The worst-case scenario has played out for the Milwaukee Brewers here in the second half of the MLB regular season. At the All-Star break, the upstart Milwaukee Nine looked primed to take advantage of what’s been a down year for the National League Central, riding a homer-happy offense to a 5.5 game lead by the Midsummer Classic. In the month since then, the team has endured not one, but two 6-game losing streaks and has seen their divisional lead evaporate into a 2.0 game deficit and 3rd place standing behind the Cubs and Cardinals.
The sudden vanishing of the offense has been mostly to blame for Milwaukee’s struggles. The club ranked among league leaders in most categories during the first half of the year, but here’s a sample of how they’ve fared over the last four weeks since the break:
Runs - 28th (104)
Home Runs - t-17th (33)
Strikeouts - 1st (27.9%)
Isolated Power - 26th (.149)
Non-Pitcher wRC+ - 28th (84)
Second base has been an especially troublesome spot for the Brewers during the second half and basically the season as a whole. After turning down a contract extension last winter that would have bought out his arbitration years, Jonathan Villar has regressed to a .223/.282/.350 slash line with 9 homers and 21 steals. His 61 wRC+ is nearly a 50% drop from the 119 mark he produced last season, and he’s been one of the least productive regular players in baseball. Eric Sogard signed a minor league deal last offseason and didn’t get called up until May, but started off hot and had basically usurped the starting second baseman job from Villar before he went down with an injury in early July. He’s reverted to the Eric Sogard of old since returning from the DL, having accrued just 6 hits and 6 walks in 48 plate appearances.
So on Saturday night, Slingin’ David Stearns made a move to attempt to right his sinking offense by acquiring veteran Neil Walker from the New York Mets. Stearns and co. had reportedly been ‘in’ on Ian Kinsler in the weeks leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline and attempted to bring him in once he was placed on trade waivers, but he did not make it to Milwaukee via claim. Instead Stearns settled on Walker, a rental player who had already cleared August trade waivers. He arrived in Milwaukee in time for yesterday’s game and went 2-for-4 in his Brewers’ debut, a 7-4 victory.
Walker, 31, has fashioned himself quite the nice career since being drafted in the 1st round by the Pirates back in 2004. He’s played in 1023 games in parts of 9 big league seasons, batting .273/.339/.437 with 126 home runs across 4187 plate appearances, good for a 114 wRC+. He’s never been named to an All-Star team, but the switch-hitter did win a Silver Slugger at second base back in 2014 and has never finished a full season with a wRC+ below 100. That’s remarkable offensive consistency at a position that’s not generally relied upon to produce runs. A familiar foe from his many years with the Pirates, Neil has always enjoyed batting at Miller Park:
Neil Walker career numbers at Miller Park: .286/.332/.534, 11 HRs, 16 doubles in 220 plate appearances.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 12, 2017
It’s been more of the same for Walker this year at the plate, as he’s batted .268/.341/.442 with 10 home runs so far through 303 plate appearances in 2017. He’s walking a touch more than he typically has (8.9% in 2017, 8.3% career) and striking out a bit less, as well (15.5% in 2017, 17.3% career). Walker has a contact-oriented approach at the plate, rarely offering at pitches outside the zone (27.4% O-Swing rate in 2017) or swinging-and-missing (7.5% swinging-strike rate). His 82.7% contact rate ranks among league-leaders (minimum 300 PA) this season and is right in line with his career average. Walker has seen his rate of hard contact drop from last season to this year, but his 31.6% is still on par with both the league average in 2017 and his career average.
Walker isn’t a perfect player, of course, and there are some warts to his game. He’s never been exactly an outstanding defender at the keystone, and the numbers bear that out again this season: -3 Defensive Runs Saved and a 0.1 Ultimate Zone Rating in 581.1 innings at second base. He’s also had plenty of injury issues in the past, reaching the 140 games played threshold just twice in 8 full MLB seasons. He missed a good chunk of the season last year with a herniated disc in his back and a partially torn hamstring cost him seven weeks of action in June and July this year. He’s been slow to find his form since returning from the DL, too, having batted just .255/.286/.319 in 14 games since getting healthy.
Walker amounts to about a 1.5 month rental for the Brewers, as he’ll reach free agency at the end of this season. He accepted the 1-year, $17.2 mil qualifying offer last that New York offered him last winter and is still owed between $4-$5 mil this season, though the Mets sent some cash in the deal to help cover a bit of that cost.
Given the relatively minimal cost of a player to be named later, the Neil Walker trade looks like it should be another good one for David Stearns and the Brewers. We won’t know the player going to New York for another few months, but given the market for rentals this summer, it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll be any notable prospect from the Brewers. (Speculatively, perhaps the list is a group of players who will be Rule 5 eligible this winter and the deal won’t get completed until after the draft to ensure that the Mets won’t have to add said player to their 40 man roster.) Walker is in the midst of another solid campaign and should provide an offensive boost at the Brewers’ greatest position of need. In addition to playing second base, Walker can play some first base as well as third, where he made his Brewer debut yesterday while Travis Shaw nursed a sore right foot.
As long as he can stay on the field, Walker should help lift a sagging lineup during the stretch run. Even with their recent swoon, the 61-59 Brewers are still very much in the thick of the playoff race in the NL Central - the division that nobody seems to want to win. It’s been 6 years since we’ve seen playoff baseball in Milwaukee, but hopefully Neil Walker’s addition will help right the ship and propel our beloved local nine to a division championship and a memorable postseason run.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs