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April 28, 2006
Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Toronto Blue Jays (7th) @ New York Yankees (1st)
In spite of their loss to the Devil Rays Wednesday night, New York's 14 walks in the game remind us that the Yankees are once again asserting themselves as the biggest bunch of bat droppers in the land. In 1931, the Yankees became the first team ever to draw 700 walks in a season. The next year, they became the second, setting the team record in the process. By the end of the decade, they had done it eight times without any other team having done it. In the late '40s, there occurred in the American League a walk explosion the likes of which we have not seen since and the '32 Yankees team walk records fell. The three highest walks-per-game totals ever came in the three-year period of 1948-1950. In those seasons, A.L. batters drew 4.3, 4.6 and 4.4 walks on a per-game basis.
These years are significant to the 2006 Yankees because, after their walkfest on Wednesday night, they have an outside shot at reclaiming the team record set by a club in that period. Putting aside length of season, here are the most team walks ever drawn:
835: 1949 Boston Red Sox
In all, 30 American League teams have drawn 700 walks or more. Only seven National League teams have done it. The first, and still the team with the league record, was the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers with 732. That would rank 15th in the American League all-time annals.
With 103 walks in their first 20 games, the Yankees are at a pace to draw 834 in 2006. That would put them right there with the '49 Red Sox. True, this is a rather small sample size from which to be making projections. After all, a 14-walk anomaly at this stage of the season like the one against Tampa Bay can push a projection up a hill pretty fast. Even removing that game from the accounting, however, the Yankees are working at a 759 pace, putting them in the top 10.
That the Yankees could even have a shot at this now illustrates how the American League appears to be dancing away from the low-walk precipice of 2005. Last year, for the first time since the pitcher's coup of 1968, the American League averaged just 3.0 walks per game. This is a far cry from the walk spike of 1999-2000 when the league averaged in the 3.7-3.8 range. The National League saw similar numbers in those years as the league amassed nearly 10,000 walks in 2000. The N.L.'s drop-off has not been so precipitous after that, getting no lower than 3.3 in this century. This year so far, the A.L. is back up around the 2001-04 range of 3.2-3.3 per game while the National is at 3.6. (There was a time when the American was the walking league compared to the National. While the presence of such renowned walkers as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Max Bishop and Eddie Yost certainly accounts for some portion of this, it can't answer for the fact that from 1913 to 1969 the AL had more walks per game than the NL in every year but 1928 and 1944.)
As for going after the record, the Yankees are getting maximum walk production out of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Jorge Posada has been his usual selective self while Hideki Matsui is operating at an acceptable level. If the Yankees have any hope of getting the record, they're going to need to see more from Gary Sheffield (one walk per 14 at bats so far) and Robinson Cano (three walks in over 70 plate appearances). Sheffield has been unusually walk-averse given his previous record. Cano shows no sign of fitting into the Yankee method any time soon. Among the regulars, that leaves just Bernie Williams. Just two years ago, he was walking about once every eight plate appearances. As the rest of his game showed signs of decline, the ability to work a free pass, at least, remained. Even that appears to be gone now.
How long will the Yankees stand for Williams? So far, Joe Torre has shown a great reliance on his starting nine. Whether or not Williams remains a part of that body depends mostly on the Yankees' sense of nostalgia weighed against their need to keep the Red Sox and Blue Jays at bay. If things keep going as they are, however, this version of the Yankees could end up getting more mileage out of its starting lineup than any team of recent memory. So far, they have been allotted about 92% of the plate appearances. Reserves Andy Phillips, Miguel Cairo, Kelly Stinnett and Bubba Crosby have seen precious little playing time. Between them, they have started just eight games.
As the schedule thickens, Posada will be due more days off. One would also assume that in a lineup where the second-youngest player is 30 there would have to be numerous provisions for time off. In any case, I wouldn't bet on the 2006 Yankees besting this lot, but, given the strength of their bench, you can't blame them for trying. What follows are the teams the Yankees need to beat to become the most starter-centric (or bench-averse, if you prefer) team of the Expansion Era. The method for identifying these teams was devised by Keith Woolner. He describes his methodology this way: "I looked at each player and assigned him to the position most frequently played in that season. Then, for all the players at a given position on the team, the one with the most total plate appearances was considered the starter. All other players were bench players. Under this scheme, it's possible for a team to have fewer than nine starters (eight for non-DH teams, as I removed all pitcher plate appearances from consideration."
.891: 1962 Minnesota Twins (91-71; 2nd place)
.884: 1975 Oakland A's (98-64; 1st in American League West)
.881: 1972 Houston Astros (84-69; 2nd in National League West)
.881: 1978 Montreal Expos (76-86; 4th in National League East)
.877: 1984 Boston Red Sox (86-76; 4th in American League East)
Just for fun, here are the teams who got the least amount of playing time out of their core starters:
.535: 2003 Cincinnati Reds (69-93 5th in National League Central)
.546: 1993 New York Mets (59-103; 6th in National League East)
.555: 1976 Montreal Expos (55-107; 6th in National League East)
.558: 2005 Los Angeles Dodgers (71-91; 4th in National League West)