Normal routine makes huge difference for Walker
Pirates second baseman feels in tune with his body as he gets ready for season
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pedro Alvarez tied for the National League lead in home runs (36) in 2013. Andrew McCutchen trumped everyone in the league by being its Most Valuable Player.
Yet, the argument can be made that Neil Walker is the Pirates' most indispensable player. This isn't sabermetrics talk. It's language of the oldest bottom line, wins and losses.
In the 2013 NL Division Series, Alvarez went off (three homers, six RBIs) and McCutchen reached base 38 percent of the time; Walker went 0-for-19, the Bucs lost.
In 2012, McCutchen's superb season had the Pirates in strong contention, still only two games out of a Wild Card spot on Aug. 26 -- when lower-back spasms shelved Walker. He didn't return until Sept. 14; the Bucs went 4-11 in his absence, and they were done.
All of this is to bring up the fact that Mr. Indispensable is poised to dispense a strong season, buoyed by a normal winter. While Walker had been preoccupied the previous offseason with girding his back and still walked on eggshells in Spring Training, he came into this camp off his normal routine. And it has made all the difference.
"I can definitely feel it. I'm more in tune with my body," he said. "I no longer have to worry about stuff in the weight room; those thoughts in the back of my head have gone away. It's a good feeling, to start where I normally start."
In 2013, Walker and the rest of the Pirates definitely did not finish where they normally had in the past. Their run into the postseason put a new angle on a trite subject, Walker playing in the city in which he grew up and for the team that he rooted for.
"I ran into a lot more Pirates fans," the Pittsburgh native reflected on this offseason, "and that's great. It's a blessing to live and play in the city I grew up in, and both me and my wife [Niki] are fortunate to have our families in the area. I certainly felt it more this offseason; going to the grocery store or just running errands, way more people were telling me how awesome our season went and how excited they were for 2014.
"I remember the early '90s, and knew firsthand the feeling of the 20-year struggle. So I had a better perspective on it than most of our players, and it was cool to be part of that group. ... The Wild Card Game was certainly special. It was a special year for us and, if nothing else, it taught us that if we believe in what we're doing, no matter what other people think or say, we have a good opportunity to win."
Kinda the way Walker feels about switch-hitting. He believes in his ability to become proficient at it, even as other people, mindful of his superior production as a left-handed hitter, think the time has come to abandon it.
The numbers are unbalanced. Last season, Walker had 43 extra-base hits batting lefty, and one -- a double -- batting righty. But the numbers that stick out for him are the at-bats; he got only 80 from the right side, a scarcity that dated back to Spring Training, when the Pirates saw few southpaw pitchers in Grapefruit League play.
"That was most challenging for me, the amount of left-handers I saw," Walker said. "With only a couple of left-handed starters in our division, it was kinda tough. I'm not making excuses for what the numbers said, but I'm going to work hard this spring to get more reps against lefties and try to keep in the flow.
"[Manager Clint Hurdle] will try to pair me up with a lot of left-handers this spring. When you get three at-bats against a lefty on Monday and don't see another one until Thursday, you can't do too much. You can get all the batting practice at-bats, but when you see 95 miles [per hour] in a game, it's a little different.
"I'll always be a switch-hitter. The critics can say this or that about hitting [only] left-handed. But if they ever tried hitting a left-hander's slider from the left side, they'd know better."
One of this spring's consistent themes among the Pirates has been the residual benefits of having experienced the 2013 playoff drive and then the postseason. Walker can specifically address that generic sentiment. Going 0-for-19 in a five-game postseason series can be a great teacher. Starling Marte had gone 1-for-19; consider how remarkable it is for your Nos. 1-2 hitters to go 1-for-38, yet still come within one win of taking the series.
"It's the first time we were a part of something like that," Walker said, "and the playoffs are a very different game. Very intense. You have to learn not to do too much, just continue what you were doing during the season. Let the game come to you. It was a great experience, something to build off.
"It stung a little bit. It was not a lack of effort on our part. Our goal was to get on base any way possible, set the table for the bats behind us. We did all we could. It was one of those things where we needed to try to do less, not force the issue. That experience will benefit us throughout the season. We know to just trust what we normally do, not try to do anything special."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.