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May 14, 2002
Doctoring The Numbers
Historic Walk Rates in Montreal
Last week, the Montreal Expos lost six games in a row. Before the season began, such an event would not have been at all surprising. What would have been surprising is that, despite the losing streak, the Expos are still over .500 and just a game out of first place.
When a team exceeds expectations to the degree that the Expos has, it's usually quite difficult to credit this phenomenon on a single aspect of the team's play. In this particular instance, however, it's dead simple. As Rob Neyer has waxed eloquent on two separate occasions, it's all about the walks:
Not coincidentally, whereas the 2001 Expos finished 14th in the NL in runs scored, this year's version ranks third in the senior circuit.
This is an improvement of historic proportions. By improving their walk rate by 1.18 free passes a game, the Expos currently rank 11th on the all-time list of improvements. Here are the top five:
Team Year 1 BB G BB/G Year 2 BB G BB/G Impr. St. Louis (NL) 1908 282 154 1.83 1909 568 154 3.69 1.857 Brooklyn 1902 319 141 2.26 1903 522 139 3.76 1.493 St. Louis (AL) 1940 556 156 3.56 1941 775 157 4.94 1.372 Houston 1968 479 162 2.96 1969 699 162 4.31 1.358 Boston (AL) 1923 391 154 2.54 1924 603 157 3.84 1.302
Surprisingly, the five teams on this list improved their record by an average of just four games, and the Dodgers actually dropped four games from 1902 to 1903.
Actually, it's not so surprising, because each of the other teams on the list owes their position, at least in part, to the changing offensive conditions of their era. The Astros, for instance, benefited from the re-definition of the strike zone between 1968 and 1969, a change so significant that the average NL team increased their walk total by 105. The 1902-03 Dodgers, 1908-09 Cardinals, and 1940-41 Browns all benefited to lesser degrees; in all three cases, the average team increased their walk total by at least 30.
Only the 1923 Red Sox did not benefit from a big increase in the average walk totals around the league; their improvement can be traced to essentially fielding a new team. Of the nine players who appeared in 90+ games for the Red Sox in 1924, only three suited up at all the year before, and one of those (Ike Boone) played in just five games.
To correct for that, the following chart compares a team's year-to-year improvement in walks per game with the overall change in walks for their entire league. This adjustment doesn't affect the Expos that much, since walks are up slightly throughout the National League. The average NL team is drawing 3.50 walks per game this year, compared to 3.31 in 2001.
Team Year BB/G Lg BB/G Diff. Year BB/G Lg BB/G Diff. Impr. St. Louis (NL) 1908 1.83 2.46 -0.63 1909 3.69 2.88 +0.81 1.432 Boston (AL) 1923 2.54 3.32 -0.78 1924 3.84 3.35 +0.49 1.272 St. Louis (AL) 1940 3.56 3.63 -0.07 1941 4.94 3.81 +1.13 1.193 New York (AL) 1925 3.01 3.48 -0.47 1926 4.14 3.44 +0.70 1.175 Montreal 1972 3.04 3.22 -0.18 1973 4.29 3.32 +0.97 1.147 St. Louis (AL) 1915 2.97 3.40 -0.43 1916 3.97 3.25 +0.72 1.146 Cincinnati 1971 2.70 3.12 -0.42 1972 3.94 3.22 +0.72 1.130 Washington 1941 3.01 3.81 -0.80 1942 3.85 3.53 +0.32 1.113 Boston (NL) 1910 2.29 3.24 -0.95 1911 3.55 3.43 +0.12 1.070 Brooklyn 1902 2.26 2.33 -0.07 1903 3.76 2.77 +0.99 1.053 Montreal 2001 2.95 3.31 -0.36 2002 4.14 3.50 +0.64 0.990
Only ten teams since 1900 have improved their walk rate, relative to their league, by more than one walk per game. The Expos are trying their damndest to become the 11th.
A couple of teams on this list also took quantum leaps forward in the standings. The 1926 Yankees, bolstered by a return to health of Babe Ruth (who played just 98 games in 1925) and strong rookie seasons from Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig, improved from 69-85 to 91-63. The emergence of George Sisler helped the 1916 Browns vault 16 games into rarefied territory for them: a winning season. The most impressive story, though, belongs to the Reds, who after finishing a pedestrian 79-83 in 1971, exploded in 1972, improving by 20 games to finish 95-59 and win the first of four NL West titles they would grab over the next five years.
The Reds' improvement was directly attributable to their off-season acquisition of Joe Morgan, who led the NL with 115 walks in 1972, and would finish no lower than third in that category for the next five years. (As an aside: would someone remind Joe that walks are good? Listening to him ramble on about small ball is like listening to Billy Joel try to play classical music. Dance with what brung 'ya, I say.)
For the most part, each of these teams owed their improvement to a change in personnel, whether by trade, the emergence of young talent, or the return to health of old ones. Not so the Expos, who are wearing down opposing pitchers with much the same lineup they had last year. The only significant change to the Expos offense is the addition of Chris Truby at third base, and more playing time for Brad Wilkerson in the outfield.
Here are the walk rates (defined as BB/AB) for the seven players who have batted at least 100 times for the Expos in both 2001 and 2002:
Player 2001 Rate 2002 Rate Improvement Peter Bergeron .075 .179 .104 Lee Stevens .136 .211 .075 Vladimir Guerrero .100 .168 .068 Michael Barrett .053 .121 .068 Brad Wilkerson .145 .180 .035 Orlando Cabrera .069 .088 .019 Jose Vidro .064 .083 .019
All seven have improved. Four of them have improved dramatically, "dramatically" being defined as at least 0.05 walks per at-bat. And none of the four are part-timers; all four had at least 400 plate appearances last season, and all four are on pace to do so again this year (although Bergeron's job has slipped out of his hands).
How many teams have had four everyday players improve their walk rates dramatically? Try zero, unless you count the 1888 Boston Braves, who no doubt were helped by rule changes that worked to lessen the number of pitches need for a free pass from nine (originally) to four. Since 1900, only three other teams have had even three such players:
Year Team Players 2002 Montreal 4 (Bergeron, Stevens, Guerrero, Barrett) 1969 Washington 3 (Bernie Allen, Mike Epstein, Frank Howard) 1973 Montreal 3 (Bob Bailey, Ron Fairly, Ken Singleton) 1999 Cleveland 3 (Dave Justice, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez)
The 1969 Senators, aside from benefiting from the new strike zone, profited greatly from the advice of new manager Ted Williams in the dugout. Maybe there's something to the idea of hiring a Hall of Fame hitter to be your manager after all.