The value of walks


It’s not very often that I see a random stat, and it turns into a 30+ minute internal debate. Oddly, that was exactly what happened the other night when I saw this: That’s from Dave Cameron over at USSMariner, and its the type of thing that will drive Harrison and Brett crazy. Those guys love walks. Not that I blame them. Years of watching a lineup that included Yunieski Betancourt, Jose Lopez and Ichiro Suzuki all at the same can make a walk seem about as rare as a no-hitter.

At first glance, Cameron’s comment made me think that the Mariners just don’t value walks anymore. After years of trying to teach players on-base skills, or acquire players who already had them, perhaps the M’s had done a 180 and were no longer pushing players to earn walks?

First, we need to remember that walks are important. Besides being a great way to get on base and keep the ol’ OBP up, it’s also a way to make the opposing pitcher work, and hopefully, have to leave the game sooner. But more importantly, a high walk rate is a sign that a player has a good approach at the plate; that he doesn’t swing at many pitches outside of the strike zone.

So more walks is always greater than less walks, right? not so fast.

If you keep everything else the same, then yes, that’s true. But if you’re sacrificing hits to get those walks, then you’re fighting a losing battle. Your little league coach lied to you; a walk is not just as good as a hit. A baserunner can’t advance from first to third on the walk. You can’t score a runner from second with a walk, or even a runner from third unless the bases are loaded. And that’s just if the hit is a single. Doubles, triples and home runs wont ever happen if the bat is always on the shoulder.

But that doesn’t mean that the M’s should start hacking away at everything. Clearly we’ve learned from the Lopezs and Betancourts of the past, right? A good approach is still necessary.

The problem is when players start putting walks above everything else. Take Jack Cust as an example. He’s the player who’s been benched that Cameron mentioned. Cust has a great eye, and very rarely swings at anything that’s not in the strike zone, which leads to him being ahead in the count in almost every at bat. Pitchers are forced to throw him strikes, and he likes to just look at them.

I can’t tell you how many times already this season I’ve seen Cust take a 2-0 or 3-1 pitch for a strike when the pitcher threw him a batting practice quality fastball down the heart of the plate. He’d take that pitch, knowing that he’d be likely to earn a walk later in the at bat. That’s not what good hitters do. Good hitters take the bat off their shoulders and hit those balls hard.

That’s what Wedge has been preaching all season. It’s why not all walks are created equal. And it’s why walks alone aren’t the only indication of having a good approach at the plate.

I’m not trying to advocate that taking a pitch for a strike in a hitter’s count is always bad. It’s not. Borderline strikes, or breaking pitches when the hitter is sitting on a fastball, aren’t going to often lead to hard hit balls. I’m refering to the pitches that are grooved down the center of the plate. Those need to be crushed, not taken in hopes of walking later in the at-bat. Had Cust squared up on those pitches an driven a few of them, he’d still be playing regularly.

Here’s the stat lines of the 5 players the Mariner’s have with walk rates over 10%:

Jack Cust17.9 %34.6 %
Ryan Langerhans17.2 %42.3 %
Justin Smoak13.7 %23.4 %
Luis Rodriguez11.5 %18.1 %
Milton Bradley11.3 %30.7 %

Looking at that, I can’t keep the children’s song out of my head: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

That, of course, would be Justin Smoak. He’s the only one of the 5 players on that list who would be considered good.