February 28, 2003
The Eddie Award
Good Things Come to Those Who WalkThe phrase "a walk is as good as a hit" has echoed through our noggins since Little League. Though not exactly true, the ability to reach base without putting the ball in play is a valuable offensive weapon; advances in sabermetrics have enabled us to quantify the value of a walk and hit-by-pitch quite precisely. And while the results have elevated the awareness of their importance in putting runs on the scoreboard, there has always been a fundamental understanding of their value. Baseball's record books are littered with players who wouldn't have made the majors except for their ability to draw walks and get hit with errant pitches.
As a guy who regularly leads his slow pitch softball team in walks, I have an appreciation for players who find ways to take a leisurely stroll to first base. Ron Hunt's maddening ability to get some part of his body in front of a pitched ball, Dale Berra's knack for having his bat tick the catcher's leather, Lance Blankenship coaxing four wide ones while hovering around the Mendoza Line--all are uncanny talents.
This study is designed to identify hitters that had the greatest percentage of their offensive game as a result of walks and hit-by-pitches. This is very different than leading the league in the counting or rate statistics attached to those categories. Ted Williams led the American League in bases-on-balls eight different times, but was such a force at the plate that he still would have been an outstanding offensive player had he walked half as often. The idea is to recognize players who made the slow walk up the first baseline an art form, who were and are somehow able to finagle pitches outside the strike zone despite being less than imposing figures with a bat in their hands.
After monkeying around with various combinations of on-base percentage, batting average and slugging percentage, I tossed them aside and settled on the following formula, calling the result the "Walking Man Quotient" (WMQ):
With that background, here are the Top 20 single-season WMQs of all-time (post-1900, minimum 400 plate appearances):
Highest Single-Season WMQs:
Player Team Year WMQ -------------------------------------------- Eddie Yost WSH 1956 .443 Tony Smith BRO 1910 .432 Max Bishop PHA 1929 .430 Cal Abrams BAL 1955 .423 Max Bishop PHA 1926 .422 Gene Tenace SDP 1977 .420 Max Bishop PHA 1927 .417 Wes Westrum NYG 1951 .414 Jimmy Wynn ATL 1976 .410 Floyd Baker CHW 1948 .410 Gene Tenace SDP 1980 .409 Max Bishop PHA 1930 .406 Eddie Stanky BRO 1945 .406 Eddie Yost WSH 1955 .405 Roy Cullenbine DET 1947 .404 Eddie Stanky BRO 1946 .402 Rickey Henderson SDP 1996 .396 Max Bishop PHA 1932 .395 ??? 2002 .393 Gene Tenace SDP 1978 .393
(Note: In a thinly veiled effort to keep your attention, the player who last year had the 19th highest WMQ in history won't be revealed until later.)
Eddie Yost's 1956 campaign is clearly the gold standard. For some reason, pitchers couldn't seem to throw him strikes, allowing him to walk 151 times with eight hit-by-pitches, despite a batting average of just .231 and a slugging percentage of just .336. Rocky Bridges played with Yost on three different teams (the Senators, Tigers and Angels). When asked about Yost's "talent" at a Northwest SABR meeting last year, Bridges said, "he cheated." Apparently, Yost never got caught, since he owns ten of the top 200 WMQ seasons of all-time. Yost retired with the skill completely intact, posting a .412 OBP in his 1962 swan song with the Los Angeles Angels at age 35. Our measurement tool is named after "The Walking Man."
Though too lengthy to reproduce here, generating a list of the top 200 WMQ seasons of all-time makes for some strange bedfellows. For example, "Little Napoleon" John McGraw's 1900 season (No. 62) immediately precedes Mantle's 1968 finale (No. 63), and Eddie "The Brat" Stanky's 1949 campaign (No. 108) rubs shoulders with the icon of the Three True Outcomes, Rob Deer's 1991 Motown Masterpiece (No. 109). Immortals like Ron Theobald (1972, No. 47) and Mike Fiore (1969, No. 98) mingle with Hall of Famers Willie Mays (1971, No. 134) and Babe Ruth (1934, No. 104).
For the most part, the methodology captures the hitting profile hoped for--mediocre batsmen with keen eyes. However, some seasons by outstanding hitters are interspersed. Generally, the anomalies are due to off-years for those hitters or seasons that come at the tail end of careers when players still retain the "old player skill" of walking, but their batting average and power numbers suffer.
Philadelphia Athletics' slender second sacker and leadoff man, Max "Camera Eye" Bishop, makes more appearances in the single-season Top 20 than any other player with five. That's a particularly remarkable feat considering that he played his entire 12-year career in the highest sustained run-scoring era in baseball history (the 1920s and 1930s), when it wasn't uncommon for entire ballclubs to hit over .300. Indeed, when the Top 20 career WMQs are calculated (post-1900, minimum 4000 PA), Bishop stands at the top of the heap:
Highest Career WMQs:
Player WMQ ---------------------------- Max Bishop .379 Eddie Stanky .364 Eddie Yost .355 Gene Tenace .351 Ferris Fain .335 Eddie Joost .319 Roy Cullenbine .318 Mickey Tettleton .310 Miller Huggins .308 Earl Torgeson .296 Elmer Valo .296 Elbie Fletcher .291 Ted Williams .290 Donie Bush .289 Joe Cunningham .289 Lu Blue .288 Harlond Clift .286 Mike Hargrove .286 Joe Morgan .285 Darrell Evans .284
Curiously, "Eddies" hold down three of the top six spots on the list, with the trio's big league careers overlapping from 1944 through 1953. Eddie Joost actually retired and sat out a year following a dreadful campaign with the Boston Braves in 1945, but 84-year-old Connie Mack dusted him off and inserted him as the Philadelphia A's starting shortstop for the 1947 season. Two years later, he was named to the All-Star team. Joost, Ferris Fain and Elmer Valo were all teammates on the White Elephants from 1947 until 1952. However, even with those three on-base machines in the lineup, the Athletics never rose above third in the eight-team AL in run scoring because they lacked the complementary hitters to drive them home.
The most surprising name on the career list is Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter drew an incredible 2021 walks in less than 10,000 career plate appearances, and probably nobody in baseball history has had a better understanding of the strike zone than Williams. His showing up on the list demonstrates how heaping helpings of walks can overpower the WMQ formula and propel high-average sluggers towards the top of the rankings.
With that clear bit of foreshadowing, and as a tribute to Stanky, Yost and Joost, the time has come to announce the recipient of the 2002 Eddie Award. And the winner is...
Highest 2002 WMQs (min. 400 PA):
Player Team WMQ ------------------------------------ Barry Bonds SFG .393 Adam Dunn CIN .342 Brian Giles PIT .311 Edgar Martinez SEA .304 Robin Ventura NYY .294 Carlos Delgado TOR .292 Jim Thome CLE .288 Doug Mientkiewicz MIN .282 David Justice OAK .281 Lee Stevens M/C .279
...Barry Bonds? After hauling home virtually every other piece of hardware with his otherworldly 2002 season, maybe it's fitting that he wins the inaugural Eddie Award, too.
To provide some perspective on how implausible it was for Bonds to fashion the 19th highest WMQ of all-time, you have to scroll down to the 62nd best single-season WMQ to find someone who finished in the top ten in their league in either batting or slugging (McGraw's .344 batting average ranked fifth in the NL in 1900). Bonds topped the majors in both categories, pacing the competition with a .370 average and posting the fourth-highest slugging percentage (.799) in history last year. Nevertheless, nearly 40% of Bonds' offensive value was due to reaching first base 207 times via walks and hit-by-pitches in one season. Incredible.
Since we have grown accustomed to Bonds' mind-blowing accomplishments on the diamond, perhaps more surprising is that the other nine names on last year's Top 10 list are all discriminating power hitters, with the possible exception of Doug Mientkiewicz. Any list of the highest WMQs for a particular season will have a solid smattering of sluggers in the upper reaches because they are pitched to carefully. However, the complete absence of the prototypical "Eddie" in last year's Top 10 is disconcerting. Twelfth-ranked and 37-year-old Mark McLemore is the first player who clearly fits the mold. It begs the question of whether we are witnessing the extinction of a species.
To try to get a handle on this, let's sort the Top 200 WMQ seasons since 1900 by decade, and also calculate what the average slugging percentage was for those selected seasons:
No. of Top 200 Slugging Decade WMQ Seasons Percentage ---------------------------------- 1900-09 12 .315 1910-19 22 .304 1920-29 7 .327 1930-39 9 .379 1940-49 30 .360 1950-59 24 .388 1960-69 15 .392 1970-79 35 .389 1980-89 15 .411 1990-99 24 .397 2000-02 7 .494
There is no obvious trend in the number of Top 200 WMQ seasons in each decade. For the most part, any dips can be explained by the offensive environments of the eras. As mentioned earlier, the period from 1920 through 1939 was marked by sky-high batting averages, which depress WMQs. While it might seem that the low-scoring environment of the 1960s would boost WMQs, the large strike zone (in effect from 1963-68) that caused run production to drop also slashed bases on balls, lowering WMQs.
On the other hand, the slugging percentage of Top 200 WMQ seasons has steadily increased as the years have passed, indicating that the performance shape of those players has changed. The battling, banjo-hitting middle infielder at the top of past WMQ lists is gradually being shoved aside by lead-footed, high secondary average players that inhabit the left end of the defensive spectrum. Whether that is due to pitchers realizing they should go right at weaker batters, that players are bigger and hit the ball harder, or some other possible explanation is left as an exercise for the reader.
It's too early to tell if 2002 was an aberration or a harbinger of things to come, but it is looking more and more like it was our last chance to watch the best example of a modern day Eddie. Rickey Henderson registered five Top 200 WMQs in the past seven years, falling short only in his "last hurrah" 1998 campaign and in 2002 due to not enough playing time. Henderson is how I visualize the classic Eddie, and I'll miss the most recent version of Rickey as much as the one that terrorized opponents with his bat and legs.
Run scoring has decreased in Major League Baseball in each of the past two seasons. If a trend towards less offense can reverse the decline of a vanishing breed of hitter, count me in with both feet. It's certainly a more real benefit than getting home from the ballpark sooner.