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May 23, 2013

In A Pickle

Walk Don't Walk

by Jason Wojciechowski

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Not all samples are small, but all samples are samples. Still, some samples are better samples than other samples. Russell Carleton showed us which are which last year, by which I mean that he showed, for a variety of stats, how big a sample we need for the signal to outweigh the noise. One happy outcome from that study is that walk rate for hitters is a stat that "stabilizes" faster than almost any other.

That "lede," as they call it in the biz, is really just an excuse for waving off your "It's mid-to-late May!" objections to what follows, which is a list of the five biggest losers in walk rate compared to 2012, with the minimum number of plate appearances in each season set at 120. (When I say "walk rate" and "walks" here, I mean unintentional walks only. I've also removed the intentional ones from "plate appearances." All stats are through Monday's games.)

Five: Maicer Izturis, 3.1 percent from 7.8 percent

Izturis signed an eight-figure deal this offseason, though I should perhaps clarify that there has never been and can never be an eight-figure deal worth fewer dollars overall than the one Izturis signed. Either way, the Blue Jays will be paying Izturis through their buyout of his 2016 option, so they can't be super duper happy about Izturis taking large jumps in, per PITCHf/x, the percentage of pitches he is swinging at both in and out of the strike zone while simultaneously receiving fewer pitches in the zone.

That's not a trend for success generally, but it's really probably not a trend for success for Izturis, who is listed at 5'8" and 175 pounds, has a career slugging percentage of .379, and has BABIP'd .294. He derives not-insubstantial value from having a decentish walk rate. Someone should tell Maicer that he "may, sir, want to make some adjustments."

Four: Domonic Brown, 4.2 percent from 9.0 percent

Brown walked in just under 10 percent of his minor-league trips to the plate (226 out of 2274) and his rate in the majors prior to this year was 9.6 percent (47 of 492), so he's no stranger to ball four. What Brown is a stranger to is sticking in the big leagues and batting over .250. One could certainly understand the once-heralded (two appearances in the top 25 of our prospect rankings, including fourth overall in 2011; three times in Baseball America's top 50 and an identical 2011 ranking) youngster's willingness to expand his zone in an effort to increase his "production" to fit with his bosses' offensive philosophies. If, of course, that is indeed what's happening.

All the red splashed across Brown's swing-rate profile is certainly alarming, though:

Three: Alex Gordon, 4.9 percent from 9.7 percent

Gordon struggled in many phases of the offensive game when he was a rookie back in 2007, but walking was not the problem during his Troubled Years of 2009 and 2010. His breakout 2011 and quite good 2012 included walk rates right around 10 percent.

This year, he's under 5 percent, but look what else it comes with: a .343 batting average, a .373 on-base percentage, and a .189 isolated slugging. The latter two numbers just barely trail Gordon's 2011 career-highs.

Gordon's swing rates for 2013 and 2012:

Note how much more red there is on the inner third (Gordon, as a lefty, stands on the right side of this diagram) and even inside off the plate, as well as up and in. (Though as you can see by the number of pitches displayed, it won't take Gordon letting more than a few pitches go by to drastically change the percentages in those zones.) Overall, his swing rate in the zone is nearly identical to 2012—the change comes outside the rulebook strike zone.

It's obviously working for Gordon now, so it will be interesting to see what adjustments are made against him as the year goes on. Even for a high-BABIP hitter (.358 and .356 the last two seasons), Gordon's .409 mark so far in 2013 is outlandish. I won't claim anything about how much the luck dragon has bitten him without exhaustive video work and/or HITf/x or FIELDf/x data, but I will go out on a limb and say that you could probably make money betting on Gordon finishing the season with a lower BABIP than he has now.

Two: Adam Dunn, 10.4 percent from 15.8 percent

Dunn's a funny one. While his rate isn't anything that would jump off the page, he ranks 48th of 206 players with at least 120 plate appearances in 2013, so he's been a perfectly nice walker. In the context of his career, though, if he retired Tuesday morning, he'd have finished with the lowest walk rate of his career, the second-lowest having been 11.9 percent in 2010 and the third-lowest, for emphasis, coming in at 13.3, in his rookie year, with just 286 plate appearances.

While 2012 saw Dunn amp his isolated slugging back up to .263 from an anemic .118 in 2011, he still BABIP'd just .246, resulting in a .204 batting average. Pitchers, you will not be surprised to hear, have thrown 48.1 percent of their pitches in the rulebook strike zone against Dunn in 2013—compare that to never topping 46 percent in years past. Here are Dunn's pitch-frequency charts in 2012 and 2013:

Note what may be a diminished focus on keeping the ball low and away from Dunn this year, with more pitches straight down the pipe. Again, the number of pitches is such that the pictures can change rapidly, but it's striking that more pitches are going directly to the middle of the plate than anywhere else.

R.J. Anderson, whose name I'm saying because I'm completely stealing the idea that follows, is fond of noting that these types of changes can look big in the stats while being almost entirely imperceptible on the field—the 2.5 percent jump in pitches to Dunn in the zone from 2012 to 2013 represents something like one pitch every other game. Yet over the course of the season, Dunn's walk rate this year would translate to 38 fewer free passes. Some of those 38 will turn into hits, including extra-base hits, but given that Dunn is back to batting .172 and has an isolated slugging mark of .175 (previous career-low, other than 2011: .237), pitchers are probably happy to take that risk to avoid putting him on first base—he appears to have lost most of his ability to get there by swinging the lumber.

It's nice to say that the Big Donkey should alter his approach to deal with what pitchers are giving him now that his skills have apparently slipped, but it's probably fair to posit that Dunn's physical attributes don't lend themselves to much other than the approach he's always had and that has worked for him all along. The man's hit 417 career homers (and had that hilarious run of four straight years with exactly 40), so he's probably entitled to keep plucking those chickens and get shoved off into the sunset whenever Rick Hahn has finally had enough.

One: Welington Castillo (!) (??), 0.8 percent from 8.0 percent

Look, sometimes if you want an excuse to talk about Adam Dunn and Alex Gordon and Domonic Brown and even Maicer Izturis, you just have to put up with Welington Castillo as the conclusion. The facts are what they are. I won't apologize for them.

I will note, as the music plays me off the stage in yet another parallel between my life and Julia Roberts', that Castillo has been hit by six pitches, a rate such that if he continues to play 79 percent of the team's "contests" and continues to be hit by six pitches every 34 games, will result in 23 plunkings, a very nice supplement to the four walks he'll have accumulated by then. (Castillo would also rank tied for 53rd on the all-time single-season plunking leaderboard were he to reach this number. You asked!)

 

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

Related Content:  Maicer Izturis,  Welington Castillo

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