The Braves need a third baseman. Everyone knows the Braves need 3B because we all keep talking about how the Braves need a 3B. I’ve written about it. We as a blog wrote about it. Others have written about it and the general consensus is, Atlanta needs an external solution for 3B. At least in the short term. Some people are high on Austin Riley as a prospect, and even though I’m not necessarily one of them, even if you are, Riley isn’t the level of prospect you typically plan ahead for. If he’s beating down the door for a call up, then you make a move to open a spot. But it’s probably best to make him make you do that.
What all this means is, 3B solutions have been coming from everywhere this off-season. We’ve heard about signing Todd Frazier or Mike Moustakas. We’ve heard about trading for Josh Donaldson, or Evan Longoria, or Jedd Gyorko or Luis Valbuena an on and on. But there’s one name I haven’t heard. At all. From anyone. Neil Walker.
If you don’t know, Neil Walker is a free agent this year and has played third base as recently as last year. Now yes, he is traditionally a second baseman and maybe that’s why no one has pegged him as a potential solution for the Braves, but that seems a bit short sighted. One, he’s played third base in his career and while the sample sizes are small, his defensive metrics actually improve at third relative to second where range is more of an issue for him. Think of Brandon Phillips last year. And two, between the increase of defensive shifts, data-based positioning, and the hitters fly ball revolution, we’re probably entering an era where individual infield defense matters as little as it ever has.
But where he’s most interesting to me is how he stacks up with the guy who’s talked about most; Todd Frazier. Take a look at their numbers last year:
First thing you probably notice is the difference in WAR, but that’s entirely defense driven, where Walker was dinged for his range as a second basemen. We’ve already discussed how a move to third might help. But look at the offense. Walker has a higher wRC+, higher wOBA, higher OBP, and a lower K rate. Frazier draws a few more walks and hits more HRs (although Walker still had the higher slugging%). And these aren’t fluky numbers. You can take the timeline back to the standard three years and it still holds. Walker is the better hitter. And if you let him play third instead of second, ala Brandon Phillips, he might be the better player.
Now I know what some of you will say. Look at that BABIP. Frazier is clearly due for some improvement while Walker should stay the same. But this is a fallacy in how BABIP actually works. While the MLB average for BABIP is .300 that doesn’t mean that’s what every player should average. Todd Frazier is an extreme fly ball hitter. He started that in 2015 when his FB rate jumped up to around 47%, which is where it has stayed. His average BABIP in those 3 years is .247 which obviously isn’t really close to .300. Why? Because, while the major league average BABIP is .300, the major league average BABIP on fly balls is .130. Extreme fly ball hitters aren’t going to see the same type of batted ball luck as hitters who have a more balanced profile. Combine that with the fact that Frazier leads the world in infield pop ups the last 3 years, and you can see why he probably isn’t due for much more luck. Maybe some. But not a lot. He’s just not that type of hitter.
But it’s not just the profiles that make an interesting case for Walker but the price tags too. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs just released his top 50 free agents and their expected contracts. Not only does Walker come in higher on the list, 11th vs 13th, but he comes in cheaper. Cameron predicts Frazier is going to sign for something around 3 years $42M. He has Walker getting 3 years $33M. It’s not written in stone of course, but even judging by how much each gets talked about, it’s not hard to imagine Frazier getting the bigger contract. If I asked you before this piece who’s getting paid more, Neil Walker or Todd Frazier, what would you have said? I can make an easy case that Neil Walker is better than Todd Frazier and is going to be paid as if he’s worse.
Now it’s at this point that it’s prudent to bring up Walker’s injury history. He’s only played in 140+ games one time in the last 5 years and last year he had a significant hamstring injury. But he’s never failed to get at least 440 at bats in a season and maybe more importantly, he’s hasn’t posted a season below 2 WAR since 2010. Despite the injuries, he’s actually been a model of consistency.
The most likely scenario is Atlanta doesn’t end up with either one these players. It’s very possible they’ll balk at any contract over 2 years and go with more of a stop gap. But given the profiles of this two veterans and the expected price tags, the discrepancy in how much one is mentioned vs the other struck me as odd. Neil Walker is a good player. And he could play 3B.