By In Stuff

Why Walks Matter

One quick thought on the Cardinals’ amazing four-run comeback in the ninth against Washington … and it relates to something I got from Brilliant Reader Craig recently. Craig was talking about how he appreciated the value of walks, but he finds the act of drawing a walk so passive that it’s clear why it has been so underplayed through the years.
To quote:

There is a big, obvious explanation as to why we place so little value on walks in “traditional” metrics like batting average … it’s that to earn a walk, technically speaking, you don’t necessarily have to DO anything. You don’t have to have a skill. You don’t have to be a baseball player. You don’t even have to be alive. … The walk is one of the few positive statistics you can earn simply by doing absolutely nothing.

I do think that a lot of people believe this, that the walk is simply about standing around. Bill James tells a famous story of watching Amos Otis draw a game-winning walk and reading in the next day’s Kansas City Star that Otis had become a hero doing exactly what everyone else in the stadium had done — nothing.

Trouble is, of course, this patently isn’t true. Nobody in big league history has ever walked by doing nothing. Even Eddie Gaedel, the closest example you could come up with to someone who walked doing nothing, had a unique baseball skill: He was 3-foot-7 and he crouched. If any person went to the plate promising to do nothing — promising not to swing the bat — they would never, ever walk. There isn’t a pitcher who ever took a mound in the big leagues who could not throw three obvious strikes if he was guaranteed the batter would not swing, and there isn’t an umpire who ever crouched behind the plate who would fail to call those strikes.

So, you might say: Well, what about intentional walks? Well, no pitcher would intentionally walk anyone if the batter promised not to swing. Intentional walks build from situations. The hitter is so good, the pitcher does not want to face him. The situation is so dire — second and third, no outs, for instance — that the pitching team believes setting up the double play is the better move. The idea that a big league walk is ever achieved without at least some effort seems to me utterly false.

But, of course, most walks are not intentional or a matter of a pitcher who has lost the strike zone. Most walks are a result of a skirmish between pitcher and hitter. Which brings us to the ninth inning Friday.

The Cardinals scored four runs. Carlos Beltran doubled. After Matt Holliday grounded out and Allen Craig struck out against Drew Storen, Yadier Molina walked. David Frese walked to load the bases. Daniel Descalso hit his single off the shortstop’s glove to score two. Pete Kozma’s single to right scored two more. And the Cardinals won.

And, if you ask me, you know what was the most important pitch of the entire inning? It was an 85-mph slider Storen threw to Yadi with the Cardinals still down two runs. At that moment, the count was 2-2. The crowd was flipping out, waving those red towels, jumping up and down, bracing themselves for the moment. Storen’s slider is nasty, when it’s right. It looks like a strike for 50 or 55 feet, but the last bit it drops right out of the strike zone, into a manhole, and hitters flail helplessly at it. That’s what Craig had just done, which tells you the slider had some hypnotic powers. Storen threw the slider, and it did just what it was supposed to do, it looked like an oncoming strike, then it crash landed, Molina flinched like he was going to swing at it. This is the crucial decision for a hitter. If it’s a fastball and he doesn’t swing at it, it’s strike three and he looks the fool. If he does swing at it, and it’s the slider, he will miss it, and the game is over, the Nationals win.

At the last possible instant, Molina held back.

Even in that instant — before the inning came together (or fell apart, depending on your side of the aisle) — I found myself awed that Molina did not swing at that pitch. The skill of big league hitters often astounds me, but in that moment, with the crowd, with the intensity, with the significance, with Molina’s history (he likes to swing the bat), I have absolutely no idea how Yadi held up there. No clue.

It was like a magic trick.

David Frese had a similar moment in his at-bat — 1-2 count, two men on, crowd going crazy — and he got the slider, and he too held back. It did not seem to me quite as good a slider, plus I had already seen Molina’s remarkable take so it was not quite as dazzling. But it was still pretty darned good. The hero was Descalso with his single and stolen base, the hero was Kozma with his tie-breaking single, I know that. But if you ask me the singular moment of that inning was Molina holding off strike three. It seemed a lot more to me than doing nothing.

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36 Responses to Why Walks Matter

  1. Rob Smith says:

    Walking players in the ninth inning with a lead is all on the pitcher. The worst thing they can do is put runners on base. Let them hit it, put it in play. He’s got fielders behind him.

    • frightwig says:

      In this case, Storen had to show respect for Molina and Freese, as either are fairly likely to hit the ball over the wall if the pitcher just offers to “let them hit.” He had to be careful to paint the corners or try to get them to chase out of the zone. As it happened, Storen did get both hitters to 2 strikes, and to both hitters he delivered a pitch in the strike zone that could have been Strike 3 (Pitch #1 to Molina, and Pitch #5 was close; Pitch #4 to Freese), but he didn’t get the calls. That’s unfortunate for Storen and the Nats, but credit to both hitters for being very selective in a high-pressure spot.

      (Pitch f/x graphics for both at-bats at the following link:)

    • They did put it in play: for a double and two singles. If he hadn’t walked the previous two batters, people would be complaining about Storen throwing too many hittable pitches and that he should be throwing more balls to get them to chase.

      “Make them put it in play” is one of the most meaningless platitudes in baseball, unless you really want your team’s pitching staff to be made up entirely of Mark Hendricksons.

    • Rob Smith says:

      All I know is that walks are ALWAYS part of these comebacks. It’s pretty rare to see a comeback of that magnitude without some walks thrown in. I think we’ve all seen pitchers cruising along with a big lead just throw the “here hit me” fastball rather than issue a walk. Nobody whines when they occasionally get hit out of the park. It’s situational. You don’t groove a ball with the tying run at the plate, but at least with Molina, a HR wouldn’t have hurt the Nats. You have to get the tying run to the plate before a HR beats you.

    • Dinky says:

      Rob, beg to differ. I recall a majorly important late season game where the Dodgers got four homers in the 9th and 10th inning (and no walks) to win. The thing is, a slider that is *in* the strike zone is fairly easy to hit. The way the human body is built, it’s pitches out of the strike zone that are harder to hit hard; the extra reach needed, the extra length slowing the bat down. Most MLB pitchers have pitches that look like they will be strikes but end up balls, or less commonly look like they’ll be out of the strike zone and break in for a called strike. Storer did what he was supposed to do, and so did Molina and Freese. And also in Storer’s behalf, once an ump starts squeezing the strike zone, it’s even more important to get a swing and a miss, because a called strike doesn’t have as much delta from a fat pitch. So maybe the problem starts with the umpire.

  2. RickRain says:

    And, remember, in Game 7 of 2011 W.S., bottom of first after TEX scored two in top frame: with 2 outs, Rangers walked Pujols and Berkman before Freese’s double.

  3. Ryan says:

    It seems worth mentioning that the 2-2 Molina pitch was actually a strike.

  4. Scott says:

    In an aside I have always wondered why pitchers didn’t just bean Gaedel. I mean really, he was mocking them as much as putting himself up for mockery, you would think one would have handled him roughly for it. I guess old school is a little different than Cole Hamels imagines it to be.

    I do like walks though. They both drive up pitch count and frustrate pitchers, two things that I am a big fan of when looking at hitters, and since I’ve never seen anyone turn a walk into a double play, or get burned trying to stretch a walk into a double it seems they have some advantages contact is better advocates miss.

    • Kansas City says:

      Gaedel just batted one time. If I recall correctly, he led off the second game of a double header. It was more a joke than anything else. It would be outrageious to “just bean” anyone, especially in an era of no helmets, but assuming you just mean hit him, it just wasn’t even close to necessary or approipriate in the circumstances of his one at bat.

    • Scott says:

      I always thought Gaedel played 2 or 3 games before the League stepped in and forced Comiskey to remove him from the team, at least that was the way I heard it, but I could be wrong. But honestly, the bean ball has been part of baseball for a long time, and I could see a pitcher getting mad at being the butt of a joke and handling it that way. You may not think it’s necessary or appropriate, but unless you have the ball in your hand you don’t get a vote and neither do I. Can you imagine if someone tried to bat a midget against Bob Gibson?

    • He played one game with the St. Louis Browns, so I don’t think Comiskey had anything to do with it.

    • Eddie Gaedel got 1 plate appearance in the major leagues. He played for the Browns and Bill Veeck, so Comiskey has no place in this story whatsoever. He walked on 4 pitches. The pitcher was Bob Cain, who, the story goes, was laughing the whole time. Which makes sense, if you think about it. It’s not actually impossible to throw a strike to a midget. Just throw it low.

      And all of this is extraordinarily easy to look up.

    • Dan Davis says:

      The Tigers weren’t going to bean the little guy, most were laughing as he stood in there. The catcher went out of his crouch, down onto his knees.

      Bill Veeck said Gaedel was “by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball.”

      Gaedel’s grand-nephew Kyle Gaedele plays minor league ball in the Padres system. He is 6’3″.

      Wikipedia is pretty cool.

  5. Devon Young says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Poz! What I always ask people who think walks are a result of the batter “doing nothing” or “being lazy” is — if that’s true, then why does the batter get a RBI for a bases-loaded walk? If it had nothing to do with the batter, then wouldn’t it be a no-RBI deal, like when the defense commits an error?

    • Vidor says:

      The answer is that we shouldn’t award an RBI for a bases-loaded walk.

    • tomemos says:

      Of course we should. I agree that Devon’s argument isn’t dispositive–we award RBIs in pretty arbitrary ways–but drawing a walk is not automatic and it knocks in a run. That’s open and shut.

    • Dinky says:

      Wait a second, Vidor. Guy comes up with the bases loaded and hits a medium fly ball or weak grounder with less than two outs. He gets an RBI. But the guy who works an 11 pitch walk, especially with two outs, doesn’t deserve an RBI? On a larger level (see the Yankees and Red Sox of recent years) baseball is about tiring out the other team’s best pitchers through deep pitch counts so you get to face weaker pitchers. A walk is *always* a good thing. If it wasn’t, when Bonds was putting up all those insane numbers, teams would have just walked him every at bat.

  6. Jeremy says:

    You didn’t even mention walks after the batter has fouled off a few pitches. If a batter draws a 10-pitch walk, he has to have fought the pitcher with some foul balls.

  7. Your says:

    My son today took two walks, singled and struck out on a bad pitch. He thinks he had a bad day batting 0.500, OBP 0.750 and seeing 20+ pitches. Good day for me.

  8. Vidor says:

    I don’t know, I think there is some validity in the view that a walk is a passive act. It IS a passive act. Yadier Molina…did not swing. David Freese…did not swing. Certainly hitting safely requires a far greater feat of physical skill.

    • Unknown says:

      How long have you watched baseball?

      Pitch recognition is also a physical skill, and it is actually one of the most important skills for a position player. Many minor leaguers can hit meatballs and batting practice pitches a long ways. Many minor leaguers don’t become major leaguers because they can’t lay off major-league pitches that are out of the zone or take strikes that they think are balls.

    • Unknown says:

      How long have you watched baseball?

      Pitch recognition is also a physical skill, and it is actually one of the most important skills for a position player. Many minor leaguers can hit meatballs and batting practice pitches a long ways. Many minor leaguers don’t become major leaguers because they can’t lay off major-league pitches that are out of the zone or take strikes that they think are balls.

    • tomemos says:

      Do we just assess baseball ability in terms of the amount of physical skill required? This isn’t track and field. Diving headlong for a ball also requires more physical skill than defensive fundamentals like positioning and proper routes, but the latter are far more important to being a good defender.

    • Brian says:

      Vidor, I think taking a pitch merely LOOKS passive, b/c the end result is that the batter doesn’t offer. But the split second in which the ball travels to the plate requires a whole complex of mental and physical processes – picking up the ball from the pitcher’s hand, recognizing pitch type and location, deciding when, where, and whether to swing, etc., etc., etc. These are all active choices, and require an extremely high degree of training and skill. In fact, this process is the exact same whether the hitter swings or not. That is to say, the acts of hitting and baseball and deciding not to hit a baseball are not fundamentally different.

      Another, more eggheaded, point – we know that the standard deviation for walk rates among hitters is far greater than it is for pitchers. This suggests that hitters drive the outcome (walks vs. balls in plays) more than pitchers do. If walks were merely passive – something dictated solely by pitchers – this would not be the case.

    • Dinky says:

      Strike zone judgment (or the lack thereof) is why a lot of hitters who excelled when they actually made contact are not in the Hall of Fame. Eric Davis was the guy we cited most frequently when I was really into the minutia of running a S-O-M team. The one season Adrian Beltre learned to lay off the slider was the season he almost won the MVP. And again, look at almost every team in baseball (well, good team): their starters do well, there end of the game guys do well, but if you can get into the bullpen before the seventh inning, that’s when you can do some real damage. So making pitchers throw pitches without getting outs is the way to god.

  9. timifill says:

    Everyone knows that when Abner Doubleday was toiling away in his Cooperstown, NY workshop single-handedly inventing the sport of baseball from whole cloth, he threw in walks at the last minute to account for those very rare times when a pitcher had trouble throwing the ball over the plate for some reason. Of course, the downside has been that some lazy players (like Ted Williams) would rather take that free base than work for a hit.

    Ok, I exaggerate, but I think this isn’t far off from some people’s notions. The notion is that in baseball you’re supposed to hit. If the pitcher doesn’t give you pitches that you can fairly be expected to hit, then you get the walk as compensation. That’s how the game was designed, man. I think a lot of people just can’t shake that notion, so they look down their noses at walks.

    In any case, even though I fully recognize the value of walks in MLB and want my favorite team to be built around guys who can get on base at high rates, there’s still one more funny wrinkle with me. In the recreational softball league that I play in, I hate walking (as do pretty much all of my teammates). I’d rather offer at a pitch a little ways outside of the zone than take a ball. We feel like we’d rather hit than take the walk, and that the walk is a compensation for the pitcher not giving us fair pitches to hit. Of course, the big difference here (aside from a little less competitiveness than MLB) is that all of the pitchers do actually try to throw only strikes and hittable balls, and unless the pitcher’s a bit of a tool and trying to exploit our sportsmanship, when they throw balls they actually are making mistakes and missing the zone. I suppose if trying to tempt us to swing at bad pitches outside of the zone were part of a pitcher’s strategy, the stigma of walks would completely go away, as it has in MLB (for the most part).

    • Rob Smith says:

      Having played softball and baseball the comparison is ludicrous. Softballs are the size of grapefruits and are laid in their for hitting. For me, if I swung, I hit it in play 90% of the time. The only walks I ever got were when the pitcher threw four straight balls. With baseball, the much smaller ball is coming faster with more movement and more deception. Therefore it was harder to make contact. You don’t put every strike in play. So, there are more pitches, deeper counts and more opportunity for walks. That’s why you get more walks in softball…. if that wasn’t already obvious.

    • timifill says:

      Well that’s kind of the point. That it’s not necessarily something inherent about walks, but the nature of the game. If I were a baseball player in a highly skilled league, I would want to walk regularly, because it’s an important part of the game. But in a softball beer league, I hate walking and want to do it only when the ball is thoroughly unhittable (since the ball, combined with the mandated type of pitching, is designed to be hit). I think the problem is that a lot of people view walks in MLB, which are an important part of the game, as if it were rec softball where, only a jerk would try to draw a walk instead of refusing to offer at balls that are just outside of the zone but still plenty hittable.

    • Dinky says:

      Rob, a lot depends on the pitcher, batter, and league, even in softball. I played a lot of slow pitch softball, and I knew within an inch where the pitch would land in enough time to swing at strikes. I also caught a lot, and my main pitcher averaged at least one extra strikeout a game with me behind the plate. How? Every strike, I’d say “That’s a strike”. Every ball, I’d say nothing. Later in the game, weaker hitter, I’d shut up with two strikes on a pitch in the black, and they’d inevitably not swing, strikeout looking. And for the first few seasons, I’d OBP over .900 on walks because I could foul pitches off (until they implemented the two fouls equals strike three rule). Yes, I could place the ball well for singles, and if the outfield left me a gap (say, down the right field line) I’d swing at the first pitch in the right location, but walks were more certain to help my team than swinging. If my strike zone judgment was worse, though, I’d have hacked a lot more.

  10. Those people have probably never stepped in the box on a 100mph pitch to say a “walk is doing nothing”

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