Neil Walker is no longer the catcher of the future in Pittsburgh, but the native son is still expected to help lead a Pirates’ resurgence at PNC Park. The 22-year-old switch-hitter is rated by BP’s Kevin Goldstein as the team’s third-best prospect, and while he’s beginning the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, Walker may find himself a home in the Pirates lineup by the All-Star break. Moved to the hot corner a year ago, Walker was a two-sport star in high school just north of Pittsburgh prior to being the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2004. David talked to Walker on opening day of the Triple-A season.
David Laurila: If you had to give a scouting report on your offensive game, what would it say?
Neil Walker: It would say that I’m a switch hitter, and a guy who makes solid contact a lot of the time and tries to hit the gaps from both sides of the plate. I think that’s pretty much it. I’m a middle-of-the-order guy and a line-drive hitter.
DL: Outside of the normal development process, have you changed as a hitter since signing in 2004?
NW: No, not really. Everything has been pretty much the normal development stuff. Mechanically there’s nothing different; mentally, there are a few things different as you move up, but that’s just part of the learning curve.
DL: Are you the same hitter from both sides of the plate?
NW: Fairly. I’m one of those guys who feels that if you keep things somewhat similar, it’s easier to make adjustments. If both sides are the same, it’s easier to know when you’re doing things wrong, or when you’re doing things well. So, to me it’s important to try to do things the same.
DL: From your perspective, is there such a thing as a Pittsburgh Pirates hitting approach?
NW: I think so. They want to make sure that we’re focused on the opposite-field gaps and taking what the pitcher gives you. They obviously don’t preach that you should pull too much. What they want us to do is go gap-to-gap and hit line drives. During batting practice, they definitely preach on trying to stay on the ball, keep pop ups out, and to stay from the ground to line drives.
DL: Has that been the approach since you signed, or has it changed since the new front office came in this past offseason?
NW: It’s changed a little bit. I think the new group is much more attentive to detail, and that’s one of the things that goes along with it. It’s something good, and something to kind of pound into your brain to keep you going throughout the season.
DL: You’re facing Bartolo Colon tonight. What are you going to be watching for from him, not only in your own at-bats, but also when your teammates are hitting?
NW: Basically, I’ll be trying to see what he’s throwing early and what his go-to pitch is–what he likes to throw on 0-2, 1-2. I’ll definitely be looking to see how he throws to other left-handers in front of, and behind, me. I’m excited to be facing him, and hopefully I can take advantage of any situation I can.
DL: This is Opening Day. It’s a clichéd question, but does that have any special meaning to you?
NW: Well, it’s my first go-round starting out at Triple-A, so the adrenaline is going to be flowing tonight. I think everyone is going to be excited, even with the weather being a little cold, but I’m looking forward to having a good season this year and working hard to get even better.
DL: What are your strengths and weaknesses defensively right now?
NW: I think that athletically, as a third baseman, I’m pretty capable of getting to a lot of balls. One thing I really need to focus on is my footwork and throwing, making sure that I’m set and that I aim for my target. I can get to balls easily and catch them, so I think that if I make sure I’m focused on making good throws, and those things, I’ll be just fine. I think that my defensive game has come a long way in the last year or so, and I hope to improve it even more.
DL: Outside of the coaching staff, is there anyone you’ve worked with who has helped you to become a better defensive third baseman?
NW: Jose Hernandez is someone I watched quite a bit when I was here, in Triple-A, at the end of last year. He’s a phenomenal worker and a very smart individual–a very good baseball player. It was fun to be around him and watch him work, and I took some pointers from him and talked baseball with him. I was fortunate to be around him, and it’s unfortunate that he’s not here again this year.
DL: How much did the position switch affect your offensive game?
NW: You know, my numbers weren’t too different. Having caught, and played third, I can say that it’s a little easier not to have to focus on–I guess I should say that you don’t have to take your mind off of hitting as much when you’re playing third base. When you’re catching, you’re not only thinking about having a good at-bat, but also how to get the guys on the other team out. You have to stay with the pitcher, so it’s definitely a lot more work behind the plate. Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t be prepared at third base, because the moment you let up is the moment that hot shots come down at you. That’s one of the things I’ve learned.
DL: Two years ago, Kevin Youkilis spent some time in left field–a position he had never played–due to an injury to Manny Ramirez. Youkilis later admitted that the move took a toll on him mentally, perhaps impacting what he did at the plate.
NW: I think that was partially the case with me last year, it being my first full season at third. Mentally, I had a lot of people pulling me every which way, but I think for the most part, for most of the season, it didn’t affect my offensive game. But I do think that by the end of the season I was both mentally and physically drained. So that may have had something to do with it, but it’s something you learn as you play, and I’m hoping to eliminate any of that fatigue this year.
DL: Coming out of high school, you were regarded as a wide receiver prospect had you opted to go the college route. Given that your scouting report says you have a strong arm and average speed, might a position change have happened with football–a move from wide receiver to quarterback?
NW: No, no. The funny thing is, I could never really throw a football; it was always a duck coming out of my hand. I was also 25 pounds lighter when I was coming out of high school. Had I played college football, I probably would have been a defensive back, maybe a free safety or something like that. I did have one stint as a quarterback, but it was very short.
DL: Did you play basketball in high school?
NW: I played basketball until my senior year, and I enjoyed it. I was a forward-slash-guard. My sister actually played at a pretty high level. She played at a small school in Staten Island, New York, called Wagner. Then she played in the Irish Super Professional League, over in Ireland. It was kind of a brief stint for her, but she enjoyed it and it was a lot of fun to go over there and see a different part of the world; to see a different country. We played many one-on-one games back in the day, and she roughed me up quite a bit!
DL: Can you offer a Final Four prediction?
NW: I like UCLA and I like UNC, so I guess I’d have to say it’s down to those two. If I had to pick one, I’d say UCLA.