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July 26, 2001

Doctoring The Numbers

More Homers than Walks

by Rany Jazayerli

For this week's column, I can either excoriate Allard Baird in print for the hundredth time, or I can open the ol' mailbag. And since my lawyer friends insist that "battery" covers written as well as verbal threats, I'll let reader Greg Godowsky defuse a touchy situation with his question:

I don't know if this is something you've researched in the past, but I find the fact that Curt Schilling has given up 26 home runs and just 22 walks this year fascinating. Has a full-time starter ever allowed more home runs than walks over a full season?

A great question, Greg, and the answer might be right under your nose. The first pitcher to surrender more homers than walks while qualifying for the ERA title was Robin Roberts, in 1956, when he surrendered 46 homers but just 40 walks. This is hardly surprising; Roberts was the epitome of the control pitcher, refusing to walk a batter even if it meant the occasional home run. Roberts holds the all-time record for homers allowed, with 505, but walked just 902 batters in his career (1.73 per nine innings), won 286 games and went into the Hall of Fame.

The next pitcher to do so was Gary Nolan, pitching for the Big Red Machine in 1976. Nolan has been nearly forgotten today, despite being one of the greatest young phenoms of the last 50 years. He reached the majors as a 19-year-old in 1967, threw 227 innings, struck out 206 men, and went 14-8 with five shutouts. Since 1920, only three men--Bob Feller, Larry Dierker, and Dwight Gooden--have recorded more strikeouts in their teens than Nolan did.

Nolan was the staff leader for the Reds in the early 1970s, but after going 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 1972, he missed most of the next two years with injuries. He returned to post identical 15-9 records in 1975 and 1976, but it was clear he was substituting guile for power. In 1976, he surrendered 28 homers but got by with great control, as he walked just 27 men. It was his last hurrah, however; he posted a 6.09 ERA in 13 starts in 1977 and never pitched again, his career over before age 30.

As a historical aside, it's worth noting that three years after Nolan debuted, the Reds had another teenage wunderkind on their roster in Don Gullett. Gullett pitched in relief as a rookie, and did spectacularly well, posting a 2.43 ERA. Moved to the rotation the following season, he went 16-6 with a 2.65 ERA. Only 13 pitchers in the live-ball era have won 20 games before their 21st birthday, and the Reds had two of them in a four-year span. Gullett, like Nolan, was a starter for the Big Red Machine, and like Gullett his career rapidly dissolved after 1976, as he threw his last major-league pitch in 1978, at age 27.

So Roberts and Nolan are the only two pitchers to have surrendered more homers than walks in a season...at least until 1998, when three major-league starters turned the trick:

Rick Reed: 30 home runs, 29 walks
Jose Lima: 34 home runs, 32 walks
Brian Anderson: 39 home runs, 24 walks

Jose Lima is well known for being a taterrific pitcher even when he's pitching well, and Rick Reed is another extreme control pitcher who isn't afraid of the home run. But Brian Anderson--now pitching in the same rotation as Curt Schilling--gets very little attention for his walks-are-not-an-option style of pitching, even though he is the most extreme of them all:

Pitcher            Year     HR   BB   HR/BB

Brian Anderson 1998 39 24 1.63 Robin Roberts 1956 46 40 1.15 Jose Lima 1998 34 32 1.06 Gary Nolan 1976 28 27 1.04 Rick Reed 1998 30 29 1.03

No pitcher has turned the trick since 1998, but last season Anderson again came close, surrendering 38 homers while walking just 39 batters, seven intentionally. Anderson came into the 2001 campaign with 149 homers allowed in his career, against just 175 walks. That ratio is by far the highest of all time (minimum: 500 innings):

Pitcher            HR    BB   HR/BB

Brian Anderson 149 175 .851 Jose Lima 146 203 .719 Rick Reed 132 199 .663 Jose Bautista 106 171 .620 Brad Radke 178 290 .614

Of the top five pitchers in this category, only Jose Bautista isn't currently active, and his career ended just four years ago.

Part of the reason for this is that home runs are at their highest levels ever, but isn't it possible that this also represents a sort of adaptive change on the part of certain pitchers to the elevated offensive levels? As on-base percentage become more and more important in baseball, and as more teams instruct their hitters to work the count, it seems intuitive that pitchers who are not intimidated by the challenge of throwing strikes--even at some cost to themselves--would adapt best? Certainly, all four of the active pitchers on this list are solid, dependable #2/#3 starters (or, in Jose Lima's case, were not so long ago).

How about the flip side of the question: have any hitters finished a season with more homers than walks?

As it turns out, quite a few have; 76 qualifiers in total, including 46 just since 1979. This fits with a principle that very few baseball insiders realize: the batter has more of an impact on a particular at-bat than a pitcher does. Or to put it another way, the variation in quality among batters is greater than the variation among pitchers.

In any given year the batting leader will hit roughly 100 points above the league average, but virtually no pitcher in history has given up a batting average 100 points below league average. No pitcher has ever given up homers at a higher rate than someone like Sammy Sosa or Carlos Delgado hits them, and no pitcher today gives up homers as infrequently as someone like Rey Sanchez hits them. The most patient hitters draw many more walks than the wildest pitchers allow, and even the best control pitcher in baseball walks batters more frequently than Shawon Dunston takes one.

So it is not surprising that while the trick of having more homers than walks is almost unheard of among pitchers, it is relatively common among hitters, because they have more control over their fate than pitchers have with theirs.

The highest ratios of homers to walks among batting qualifiers:

Hitter            Year     HR   BB   HR/BB

Carlos Baerga 1994 19 10 1.90 Dante Bichette 1995 40 22 1.82 Shawon Dunston 1997 14 8 1.75 Andres Galarraga 1994 31 19 1.63 Andre Dawson 1987 49 32 1.53

As with pitchers, there is a distinctly modern bent to this list. A pair of Rockies make the list, which is not coincidental. Here are the career leaders (minimum 1,500 at-bats):

Hitter            HR    BB   HR/BB

Tony Armas 251 260 .965 Juan Gonzalez 362 376 .963 Don Demeter 163 180 .906 Vinny Castilla 209 237 .882 Craig Paquette 80 92 .870

The Three Kings of power over plate discipline are Juan Gonzalez, Matt Williams, and Tony Armas Sr., each of whom has four seasons with more homers than walks.

The longest career by a player with more homers than walks was by Bill Schroeder, a second-string catcher for the Brewers and Angels from 1983-90, who packed some punch (61 homers in 1,262 at-bats), but walked just 58 times in his career and finished with a .281 OBP.

Conspicuously missing from this list is Vladimir Guerrero, widely considered to be the best bad-ball hitter in baseball, but who ranks "just" tenth all-time with a HR/BB ratio of .793. Guerrero's ratio is artificially lowered because he receives so many intentional walks (50 of his 155 free passes from 1998-2000 were really free). Intentional walks only became an official stat in the mid-1950s, but since every one of the top 30 hitters in this category started his career after 1955, we can eliminate IBBs from the equation to find which hitters have hit for the most power despite--not because of--their plate discipline.

Hitter             HR     BB   IBB   UIBB   HR/UIBB

Juan Gonzalez 362 376 66 310 1.17 Tony Armas 251 260 37 223 1.13 Vladimir Guerrero 136 174 52 122 1.11 Don Demeter 163 180 31 149 1.09 Vinny Castilla 209 237 41 196 1.07

Gonzalez was the clear leader entering the 2001 season, but while Gonzalez has hit 26 homers against 28 unintentional walks (plus four intentional) this season, Guerrero continues to mash away with 28 homers despite just 23 unintentional walks (plus 15 intentional). Gonzalez continues to hold on to the record, but the race between the two today is much closer, 1.148 to 1.131. And while Gonzalez is enjoying a winning atmosphere in Cleveland, surrounded by such patient hitters as Jim Thome and Roberto Alomar, from whom is Guerrero going to learn the strike zone? Orlando Cabrera?

Guerrero is a truly unique baseball player, capable of slugging above .600 every year (his career slugging average of .601 is behind only Todd Helton among active players) despite no real grasp of the strike zone. At age 25, he already has 164 career homers, and his history of continued improvement is stunning: his homers, walks, OBP, and slugging average have all increased in every season of his career.

If Guerrero continues to produce as well as he has throughout his career, he will eventually receive all the accolades that he deserves. But today we salute him for making a run at being the best bad-ball hitter, not just of his time, but of all time.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

Related Content:  Jose Lima,  Walks,  The Who,  Brian Roberts,  No Homers,  Four Homers

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