No one really expected Neil Walker to make the seamless transition from catcher to third base.
And he hasnâ€™t. Not exactly.
Walkerâ€™s committed six errors over his first 15 games, but what can be expected from a player who caught every day over his entire career before moving to the hot corner and is now being expected to learn a new position on the fly two levels away from the big leagues?
â€œNot too much,â€ says an American League scout who followed Walker for eight days this season. â€œIn my mind, if you ask a player to make that kind of long term commitment, you move him down a level or two levels and take baby steps.
â€œIn this situation it makes more sense to do that. Walker is still just 21 years old, and he didnâ€™t really play much in A ball.â€
Walker played 81 games total at high Class A Lynchburg in 2005 and 2006, but most of last season was spent as the clubâ€™s designated hitter as he recovered from offseason wrist surgery.
Given the fact that he only caught five games at Double-A Altoona last season, and just over 50 at Lynchburg before being promoted, the Pirates thought Walkerâ€™s intelligence level, athleticism and makeup would all help the transition to the hot corner.
And so far, itâ€™s been a good move, despite the .850 fielding percentage.
â€œHeâ€™s been real good,â€ Altoona manager Tim Leiper said. â€œEarly on, there was a little fundamental stuff that became a little sloppy, but it took one time talking to him and the difference was night and day. Iâ€™m very excited about what heâ€™s doing. You look at him out there and you cannot tell he hasnâ€™t been playing that position his whole life. Things are creeping up on him, like different plays from different anglesâ€”things heâ€™s never seen before—those always surprise you because youâ€™ve never seen them before, but heâ€™s really handled himself well. Heâ€™s able to field bad hops, make good throws, his throwing is accurate. He does a lot of good things . . . Heâ€™s a good third baseman now and heâ€™s only going to get better.
â€œThis is a challenge for him. This is a new level, this is a good league and he hasnâ€™t like breezed through. Heâ€™s a heck of an athleteâ€”great athleteâ€”but he also needs to be a better baseball player and heâ€™s going to learn how to be a better baseball player this year.â€
In addition to all the defensive aspects of the game Walker has to learn, he needs to keep his bat going at a high level. The 2004 first-round pick is hitting .288/.328/.390 in 58 at-bats. The other question remains whether or not heâ€™ll hit for enough power for the position, but the 21-year-old is just focusing on what he can control now as he continues to learn on the fly.
â€œI think coming from catcher where separating offense from defense is one of the most important things you need to be able to do, itâ€™s prepared me for that,â€ Walker said. â€œIf youâ€™re still worried about your last at-bat as a catcher, that kind of screws yourself and the pitcher up. Iâ€™ve been able to carry that mentality over to this new position.
â€œNow that I donâ€™t have to worry about the pitcher or calling a game, I think Iâ€™ve been able to separate things pretty well and pretty evenly. Iâ€™ve been able to focus more on my hitting, my body feels a lot better and I feel a lot more loose at the plate. Iâ€™m still learning, but Iâ€™m tough on myself. I have to keep getting better in both areas and Iâ€™m working to do that.â€
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