Neil Walker interview: Pirates 2B talks contract extension, hitting, Bucs offseason

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Pirates second baseman talks about pitchers he hates facing, what he learned in Class AAA, and whether he and the Bucs can agree on an extension.

Vlad and I (along with Tim and Kevin from Pirates Prospects and Kipper and SteelReign from Pittsburgh Sports Forum) spoke to Neil Walker on Friday. Thanks to Terry Rodgers and the Pirates for setting this up for us.

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I'll start. My back is doing well. I had (physical therapy) for about six weeks, three days a week. I got out of there about three weeks ago, full strength back, full health, and I've been able to do my offseason workouts normally, and at the normal time, which is important for me. So I started PT right when the season ended, so I didn't want to miss any extra time. Now we can move on.

Since you've gotten to the Pirates, how has the atmosphere in the clubhouse changed? Because as of a few years ago, it just looked all tense, stressed, but now it just looks like you're out having fun, like you're brothers.

I think the mentality in that 2009/2010 realm ... I think the overall consensus was just a sink-or-swim type of mentality. It was kind of like swimming upstream. Number one, it seemed like everything we did, nothing worked. Any type of mixture we to do tried didn't quite work. And here we are two years later, and our offseason acquisitions are a catcher and a couple pitchers, and I think that's a testament to the core we have now, that we built. Because two years ago it was, like, 65 percent turnover from the end of the season roster to the spring training roster. Now we probably maybe have four or five guys, possibly, on the 25-man roster? So that's impressive. And we feel that in the clubhouse too. The confidence, not only from winning ... and even though the season ended the way it ended, we know that feeling of wondering if we can compete in the National League Central, it's no longer there. And it was there for a few years in '09 and 2010. It's no longer there. And if we could just find a way to beat Milwaukee on a regular basis, we'd be in real good shape.

When was the last time the Pirates approached you about a long-term contract extension?

We talked a bit last Spring Training. We didn't go into too much detail, and it didn't go real far. Before that it was the Spring Training before. So it hasn't gone too far, and we don't expect to have anything happen come this Spring Training. Something that's important to me is not really talking during the season. That's one thing I'm pretty adamant about. If something's going to get done, I'd rather have it in Spring Training or after the season. When they came to talk to me a few times, once during the season, it wasn't good for me mentally. I'm very open to it. I hope that we can get something done. But as of right now, it is where it is. It's still pretty much the same as it was last Spring Training.

Are you waiting for them to come to you, or do you have your agent approach them ...

It's a little bit of both. We've had talks with their counsel, and with Neal and with Frank, and they know I want to be a Pirate for a long time. I've expressed that I want to be the Cal Ripken of this organization, and I believe that I can [be]. ... It hasn't been so much us reaching out to them or them reaching out to us, it's just kind of been trying to find some happy medium and middle ground. Eventually, I do believe that something will get done, but as of this point, we are where we are.

You've had a few seasons at second base now. Looking at some of the stats -- the advanced metrics -- and even on the field, it looks like your defense is progressing along. How do you field the position now compared to where you were a few years ago?

It feels light years ago that I was in Spring Training in 2010 playing left field, first base, right field, catching every once in a while, second base, [and] third base. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about that anymore. I've had such great help from, not just Bill Mazeroski, Nick Leyva, Carlos Garcia a couple years ago, Clint Barmes, he played the position when he was with the Colorado Rockies for a long period of time. ... Fortunately, [with] my athleticism, I was able to pick it up pretty quickly, but there's still room to grow there. But the fact that I was able to finish [2011] second behind Brandon Phillips in the Gold Glove voting is something that I'm very passionate about.

What effect has Barmes had on your defense, do you think?

On my defense in particular or the defense in general?

Either one.

He's the integral part to our defense. ... Clint does a great job of separating his offense and his defense, and there's not a guy who cares more, not only about his performance, but about the guys around him, than that guy. There's nobody I've ever played with that's more passionate about his teammates, and about winning, and about him doing well. We learned so much from Clint this year because of how much he struggled offensively. He struggled so much for two and a half months, and then just this slow, grinding climb back to getting somewhere close to having a good year, at least from a numbers standpoint. I think he's going to continue to help us, not only defensively, but I think he's going to be a big part of our offense this year too.

With Jay Bell being the new hitting instructor, is he going to change anything about approach at the plate, [or] is he going to leave it up to you?

Having a brief conversation with him today ... it sounds like he's the type of guy who's less talking about mechanics than he is talking about approach. I think that's something that he was good at when he played. ... I don't know if he's going to try to change the full philosophy on our hitting approach, but there are areas that we're going to improve upon but I think that's more along the lines of growing as a team and getting experience. When you look at us as an offense and as many home runs as we hit but also as many strikeouts as we [had] and our on-base percentage as a team, it certainly wasn't very good. We have some interesting mixtures where if he can find a happy medium, find a way to cut down on the strikeouts [and] still hit home runs ... obviously, everybody wants to do that.

You spent a fair amount of time at Indianapolis, and that must have been a frustrating time for you. What were the most important things you learned there that helped you become the player you are now?

I learned so many valuable things playing at Indianapolis. As crappy and frustrating as it is to be at Indianapolis -- because I got there when I was 21, and I didn't get out of there until I was 25 -- I'm glad it was a nice city. I'm glad I wasn't stuck in, you know, Scranton or Buffalo or one of these places that's kind of a tough place to play.

What guys sometimes don't understand, especially guys who get to the big leagues quickly, and have to go through those adjustments ... I was able to work through a lot of things, not only mechanically, but mentally, in AAA that [were] integral to my offensive game. I found myself at AAA. It was sink-or-swim. Guys knew how to pitch down there.

The first two years, it was just miserable. I didn't know what I was doing. Then all of a sudden, something clicks a little bit, you start to give in to an approach. You start to realize that you're in AAA for a reason, and that's to work on your approach. You're able to kind of separate the fact that you're not really there to win, but you're there to figure out a way to make yourself the best player. And that's where I figured out what works best for me as a hitter, left-handed, right-handed.

As bad as it sounds, sometimes at AAA, you can give away at-bats to try to make yourself better. You can get to two strikes ... to work on your two-strike approach, and nobody's going to say anything. What does it matter if you're losing in AAA? When I got out of there, there was nothing that was better for my career than spending that amount of time at AAA, but nobody wants to be there. It sucks. But you have to find a way to separate a lot of these different things, because it's way easier to give up that fourth or fifth at-bat in AAA than it is in the big leagues. ... That's why numbers don't tell the whole story, a lot of times.

When you're facing a [Roy] Halladay, sometimes it looks like certain hitters are saying, 'Alright, I'm going to look for a pitch right here.' Is that the best way to approach a [pitcher]?

I think through scouting reports and through watching film, you have a very good idea, especially late in the count, of [how] guys ... are going to try to get you out. Sinkerballers, for me, I never have to see sinkers coming into me, so there's a lot of times where if I know a sinkerballer is on the mound -- a Jake Westbrook, [Kyle] Lohse, a lot of guys on the Cardinals -- I won't try to pull the ball at all. My focus is middle of the field to left field. So I'll give up a little bit of the plate, because, in all actuality, it's extremely hard to cover the entire plate. But to be successful at the major-league level, you have to continually change that. Because if I go a series -- if I face Westbrook and Lohse on back-to-back nights -- and I go 2-for-3 against him and then I go 1-for-2 against the next guy, there's a good chance that, next time I see those guys, I'm not going to be pitched the same way, especially if I get hits where I'm trying to get hits, the middle of the field, left-center, left field.

But there are very special occasions where you will sell out completely on certain guys, and that's when sometimes you see guys take 0-2 fastballs right down the middle and everybody's going, 'What the hell are you doing?' But 98 percent of the time in those situations, there's a plan and an approach. ... It certainly ends up becoming a cat-and-mouse game, and there are certain guys, certain No. 1's, that you have to do that against, because you get to two strikes against Roy Halladay, your chances of getting a hit are extremely slim. Your chances of putting the ball in play are pretty slim. But your chances of, you foul that middle-away fastball 1-1 against Roy Halladay, he's not going to throw you that same pitch. You're getting his nastiest stuff, and it's probably going to be somewhere on the black.

Do you think the time you spent as a catcher affects your approach at the plate, in the way you think about pitch sequences and things like that?

It definitely helped. That's probably the biggest thing that I miss from catching, number one, was seeing so many pitches, seeing so many arm angles, that helps you when you're hitting, because when you get four at-bats a night and you're playing outfield or something, you're not seeing this constant motion. When you're catching, you're seeing [it], so when you get in the box, sometimes it feels just like you're catching. But from a cat-and-mouse-game-type standpoint, pitch selection, pitch recognition ... it helps out a lot, because a lot of people don't know the game from that side.

There's always one pitcher that a player does well against, and a pitcher that a player never does well against. Who [are they] for you?

Johnny Cueto is probably a guy, just because we see him so much, but he gives me nightmares. Now that I think about it, he doesn't give me as [many] nightmares as Shaun Marcum does. I'm pretty sure I've had about 20 at-bats and maybe have had two hits, and he's like a Jeff Karstens -- you know what you're going to get. You know he's throwing you slow curveballs, you know he's throwing you 87-MPH fastballs away, but it's like that game where he's slow, slow, slow, and then fast, and he throws you 87 and it looks like 95, and you're sitting on the bench drinking water.

And then there's guys that, for whatever reason, I see the ball really well. Mike Leake, from Cincinnati -- for whatever reason, I've always hit him real well, and he's got really good stuff [Ed. note: ???], so for whatever reason, I've been able to do well.

Is it just seeing the ball out of his hand?

It's a lot of different things. You hear guys say it all the time. You'll see, you know, Corey Hart, for whatever reason, he couldn't stand facing Jeff Karstens. Couldn't hit his curveball, couldn't see him, he couldn't stand it. ... [W]e knew that going in because he told Karstens, like, 'I hate you, I hate facing you.' He hit a home run [last year against Karstens], he went in the dugout, you would've thought that they'd won the World Series. Like, 'Oh my God, I got a hit against Karstens!'

When a new guy comes up like [Brock] Holt, how long does it take for you to acquire that sort of familiarity and that comfort zone on the pivot?

It does take some time. You tend to talk about where you like the ball on double-play feeds. That's what me and [Barmes] talked about a lot during Spring Training. ... If it's underhand, where do you want it? If it's thrown from deep short, where do you want it? If I'm feeding it, where does Clint want it? Where does Brock want it? Where does Jordy [Mercer] want it? ... It's tougher to do those things on the fly, in the middle of the season, than it is to do in Spring Training, so that'll be on the agenda this year, not just with Clint and I, but you make sure you deal with the backups and the extra guys and the AAA guys to make sure you're on the same page with them, too.

Do you feel pretty good at this point, as far as comfort with everyone on the roster?

Yeah, I think so. [As] I mentioned before, this offseason is interesting for us because there's not going to be 40 percent turnover on our [25-man] roster from the end of this past year to 2013 Spring Training. We've got our catcher, we're going to get a couple more arms. But really, that's it. Especially on the offensive end, we've got a couple people fighting for spots, the corner outfield spots, maybe not quite sure what's going to go on at first base. Hopefully, Clint Robinson can come in, and Gaby Sanchez and those guys can work well together, and I think they're both great players. But for the first time in a long time, we have a very good idea of what the 25-man roster's going to look like going into the season.

You're saying that gives you confidence, but we hear a lot of speculation that when the Pirates don't add a bunch of players at the trading deadline or in the offseason that that saps your confidence.

Well, yeah, and ... I was quoted saying that.

Yeah.

I think especially this All-Star break, a lot of guys thought, especially looking back to [2011] when we added Derrek Lee and we added Ryan Ludwick, we felt like that was going to happen again. We got Wandy [Rodriguez]. We were extremely happy with him. We got Chad Qualls, and he did a good job for us. We got [Hisanori] Takahashi, who didn't throw as much as we liked. We got some guys that really help. But it also hurts when you lose guys like Casey McGehee, because he was such a good guy in the clubhouse. ...

So there is a fine line, and sometimes it comes off as being frustrated, but at the same time, I believe that almost every team kind of looks, especially at the All-Star break, and you start to hear things ... and you hear Chase Headley's name ... and you don't get him, and you feel frustrated. And you bite your tongue after you say things. I think the acquisitions we made were good, but I think everybody, not just our organization, every team thinks that, unless they're 30 games over .500, I think everybody thinks that, 'We should do something here, we should do something there.' Nobody's ever satisfied, but at the same time, sometimes you say you're satisfied and it comes off as not being satisfied, so, yeah. I think next time I'm asked that question, I'll probably be a little more careful.

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