The Bucs' five-game winning streak ended today as the Pirates went back to doing what they do best--making struggling pitchers look good. Homer Bailey entered today's game with a 7.53 ERA but lopped nearly three quarters of a run off it by allowing only one run in seven innings, despite four walks.
When I look at the lineup the Pirates trotted out today, with Brandon Moss in right, Ramon Vazquez at third and Brian Bixler at shortstop, I can't help but feel like they deserved what they got. Even though Bixler hit a nice gap double, it offends my sensibilities to see him starting, and I feel like I've taken a particularly nauseating time machine ride back to 2007. Neal Huntington and company have already gotten rid of the entire back end of the horrible 40-man roster they inherited, except for Bixler, who's now almost 27, still has little control over the strike zone, and has done nothing to show he deserves continued opportunities in the majors, despite what Neil Walker thinks. Ronny Cedeno is out with a hairline fracture in his finger, true, but he should only be gone for a few more days. Until he returns, Andy LaRoche probably shouldn't get any days off.
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Somewhat relatedly, there have been some interesting arguments here in the past couple of weeks about Walker's other favorite person--himself. In fact, it seems like nearly every thread here recently turns into a discussion about Garrett Jones, Nyjer Morgan or Walker, and I guess I'm not really helping by stirring the pot here.
Anyway, one of those arguments goes that because LaRoche has posted only a .714 OPS this year, Walker should get a shot to show whether he can do better.
Surely LaRoche shouldn't be satisfied with a .714 OPS, but it doesn't follow that Walker deserves a chance. Class AAA stats correlate very meaningfully with major-league stats once they're adjusted, so I plugged Walker's numbers so far this year, including his 0-for-5 today, into Minor League Splits' Minor League Equivalency Calculator. The results?
330 AB, 71 hits, 24 2B, 2 3B, 9 HR, 19 BB, .215 AVG /.259 OBP /.380 SLG
This basically means that if Walker had played in Pittsburgh this year, he likely would have been one of the absolute worst players in the majors. Even accounting for some improvement over the course of the season, what Walker has done this year does not warrant even a September callup, let alone the third base job. Minor league stats matter, and Walker hasn't gotten it done this year. Three good weeks does not change that. Chances at the major league level are not, and should not be, given out at random.
One might argue that Walker should get a chance because we should see what he can do, now that we've seen what LaRoche can do. That's not a very good argument, because it begins from the false premise that Class AAA stats, when used properly, aren't predictive of major league stats. Walker has already shown what he'd do with major league playing time, and it isn't pretty.
Also, though, consider that major league playing time is also development time. LaRoche's .714 OPS this year contains a .336 OBP, which is pretty good. Walker, meanwhile, has posted a .336 or better OBP at only two minor league stops in his entire career, and this year he's struggling to top .300.
The problem, right now, is that LaRoche lacks power, and Walker lacks on-base ability. (Combine LaRoche's on-base ability with Walker's power and you'd have a pretty good player.) Unfortunately for Walker, good OBP ability can sometimes provide a foundation for power to develop, but the opposite isn't true. Guys who have good OBP as young players--think of Nate McLouth here, or Jim Edmonds, or Brian Giles, or Kevin Youkilis--often develop more power as they age. Guys who have good power but lack OBP skills usually just stagnate--think of Brad Eldred, for example.
This isn't to say it's all peaches and cream for LaRoche, or that he'll necessarily develop more power. A .336 OBP isn't really that high, and his .256 average this year is also cause for concern. And I'm certainly not saying he'll be as good as Edmonds or Giles in their primes, or Youkilis now. But I do think that in addition to being a much better player than Walker right now, LaRoche also has much more upside despite being two years older. There's a much better chance that he turns his base of skills into something more as he gets a little stronger. Walker is a hacker now, and while anything's possible, the chances are good that he'll always be one. He might have a burst or two of success in the major league level, but my guess is that pitchers will figure him out quickly and those bursts, if they ever happen, will be short. Then there's also the fact that a .700 OPS with a decent OBP is actually better than a .700 OPS loaded with power. Given the choice, you take the player who gets on base.
So, to sum up, there is no good reason to think that Walker could do better than LaRoche right now. Walker is also unlikely to be the better player over the course of their careers. And LaRoche has done enough this year to warrant more opportunities. A third baseman with a .714 OPS, a decent OBP and a good glove can become a very good player if he adds some power.
So let's please stop greeting every hit Neil Walker gets at Indianapolis with speculation about him replacing LaRoche. Neither of them deserve it. And while I'm at it, let's not accuse people who point out Walker's flaws of rooting for him to fail. That's just silly. He just isn't a very good player. I hope that changes, but I doubt it will.