Neil Walker, coming into the 2016 season, had been one of the most consistent players in baseball since becoming a regular. Behold, the consistency of Neil Walker, 2012-2015:
Aside from a bit of a power spike in 2014, when Walker hit a career-high 23 homers, he’s been a modestly above-average hitter and a below-average fielder at a valuable position. Overall, he’s a very solid player, and acquiring him for a declining Jonathon Niese ranks as one of Sandy Alderson’s better moves. In 2016, his walk year, he’s been largely the same player, but just a little bit better:
He’s on pace to shatter that 2014 career-high in homers, has consolidated offensive gains from previous seasons, and is having his best defensive season by most metrics. Much of this has come in a so-far blistering second half. We’ll come back to why this might be happening later on.
If you’re a longer-term Mets fan, you might remember the consistency of the second baseman prior to Walker, Daniel Murphy:
Kind of a similar player, and even more consistent, but a little worse, right? There’s a power spike in 2015, and if you dig a little deeper it came almost all in the second half. I’ll assume everyone reading this article is aware that Murphy then went nuts in the 2015 postseason, setting the record for most consecutive games with a home run, and basically carrying the Mets to the World Series on his bat alone.
Murphy’s late-season and postseason gains caused the Mets to tender him the qualifying offer, which he declined under the hopes that the Mets would offer him a multi-year deal. But the Mets did not believeth in Murph, reacting with borderline glee to his decision to walk away, freeing them to lust after Ben Zobrist and ultimately trade for Walker. Murphy took his talents to the Navy Yard, signing a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals. Through August 16th, this looks like one of the greatest bargains in the free agency era of baseball:
Even at the time, it wasn’t clear that Murphy declining the initial $15.8 million from the Mets was the correct move for him. He’d have had to have a true disaster of a 2016 not to be able to beat two years and $22 million over 2017 and 2018. But, guaranteed money is guaranteed money. Now, Murphy’s contract already looks ludicrous, and he would’ve easily landed a nine-figure deal had he been able to re-enter free agency this offseason.
Much has been written noting Murphy’s improvement from league-average slap hitter to the left-handed Mike Trout. Surprisingly little has been written about how he improved. Suffice to say, a full accounting of Murphy’s rise is an article or five onto itself — Rian Watt covered it some over at VICE Sports, and as always, his work on Murphy is worth a read. In short, Murphy had always possessed more raw power than you’d have thought scouting his stat lines, and Mets hitting coach Kevin Long reworked him into a dead uppercut hitter, which had a bunch of positive cascade effects like improving his plate coverage and turning weak contact the other way into pulled liners. Most of these “hitting coach makes major changes” stories turn out to be fleeting, and the Mets didn’t even self-scout this one as accurate. But Murphy isn’t even the only guy Long has this type of credit with—look no further than Curtis Granderson.
So what does this mean for Neil Walker? You can find these kinds of Kevin Long tidbits about making substantial changes to Neil Walker’s swing, too. Going back to spring training, the Mets had talked about Long working on big changes to Walker mechanically, especially as a right-handed batter. The sample sizes are tiny, but after going through a career in Pittsburgh where it was suggested that he give up switch-hitting, Walker has murdered lefties this season, putting up a Murphian .330/.381/.619 triple-slash. He had hit six home runs as a right-handed batter for his entire career entering 2016, and has hit eight already in 2016.
Given that he’s always been a little better player than Murphy, making Walker the qualifying offer seems like a no-brainer. But unlike with Murphy, the Mets seem to want Walker to stay; there is reported mutual interest in discussing a contract extension. In the period since Murphy walked, Dilson Herrera has become a Cincinnati Red, vacating his second baseman of the future crown. And in the period since Murphy rejected the qualifying offer, the market fell out for second-tier hitters tagged with a QO. Murphy himself came in under projections, and Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler both ultimately had to accept one-year deals for less than they had initially rejected. Before Walker’s recent incredible offensive outburst, Kate Morrison predicted that he would probably accept if tendered the qualifying offer, given those market conditions and that two hitters (Colby Rasmus and Matt Wieters) broke the dam on playing a year out under the tender last offseason.
I don’t know how real Neil Walker’s gains are. They aren’t quite as stark as Murphy’s, but there’s a lot of the same buzz around it. And what the Mets can’t do is let another Kevin Long success story walk away because they couldn’t recognize it was real. The Mets do have other internal 2017 second base candidates—Wilmer Flores, Jose Reyes, even Gavin Cecchini—but none are as good as even pre-2016 consistent old Neil Walker, and Flores and Reyes could have other important roles to play elsewhere. Assuming Walker’s price is reasonable, at worst you’re retaining a good player for a few more years, and you might be getting a lot more. It’s probably time to make him a Met for awhile.
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports