BALTIMORE — Before the All-Star break, the discussion involving Neil Walker wasn’t about when he would snap out of his first-half funk.
It was how much longer he’d be taking up space in the Bronx.
Few role players, if any, survive limping into the midway point below the Mendoza Line, especially on a Yankees team with World Series aspirations. Yet there was Walker, at a cost of $4 million for this season, sitting at .197 — and the only thing saving his roster spot may have been the puzzling migraines that kept Brandon Drury on the disabled list.
Nearly two months later, the turnaround has been remarkable, and Walker’s value to the Yankees as a super-utility player has surpassed even their expectations for the job. For Saturday’s doubleheader at Camden Yards, Walker started the opener at second base, then switched to rightfield for the nightcap.
Aaron Boone considers Walker so critical these days that he was the only one to be pulled for the ninth inning of the Yankees’ 10-3 rout of the Orioles in Game 1, just to get him a quick breather before he went back into the lineup three hours later.
How important is Walker? Let’s count the ways. Before Saturday, Walker’s .909 OPS since the All-Star break ranked third on the Yankees — behind only Giancarlo Stanton (.990) and Miguel Andujar (.962) — based on a minimum of 100 plate appearances. Walker was tied for third with five home runs and ranked fourth with 18 RBIs.
“I’ve just been able to find the barrel, really,” Walker said Friday. “I haven’t been trying to do too much. My rhythm and timing has been good at the plate and I’m seeing the ball well.”
Oh, and about that batting average. Walker went 0-for-4 in Game 1, a rare doughnut that dropped him to .300 (27-for-90) in the second half. The previous night, Walker’s three-hit performance included a tiebreaking homer in the 10th inning of the Yankees’ 7-5 victory over the Orioles. He now seems to be in the middle of anything good that happens for the Yankees, as opposed to being one of the team’s only negatives in the first half.
“Walk’s been huge for us,” Boone said. “Obviously a tough start to the season, where he wasn’t raking like he normally does ... I feel like what we’re seeing is the hitter he’s been throughout his career. I felt like given at-bats, given regular playing time, it eventually would show itself, and it certainly has.”
Here’s the bonus. Unlike Stanton and Andujar, the only two sluggers currently outperforming him, Walker has been assisting the Yankees at a handful of positions — including rightfield, which is new to him this season, his 10th year in the majors. Walker already is the only Yankee to make double-digit starts at first base, second and third in the same season. But with his 10th start in rightfield Saturday night — in his last dozen games — Walker became the first Yankee since Randy Velarde in 1995 to start at four different positions in one season.
Versatility like that doesn’t come around very often. Walker is only the fourth player overall since 2000 to make 10 starts at those three infield spots plus the outfield, joining the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez (2017), the Rays’ Ty Wigginton (2006) and the Mariners’ Jolbert Cabrera. Since his July 28 debut in rightfield, Walker has committed only one error in 14 chances, when he misplayed a single by Kendrys Morales and cost the Yankees a run.
“He’s been awesome,” Boone said. “He’s been ‘whatever you need.’ The buy-in from him, the professionalism from him has put him in position to be successful in these different roles.”
Walker basically has turned into the Yankees’ fourth outfielder by default, and Boone has needed him to plug the holes that have sprung up with various injuries. Not only is Aaron Judge on the shelf indefinitely, but Walker has been used to protect against Giancarlo Stanton’s lingering hamstring issue, with Boone preferring to use his No. 2 hitter at DH rather than risk his legs.
As long as Didi Gregorius remains on the shelf, Walker helps fill the void at second, with Gleyber Torres sliding over to short. And once Stanton is OK for the outfield again, Walker could pressure Greg Bird for playing time at first base.
After wondering why Walker still was on the Yankees in the first half, it’s hard to imagine them without him ever since.