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July 7, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Why Do Teams Pitch to Trout?

by Sam Miller


Here’s a story about Mike Trout and intentional walks: During his junior year, in the state playoffs, the opposing Cherry Hill East manager got so spooked by Trout’s batting practice display that he intentionally walked him to lead off the game; then again in his second at-bat, with a runner on first; and once more in his third at-bat, with the bases loaded.

There are very, very few stats in baseball that aren’t part accidental. A player hits 40 home runs—that’s telling, but that number is an accident; he’d much rather have hit 600 home runs, and the pitchers would have much rather he hit zero, and nobody was trying to hit exactly 40. Sacrifice bunts show intent, but plenty of sacrifices are called for but turn into pitches taken, pitches fouled, pitches whiffed, bunts popped out, etc. Stolen base attempts are close to a perfect expression of intent, though plenty of stolen base attempts don’t get recorded—when the pitch was fouled off or put in play.

Intentional walks, though: Every one of those was intentional. There are no accidental intentional walks, and but for the rare exception every five years or so, there are no thwarted intentional walks. Intentional walks tell us, with almost 100 percent accuracy, that an opposing team would rather face the man on deck (with an extra runner on base) than the man at bat. The Cherry Hill East manager had an opinion; he expressed his opinion; he acted on his opinion; we know his opinion, with certainty.

So what does this say: Despite being the best hitter in baseball over the past three years, Trout hardly ever gets intentionally walked. He leads the American League in OPS+ this year and has been intentionally walked just once. Howie Kendrick has been intentionally walked twice.

There are probably several factors:

  • He’s right-handed, and right-handers get intentionally walked something like two-thirds as often as left-handers.
  • The guy behind him has generally been right-handed, so there’s no platoon-advantage-based strategy to justify it. Since the start of 2013, there have been nearly 1,200 intentional walks, ignoring those that precede a pitcher batting. About 60 percent of those switched the platoon advantage from the batting side to the pitching.
  • He’s super fast, which makes it slightly more costly to put him on base.
  • He bats second or third, which means it isn’t just the hitter after him who tends to be qualified to provide protection; it’s the series of hitters after him, all of them better than the bottom-of-the-order types a pitcher might salivate over.
  • And intentional walks in general keep going down, to the lowest per-game average in IBB-recorded history. That’s probably in part because of the league’s general appreciation for the fact that intentional walks aren’t often justified, and in part because of the lower run scoring environment of the past few years. As The Book noted, the intentional walk is favored slightly more in high-offense environments (though it doesn’t generally change the calculus by much at all). Trout doesn’t live in an IBB era.

But here’s another hypothesis: Trout is still underrated. And the guy behind him, his lineup protection, the guy who has been intentionally walked seven times this year, is still overrated.

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Related Content:  Albert Pujols,  Mike Trout,  Intentional Walks

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