May 11, 2012
No Fastballs for Emilio
Albert Pujols Emilio Bonifacio finally got his first extra-base hit of the season. It was his 138th plate appearance, which is fortunate, in that it kept him from matching Juan Pierre (144 plate appearances, 2010) for the longest such streak to start a season during this century.
Reporter: Did you know you just matched a record set by Pierre?
Bonifacio: Wow! Awesome!
Bonifacio: Oh, Juan Pierre?
Bonifacio: Oh ok
Bonifacio: This is a trick, right?
Bonifacio: Juan Pierre.
It was a double. Bonifacio is now hitting .238/.341/.246, which looks like a phone number with one number missing or like a batting line with one number wrong. His OBP is higher than Miguel Cabrera’s, Jose Bautista’s, Mike Napoli’s, or Giancarlo Stanton’s. His isolated power is lower than everyone, ever. Since 1945, just 232 players have had an isolated power lower than .050 (minimum 400 plate appearances). Just six have had an isolated power lower than .025. None have had an isolated power in single digits.
Reporter: Sorry about earlier, but seriously this time
Reporter: Did you know you’re on pace to do something even Juan Pierre never did?
Bonifacio: Wow! Awesome!
Bonifacio: Oh, Juan Pierre?
Is it possible to be a good baseball player hitting, say, one extra-base hit every 50 plate appearances? Yes, it is! Ninety-nine players since 1950 have had an isolated power lower than .050, at least 400 plate appearances, and produced at least 1.0 WARP. Sixty of them were over 2.0 WARP. You’ll recall that we had 232 players in our sample without the WARP requirement, so more than 25 percent of those pathetic weaklings were actually above-average players and, if actual weaklings, not actually pathetic. It is possible to be a good player with extremely negligible power.
But is it possible for Emilio Bonifacio to be a good baseball player hitting, say, one extra-base hit every 50 plate appearances? Our 99 were generally very good at defense, which Bonifacio doesn’t appear to be, but it’s far too soon to say; or extremely good at baserunning, which Bonifacio has really not been in his career or this year; or extremely good at putting the ball in play, which Bonifacio is not; or extremely good at getting on base. Which means drawing a s***-ton of walks, or hitting for a crazy-high BABIP. This is what Bonifacio is going for.
The interesting thing about Bonifacio isn’t really his isolated power or his slugging percentage. It’s that he has managed to draw walks in 11 percent of his plate appearances, despite this spray chart:
This would seem to be unsustainable, and pitchers would seem to be prepared to challenge him with a steady stream of hittable strikes once they realize that Bonifacio is not actually able to hit them. But there’s a pretty good tradition of players with no power maintaining decent walk rates for a while. Among the extreme OBP/SLG ratios on our 99:
Billy North, 1978: .367 OBP, .270 SLG
Ron Hunt, 1968: .371 OBP, .297 SLG
Bud Harrelson, 1974: .366 OBP, .266 SLG
Ron Theobald, 1972: .342 OBP, .256 SLG
Otis Nixon, 1993: .351 OBP, .315 SLG
Chone Figgins, 2008: .367 OBP, .318 SLG
Bonifacio drew 59 walks in 2011, which was not enough to offset a sub-.050 isolated power and not enough to offset a .266 career batting average. But in 2012, he has bumped that walk rate still higher, and the change in his approach makes it clear this isn’t incidental. He has seen 4.6 pitches per plate appearance, up from 4.0 last year and in his career. He is swinging at 39 percent of pitchers this year, down from 43 percent last year and down for the third year in a row. His swing rate for pitches outside the zone, according to the early numbers at StatCorner, has also decreased. There are two ways to draw walks. One is to not get thrown too many strikes. The other is to never swing. Bonifacio is doing the second one.
But can he keep doing the first one? Jeff Sullivan wrote a couple times this week about the least intimidating hitters in baseball. He used the rates at which pitchers threw fastballs and strikes to each hitter to determine which hitters got the least respect. The results were exactly the results that you are expecting. The five guys you are thinking of right now were the top five. Don’t even click over there to check. Don’t give Jeff the satisfaction. Make Jeff think nobody is reading him.
The players on Jeff’s list, though, tell us two things about Emilio Bonifacio (who is not on the list, but fits the profile). One is that pitchers know who the lousy hitters are, and they change their approach to try to limit how often that lousy hitter walks. The other is that, even after a lousy hitter is identified as a punchless non-threat who is merely trying to draw a walk, the lousy hitter can still draw a s***-ton of walks.
Jamey Carroll is on the list. Jamey Carroll is also on our list of 99. Jamey Carroll hasn’t hit a home run since 2009, he hasn’t had more than 20 extra-base hits in a season since 2006 (when he played his home games in Coors Field), and he hasn’t had a slugging percentage higher than his OBP since 2005. He also has the same career OBP as Matt Kemp and an 11 percent walk rate even this year.
Which is to say: there’s only so much adjusting pitchers can do, or will do. There’s only so much adjusting teams can do, or will do. You might think that Bonifacio’s lack of power this year would cause teams to shift the defense way in. You might think that.
On top is where the Houston defense played him in 2011, when he faced Wandy Rodriguez with nobody on. On bottom is where the Houston defense played him this week, when he faced Wandy Rodriguez with nobody on. There’s a little pinching in on the right-field gap, but no significant movement in. For good measure, here’s where they played Hanley Ramirez this week, when Ramirez faced Wandy Rodriguez with nobody on:
Perhaps, after thousands of games, it’s uncomfortable for players and managers to quit treating the other guy as a threat. Wandy Rodriguez, a pitcher I selected because I typed his name 90 seconds ago, is a .139 hitter, homerless in more than 400 plate appearances. Even Wandy Rodriguez gets thrown sliders and curves and changeups. In fact, Wandy Rodriguez has seen fastballs this year as often as Emilio Bonifacio has seen fastballs in his career, about 66 percent each. Pitchers want to get beat because they got beat, not because they underestimated a world-class athlete.
Bonifacio might not be a good player, because of his defense, because of his reckless baserunning, because of his strikeouts. But no matter how weakly he hits the ball, expect pitchers to keep walking him more than you would expect. They’ll keep throwing him sliders. They’ll keep trying to catch the corners. They’ll keep wasting a pitch on 0-2. Emilio Bonifacio is a major-league hitter, after all. Major-league hitters are all dangerous, even if just a little.
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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