Walker raking in July

After going 2 for 3 with two walks on Tuesday night, Neil Walker extended his hitting streak to 17 games. Walker also raised his batting average over .300 for the first time this season. After a lackluster start to the 2012 campaign, he has really heated up as of late, and has some of the best numbers among MLB second basemen. The 26-year old Pittsburgh native has put up solid stats all month, in addition to his hitting streak.

While his streak dates back to June 27th, Walker’s really been on first since the first of July. During the last four games of June, Neil was 8 for 17 (.471 avg) with two doubles, four RBI, four walks, and six runs. He carried it over as the calendar switched months, and hasn’t looked back.

The highlight of July for him came on Sunday, July 8th vs. San Francisco, which was the Pirates final game before the All-Star break. The Bucs stomped on Tim Lincecum and the Giants, and Walker was a large part of their success. He went 5 for 5 with a home run, double, two runs batted in, and four runs scored. With that performance alone, Walker raised his batting average 11 points, from .280 to .291. Andrew McCutchen did his part that day as well, as he launched two homers.

For the month, Walker is now hitting an astounding .490 (24 for 49). If this pace continues, it could be a race between McCutchen and Walker for the “Player of the Month” award. This has been Neil’s best month by far; here’s the breakdown:

Games AVG HR RBI OPS
April 21 .278 0 6 .647
May 28 .238 2 11 .648
June 26 .292 2 17 .785
July 13 .490 3 10 1.357

For the season, he has a triple-slash line of .302/.370/.430 with 7 HR and 44 RBI.

One aspect that has been missing from his game this year is hitting for power, but it’s nice to see that he’s already hit more homers this month than any other this season. Hopefully his power comes along, but we’d still take a high average any day, especially since second base isn’t a power position.

After hitting .296 during his rookie season, he dropped to .273 in 2011. The .275-.280 range seems to be where Walker will hover around, especially since he can be a streaky hitter. It would be ideal if he could remain around .290-.300 for the rest of the season.

Walker is also among the league leading second basemen. His .302 batting average is second to only Robinson Cano, who is hitting .320. His 44 runs batted in rank fifth, and his .370 on-base percentage is the second-highest. Walker ranks near the top in almost every category, which is impressive considering his company. Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, and Brandon Phillips are all elite second basemen, and don’t count out guys like Jose Altuve, Jason Kipnis, and Aaron Hill. Walker is hanging right with them at the plate.

His defense has also been a huge improvement. There were questions surrounding his defensive capabilities, since he switched from catcher to third base to second base on his path to the majors. Walker came up when Aki Iwamura struggled early in 2010, and has really held down the 2B position. His .990 fielding percentage is sixth-best in MLB, but it’s more impressive than it seems – the top six have all had less total chances than Walker. He is second in putouts with 169 and sixth in assists with 252. He’s looking better and better at 2B, and should remain an above-average fielder in the future.

Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com wrote a good article on “The Pittsburgh Kid” a few days ago. (You can read it HERE.) He discusses his role on the team and family, but more importantly, the connection between Roberto Clemente and Neil’s father, Tom Walker. Here’s an excerpt from Crasnick’s piece:

“Both Walkers owe a debt of gratitude to the most revered player in Pirates history. Tom Walker played winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1972 and helped Roberto Clemente load a plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua after Christmas. He offered to accompany Clemente on the trip, but the plane was full and Clemente told him to stay behind and enjoy New Year’s Eve.

A few hours later, Tom Walker returned to his condo and saw the news reports that Clemente’s plane had crashed off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Four decades later he’s still awed by the notion that he would have perished without Clemente’s selfless gesture, and his four children never would have been born.

“The man saved my life,” Tom Walker said. “It’s ingrained in my memory to this day. I don’t know what Neil’s regimen is every day at the park, but I’m sure when he looks out to that Roberto Clemente wall in right field, he probably thinks about that too.”

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