By In Stuff

Question of the Day 6/24

Brilliant Reader Trent asks an overall question about this story, written by old pal Jeff Flanagan, where Royals GM Dayton Moore seems to blame the Royals lack of walks through the years, at least in part, on the size of their ballpark, Kauffman Stadium.

“We have the largest ballpark in terms of square footage of any ballpark in baseball,” Moore told Flanagan. “When pitchers come here, they have the mindset to use that park — put the ball in play, throw strikes, attack the zone. There isn’t the same fear factor of getting beat deep that you might have elsewhere … I think that plays a huge factor in the walk statistic.”

OK, well, obvious things first: This explanation is ridiculous on its face when you consider that while Royals hitters have not finished top half in walks since 1989 (this is one of the most ridiculous stats I’ve ever seen, by the way) Royals PITCHERS have had the most walks the league four times and finished bottom five in walks 12 times over that same span. Those pitchers, best I can tell, work in the same stadium. So apparently that fear factor works only one way.

But rather than harp on that quote, it might be better to delve into a deeper issue, that the Royals — and I do believe Dayton Moore would like them to walk more — seem to think that walking comes down to something trite and vague as “fear factor.” Lots of people seem to think this, the theory being that hitters with power draw more walks because pitchers tend to pitch them more carefully (and hitters without power draw fewer walks because pitchers are happy to challenge them).

I’ve thought a lot about this, and to be blunt about it I don’t believe it is true. Well, yes, it is true that hitters with power often walk more. Not always — Dave Kingman, Juan Gonzalez, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Banks, Andre Dawson, et. al — but as a general rule power hitters do walk more than non power hitters. But I think the cause and effect is way off. I think the idea that hitters walk because of a pitcher’s “fear” is, for the most part, hopelessly misguided.

What I think — and admittedly I’m making this up as I go along, so cut me a little slack here — is that people mostly got the order wrong. I don’t think hitters walk because they hit with more power. I think hitters hit with more power because they walk. That is to say, I think that plate discipline often (again, not always) leads to power. And not the other way around.

Look, we all know that Major League Baseball players hit with a lot more power on favorable counts — 1-0, 2-0, 3-1 — than any other time.

This year is pretty typical — here are slugging percentages when ahead in the count:

1-0: .544

2-0: .590

3-1: .662

And here are the slugging percentages when behind in the count:

0-1: .465

0-2: .217

1-2: .246

Now, obviously those two strike numbers are skewed by strikeoutss, but even if you take those out of play here are the percentages of home runs hit on balls put into play:

Ahead in count:
1-0 count: 4.4%
2-0 count: 5.5%
3-0 count: 11.6%
3-1 count: 7.4%

Behind in count:
0-1 count: 2.8%
0-2 count: 2.0%
1-2 count: 2.7%

Even in count:
First pitch: 4.5%
1-1 count: 3.3%
2-2 count: 3.2%
Full count: 4.0%

See, big league hitters — put in favorable counts — are awfully good. It really doesn’t matter who we are talking about. Jeff Francoeur, when he’s ahead in the count, hits .302/.424/.494. He’s a superstar when he’s ahead in the count — if he (and he alone) could start every at-bat ahead 2-0, he would be heading for the Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, when he’s behind in the count, he hits .205/.216/.329 … and he’s behind in the count a lot more often than he’s ahead. And this is instructive: It’s kind of ridiculous to say that “fear” is what drives a pitching pattern. Jeff Francoeur has trouble differentiating between strikes and balls. This year, according to the Pitch FX numbers, he is swinging at 45% of pitches out of the strike zone (the league average is 30% or so). So you tell me: Why would pitchers throw him strikes? If a pitcher knows that you will chase sliders in the dirt, you better believe he will throw you sliders in the dirt. Fear has nothing to do with it.

The Oakland A’s play in a big park. They are eighth in the league in home runs. But they lead the league in walks — lead the league because they have 10 players who have walked 20-plus times (the Royals have four). John Jaso, who has all of two home runs (and 22 in his career) has more walks than anyone on Kansas City except Billy Butler. It ain’t the ballpark. It ain’t fear either.

Put another way: I don’t think the Royals low-walk total has almost anything to do with their lack of home runs. If anything, their lack of home runs is a consequence of a stunning and consistent lack of plate discipline.

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22 Responses to Question of the Day 6/24

  1. Ixcila says:

    Interesting analysis on the direction of causation. I would like to see the analysis run using ISO instead of SLG, since what we’re talking about are “power hitters,” and it would be nice to screen out the effects of count on BA, which feeds into slugging.

  2. theolgoaler says:

    So, is plate discipline a teachable skill? Or is it something that some batters have (Stan Musial) and some batters (Francoeur) don’t? Yogi Berra was a notorious “bad-ball” hitter; that didn’t keep him from being (at worst) among the top five players at his position.

    • invitro says:

      Interesting question. We know that when drafting players, Billy Beane places a high value on whether they can draw (or take) walks. I think it’s quite possible that Moore ignores the ability to draw/take walks when drafting. Perhaps it’s a teachable skill, but the teaching needs to be done before a player is draft age.

    • I think the skill of “plate discipline” is a factor of two skills, one teachable, on not (really).

      I think that the most important of the two is “pitch recognition.” It is a big factor in the hit tool, too, obivously. And I don’t think that is teachable (well, not more so than “speed” or “arm,” etc.).

      But the other, patience, IS teachable. And sadly it is something that is really REVERSE taught. Let me explain.

      My brother was a very good high school baseball player. One summer, he played on a select traveling team. He was the team’s best player, and the coach (who had a great reputation) hit him third.

      He had good “plate discipline” and walked three times in his first game. His coach pulled him aside and told him “you are our best hitter — quit taking walks and HIT THE BALL.”

      That type of lesson has been handed down from generation to generation — like Joe, I am convinced it still exists. (I am in Cincinnati and a Reds fan — I hear Baker and Reds’ HOF broadcaster, Marty Brennaman, reflect this viewpoint all the time, chiding “RBI” men for walking all the time and bemoaning walks for “clogging the bases.”) It probably still exists among old school baseball men — and media.

      Look at the A’s. I can name only a few people on their team, but they get on base and are successful. I can name only a few, in part, because the media still undervalues OBP, too.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Agree. Jason Heyward is the opposite. He came up with great plate discipline…the story is that he got used to pitchers rarely throwing him strikes in travel and HS ball, and so he took a lot of pitches, including some he should have hit. So, the message came from the manager to stop being so selective, especially in rbi situations…possibly meaning to stop taking hittable pitches… But the result was fewer walks and, not surprisingly, fewer hits…. And a less effective player. Some “baseball men” can’t get out of their own way. If someone has good plate discipline, leave it alone!

    • Ian R. says:

      I’d say that plate discipline is more teachable than most hitting skills, but it’s still very hit or miss (pun slightly intended). There are some guys who have learned to be more patient at the plate over the course of their careers, but there are also some who have had great discipline from the beginning and others who are hackers no matter what anyone tells them. It’s more complicated than just ‘take more pitches.’

  3. Joe: Very good post, and it shows how the Royals’ thoughts about walks are still stuck in the 1950s, and this is their root problem. They look at walks as emotional, and they see them as a consequence. They don’t see walks or their prevention as coldly calculated, as much so as anything else in the game.

  4. Yes, hitting in favorable counts improves batters’ power numbers.
    But does pitchers’ fear of known power at least partially lead to aiming pitches, or pitching off the plate, making it easier for batters to reach favorable counts?

    Works in both directions, I think.

  5. BobDD says:

    Walks are an indirect consequence of a healthy batting attitude. Every hitter can make better contact on a pitch in the strike zone than they can on a pitch outside the strike zone, and we now have the data to back that up. So the pitch by pitch attitude is never to try to get a walk, but to try to drive a pitch that is in the strike zone. If you swing at a pitch outside the strike zone, you will be a weaker hitter and walk less. If you swing predominantly at pitches in the strike zone, you will be a stronger hitter and end up walking more. So Poz has identified exactly where the causation flows from and to. Natch.

    • olderholden says:

      I like “healthy batting attiude”, and look forward to it being metricized. “Puig’s hitting .450, and has an OPS of 1.186, but he’ll regress. His HBA is .295, which places him between Jeff Keppinger and Raoul Ibanez among qualified hitters.”

  6. mckingford says:

    I think it’s also worth noting that there are only certain pitches that can be effectively driven. People used to carp at, for example, Frank Thomas all the time because he walked so much, and refused to swing even at strikes. But a well-placed fastball on the lower edge of the plate is probably not a pitch you are going to be able to drive. You’re more likely to beat it into the ground. So even if it’s a strike, you might be advised, especially early – or ahead – in the count, to take the pitch. Selective hitters – Joey Votto, for instance – know this. Bad hitters are more likely to swing at anything with the resulting consequence often being contact, but to ill effect.

    • BobDD says:

      Good differentiation. The key is to be aggressive about the choosiness. Attack the Zone. Can’t be passively looking for a walk. But numerous walks to your name is aggressive in itself as it forces the pitcher to give you more hittable strikes (or that many more walks). So hitters (and organizations) that understand this have a huge advantage, about like the difference between running uphill vs. downhill. The people who do not understand this think walks and taking balls are passive, but the biggest offensive walk years – Bonds, Williams, Ruth – were aggressive bombardments in the Top 10 all-time seasons. Still blows my mind that Joe Morgan is now the patron saint of deniers about this.

  7. Steve O says:

    I think fear was probably a factor for Bonds in his 01-04 run. Well, maybe fear is the wrong word. Do athletes really “fear” anything when they’re playing? I guess “caution” might be a better word. During that absurd run, you know that pitchers just generally did not want to throw strikes to Bonds. Even when it wasn’t an IBB, it was often an “intentional unintentional walk,” one of those 4 pitch at-bats where the catcher stays in his normal crouch but everything you throw is at least 3 feet outside. The fact that he still managed to hit 209 HRs during a period where nobody wanted to throw him a strike is all the more amazing.

    • jmarsh123 says:

      Sosa also “developed” better plate discipline in the years on his power tear. I think on the extremes power hitters will draw a few more walks, but even at that, won’t reach Bonds level of walking.

      The reverse is also true (i.e. Jackie Rexrode principle), but for the vast majority of players what Joe says seems legit.

  8. Yes but . . . all the plate discipline in the world isn’t going to make Max Bishop or Brett Butler into a HR hitter. Further, some guys have great plate discipline (Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols in his prime) and don’t walk all that much, whereas other guys have great plate discipline and do walk a lot, but also K a lot. The point is that there is a “skill” that guys who walk a lot (and K a lot) have that JoeD, Phat Albert, Max Bishop, Ichiro don’t have (nor did Vlad Guerrero or Yogi Berra or Kirby Puckett for that matter). That “skill” leads to long at bats, more walks and more strikeouts. But it is something you cannot really teach (nor would you want to).
    The “skill”, of course, is the ability not to make contact on your swing. Because making contact leads to fewer walks (and Ks)


    • BobDD says:

      Sure would like to see swinging strike percentages on those you named, but I do not know where to find that data. I am unsure if your contention that heavy walkers swing and miss more is so. And how do you know that the “skill” you reference is unteachable? I don’t buy however that Ted Williams had a greater ability to miss than Joe DiMaggio did; I saw it as Joe D making dozens of more outs than Teddy each year. But Joe’s power, low walk rate and super low K rate were the biggest such outlier of its kind – awesome in its own way, just not as valuable as Williams’ offense because of the out rate (or OB%). In fact, I’ve always thought Williams and DiMaggio were the most perfect comparisons of contemporary great players whose biggest offensive difference was the out rate because of walks.

    • I don’t think Williams is the right comparison to JoeD, because Williams walked a ton but also didn’t strike out that much, so he was not a guy who was swinging and missing a lot. A better comparison is JoeD to the guy who replaced him as the Yankees’ CFer.


  9. RJL says:

    It is kind of sad that in 2013 this still needs to be explained, but you explained it very well and put it very succinctly. Thank you, Joe.

    They’re not throwing it out of the zone because they’re afraid of you; they are throwing it out of the zone because they know you’re dumb enough to swing at it.

  10. Schmutt says:

    My brother (the Yankee fan) used to wonder how anybody, ANYBODY, would ever walk Luis Castillo, especially in his older years with the Mets. What were they scared of? He might accidentally hit a double? I mean his career SLG was .351, and in his best year he slugged .397 with 31 XBH. In his 15-year career he had 281 XBH, which is like 3 seasons of Miguel Cabrera. And yet, he was able to grind out 800 career walks. His career OBP (.368) is higher than his career SLG. He walked almost 3x as often as he hit for extra bases (2.85x to be exact). Believe me, the pitchers had absolutely zero fear of Luis Castillo.

    I wonder if anyone in the live ball era has so many plate appearances (> 7,000) with such a disparity between walks and extra-base hits or with an OBP that much higher than SLG.

    To the spreadsheets!

    • Schmutt says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Schmutt says:

      Hat tip B-R:

      The only other two players since deadball (only Donie Bush did it) with at least as many plate appearances as Luis Castillo whose OBPs were at least 4.8% higher than their SLGs AND who walked at least 2.84x as often as they hit for extra bases were:

      Eddie Yost: 9,175 PA, .394 OBP, .371 SLG, 1,614 BB, 532 XBH
      Willie Randolph: 9,461 PA, .373 OBP, .351 SLG, 1,243 BB, 435 XBH

  11. […] Sadly, Royals pitchers cannot seem to grasp that useful mindset in their own home park as Joe Posnanski points out- […]

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