June 7, 2010
Between The Numbers
Dead Men Walking
What’s a baseball fan to do when The Day After Ubaldo coincides with Strasburg Eve? If you answered, “Watch and chat about the draft,” well, you can take that kind of attitude elsewhere, mister (or ma’am). As the baseball world passes the time until 7 PM Eastern, let’s explore a statistical oddity, and see what (if anything) we can uncover.
My buddy Craig Glaser tweeted an interesting factoid on Saturday: Brewers catcher George Kottaras is one of only three players with at least 75 PA this season to have more walks to his name than hits. The other two are somewhat more accomplished: Nick Johnson, and presumptive Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Rather than devote my energies to a pursuit that might leave the world a better place than I found it, I decided to take a quick look into what makes these players tick. From 2000 to 2009, 28 players (in 35 player seasons, since some players were repeat offenders) managed to accumulate at least 75 PA in a single season while maintaining a higher walk total than hit total. Of those 28, 6 were pitchers, whom I’m removing from the sample on the grounds that they shouldn’t have been batting in the first place (yeah, I went there). That leaves us with the following 22 players (and 29 player seasons), whom I’m dubbing the Perambulator Posse:
The first thing you might notice is that Bonds guy rearing his bulbous head—not just once, but on six separate occasions. Regardless of how you reconcile his success, Bonds was a sports singularity, upsetting our conception of how the baseball universe worked by confronting us with inexplicable occurrences like bases-loaded intentional walks, players with .350+ TAvs unable to beg a roster spot at the major league minimum, and, to use a glaring example, 73-home-run seasons. Because his statistics distort everyone and everything within their event horizon, I included both a with-Bonds average and a without-Bonds average. Without exception, Bonds’ appearances on this list hinged on his copious quantities of intentional free passes; if we restrict the list to “true” Perambulators, who required little assistance from the opposing manager to qualify (in other words, those with UBB>H), we’re left with only 18 seasons.
Another obvious observation is that these players are old. Even with Bonds removed from the equation, the average perambulator was pushing 32. The two 23-year-olds on the list, Jack Cust and Brian Bocock, paid dearly for their anomalous performances as youths; Cust accumulated only 88 major league plate appearances in his subsequent three seasons after making his first appearance on this list in 2003, and Bocock has been banished from MLB since last sighted in May of 2008 (one wonders how a middle infielder with a .447 OPS and a 7.2% BB% in AAA managed a 12.9% walk rate for a brief time in the majors, even batting 8th in the NL). Bonus fact: Bocock currently sports a .159 TAv for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League.
With or without Bonds, the Perambulator Posse doubles as a low-BABIP brigade; few of these players were speedy to begin with, but most of them reached new BABIP lows in the seasons listed above. Of course, since BABIP declines with age as players lose both bat speed and foot speed, we shouldn’t be shocked to see such low figures concentrated among the elderly and infirm.
It’s very difficult for a player to be productive with more walks than hits, unless he’s slugging in the .700s, as were Bonds or McGwire. Nick Johnson is one of the three others on this list to have managed the feat, suggesting that the Yankees need not worry about the ultra-selective approach of OBP Jesus, should he ever resurface (more worrisome is the fact that both of his Perambulations preceded serious wrist injuries, suggesting that “OBP Lazarus” may have been a more fitting moniker). In many cases, a year with more walks than hits signaled the approaching end of a career. For Jon Nunnally, Tim Raines, Brady Anderson, Jeremy Giambi, Mark Sweeney, and Greg Norton, the seasons above marked the end of the line. Their demises may have been hastened by some amount of bad luck on balls in play, but it’s more likely that their bottom-feeding BABIPs reflected a change in true talent that told them (as well as their potential employers) that it was time to go.
So what does that mean for those players currently Perambulating? Here they are once more, in tabular form:
Johnson currently sports the second-largest differential between walks and hits of any qualifier (non-Bonds division), behind only John Jaha’s 16 in 2000. Whether he’ll get a chance to narrow the gap in 2010 is anyone’s guess. As Marc Normandin ably detailed, the 38-year-old Chipper Jones’ skills, so recently intact, seem to have slipped significantly, and his appearance in this post can’t be construed as anything other than an ill omen. Despite that, Chipper has managed to remain productive; if you’re not slugging up a storm, walking up a whirlwind will do the trick, and Chipper’s 20.1% walk rate ranks second in all of MLB (minimum 100 PA).
Speaking of which: If you had “George Kottaras” in the “Which player’s walk rate (unintentional or otherwise) will be leading MLB on June 7th?” pool, congratulations. After walking less than half as frequently in a backup role for Boston last season, and only 11.9% of the time in almost 1000 AAA PA, Kottaras has walked in an extraordinary 23.2% of his plate appearances this season. Assigning Kottaras an 11% “true” walk rate (which may be overly generous), the probability of his walking at least as often as he has over 112 PA, through chance alone, is roughly 1 in 5800 (although clearly there's some selection bias involved here, since we're selecting Kottaras as a result of our prior knowledge of his unusual performance). Granted, he’s had the same batting-before-the-pitcher bonus that Bocock had going for him, but some of the credit has to go to his approach: Kottaras simply hasn’t swung at anything (32.8% swing percentage, compared to the 44.9% league average), especially outside of the zone, where he’s swung at pitches 14.3% less often than average.
Since Kottaras has been making contact at an above-average clip on his swings in the zone, and two thirds of his hits have gone for extra bases (the UBB>H and XBH>non-XBH club is even more swanky and exclusive), pitchers have been forced to nibble, rather than simply pound the zone, and Kottaras has allowed them to work themselves into trouble. According to Chris Dutton’s expected BABIP calculator, Kottaras would be expected to have a .281 BABIP with his current distribution of batted balls; as his walk rate regresses to the mean (accelerated, perhaps, by a change in lineup position), his BABIP should, too, allowing him to stay afloat, if not to continue to qualify as a Perambulator.