Pittsburgh Pirates: Is Neil Walker a platoon player?

Aug 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (18) hits a sacrifice fly RBI against the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 5-4 in ten innings. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Even if the Pittsburgh Pirates add another position player prior to the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline, their offense is largely what it’s going to be at this point. As we’ve seen over the last two games, during which the Bucs have plated three legitimate runs over 25 innings, that picture isn’t the prettiest.

As I’ve written in the past, the Pirates have done well using the platoon advantage this season, especially at first base where Garrett Jones (lefty) and Gaby Sanchez (righty) have split time against opposite-handed pitchers. While Jones has muddled to a league-average OPS (.748) in the “big end” of the platoon, Sanchez’ .960 OPS vs. southpaws has made first base slightly more productive than one might think.

With Andrew Lambo back in Triple-A for the time being, it appears a right-field platoon featuring him and Jose Tabata will have to be put on hold. While that keeps an offensive black hole in stasis, there is at least another spot where the Pirates can be creative: second base

Of course, Neil Walker mans that position regularly. There’s been some buzz in the Pirates blogosphere about the idea of Walker giving up righthanded hitting. It seems that anything would be better than the Pittsburgh native’s switch-hitting charade, which has produced an incredible .415 difference between his OPS as a lefty (.812) and a righty (.497) this year.

Aug 18, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Jordy Mercer (10) turns a double play over Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill (2) during the tenth inning at PNC Park. The Diamondbacks won 4-2 in sixteen innings. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It would be a bit much to suggest Walker bag switch hitting in the middle of a season – that might work better as a winter project – but it wouldn’t be extreme to sit Walker against lefty starting pitchers. His replacement would be Jordy Mercer, whose .730 OPS against mostly righties in 2013 should translate well to a steady diet of southpaws.

Of course, Mercer is currently splitting time at shortstop with Clint Barmes, but Barmes has improved enough at the plate in the season’s second half to make a middle infield combination of Barmes and Mercer offensively viable. Also, Mercer appeared to handle second base quite ably when Walker recently missed time with an oblique injury.

The presence of an alternative option makes Walker a prime candidate for platoon duty. It’s tempting to look to third base for another split-time situation, as Pedro Alvarez’ .582 OPS against lefties this year doesn’t inspire much confidence going into the season’s final six weeks.

I could be convinced otherwise, but with the limited Josh Harrison as Alvarez’ logical platoon partner, I’m not ready to make that leap. Certainly the righthanded-hitting Harrison can’t come close to matching Pedro’s power, and he hasn’t shown to have a demonstrable advantage against lefties in his short MLB career.

Furthermore, the presence of Alvarez – the NL’s home run leader with 31 – at least forces opposing managers to adjust their strategies in the late innings. Harrison isn’t doing that when he’s in the lineup.

Walker has been a dangerous hitter at times in his Pirates career, but the 27-year-old has been downright impotent against lefthanded throwers. With Mercer’s performance encouraging more playing time, platooning Walker and Mercer at second base could solve two issues with one move.

Topics: Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates

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