four Central teams, there are only two lefties penciled into 2014 starting rotations.

But on those one or two days a week the Pirates face a lefty, how does manager Clint Hurdle post his lineup?

As badly as he’s handled lefties the past three years, Walker still gets the benefit of the doubt to start the season. He should be in the lineup against most lefties. There certainly will be days when he’s ‘rested’ and those days likely will coincide with an opposing left-handed starter.

But the Pirates cannot allow a repeat of 2013 to stretch out too long?

They are a contender, not a team striving to break a two-decade long string of losing. Every game counts. Texas finished one game behind the wild-card winners in the American League last year.

Pirates utilityman Josh Harrison had this line against left-handed pitching last year: .350/.381/.600 -- .981. That was the result of only 40 at bats, but Hurdle would be derelict in his duties if he allowed Walker to struggle for long based on what Harrison did last year. In fairness, Harrison had a .580 OPS against lefties in 86 at bats in 2012 and .593 in 62 at bats in 2011. So he’s hardly a guarantee.

Brent Morel, acquired from Toronto last week more as a possible backup for Pedro Alvarez at third base, has played some second base in the minors but not in MLB. His lifetime OPS vs. lefties is .684 in 183 at bats.

And then there’s this:

In this the second of the four arbitration seasons he’ll have, Walker will be paid $5.75 million, up from $3.3 million. That number could easily escalate into the $8 million range in 2015 and $10 million in 2016. That’s a lot of money to pay a second baseman who does not project as an everyday option.

Walker is a well-above average player. Even with his right-handed batting dragging down his numbers, he had the second highest OPS among second basemen in the National League, trailing only Chase Utley.

But at the money he figures to be making in the years ahead, the Pirates will expect full-time work. Walker is going to have to earn that status with the chances he’ll receive in April and May.


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