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October 1, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Walkless in Wrigleyville

by Steven Goldman

Given the advent of the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, and their run-generating home parks, it's easy to forget that Wrigley Field used to be the National League's premier batter-friendly park. It hasn't really changed as a hitter-friendly environment; though the old ballpark cannot compete with the high elevation of Colorado or the warm, dry air of Arizona, in most seasons it still gives batters more of a lift than the other sea-level, mild-climate ballparks.

The secret to constructing an offense in a hitter's park, which the Rockies have gradually discovered, is that a team cannot afford to slide on on-base percentage. Sure, OBP is always king, but some teams might sacrifice it at a position or two for perceived reasons of defense, power, speed, or just because the manager is Dusty Baker. This is not a sabermetric or Moneyball idea, but a simple one of basic logic: if, by virtue of the park, both teams in a given game are going to hit two home runs, then the team that wins is the one that had a runner on when the ball went out.

One of the depressing things about how the Milton Bradley situation played out in Chicago is that his signing was supporting evidence for a suggestion that the Cubs were beginning to understand these issues for the first time in years, if not for the first time in their long pennant drought. In 2007, the Cubs finished 15th in the league in walks drawn and ninth in OBP. Last year, they led the league in walks with 636, and combined with their .278 batting average (second in the league) and league-leading .443 slugging percentage, they led the league in runs scored. Bradley led the American League in OBP last year, and would seem to have been more sauce for the goose, at least on paper.

Walks have been a problem for the Cubs, one that spans their entire history. Between the dawn of the modern era in 1901 and 1972, when the adoption of the designated hitter transformed the American League into a different kind of competitive environment from the National League, the Cubs drew 34,139 walks, equivalent to eight percent of their total plate appearances. With Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and other selective types, the Yankees led the majors during this period with walks in 9.2 percent of their plate appearances, closely followed by the Tigers; the Reds trailed the majors with 7.5 percent. The Cubs' impatience accelerated in the DH era-excluding the Brewers, who used to have a DH mucking up the works, the Cubs have drawn the lowest percentage of walks of any National League ballclub except the Pirates in the years 1973 to present. (The Reds, making up for their old habits, lead the NL, edging the Phillies and Giants.)

One trivial but odd aspect of the Cubs' impatience with the men Dusty Baker legendarily called "base-cloggers" is that while the other 15 of the 16 original clubs have had individual player/seasons of 100 or more walks by their players ranging from a low of 12 (set by the Cardinals) to 50 (achieved by the Yankees and A's), the Cubs come in last by virtue of their having had only nine such seasons. Sammy Sosa and Jimmy Sheckard did it twice each, and Richie Ashburn, Johnny Evers, Hack Wilson, Gary Matthews, and Woody English reached the century mark once each.* The Cubs' franchise record for walks in a season has stood for close to 100 years: Sheckhard drew 147 passes in 1911. This is indeed a high single-season total, having been exceeded only 16 times in the years since, and only 11 times by ballplayers not named Barry Bonds. However, the second-place mark, Sheckard's 122 walks of 1912, has been exceeded over 100 times. With the exception of Gary Matthews (Sr., for those of you who might confuse him with Little Sarge) and Sosa, who was intentionally passed over the 100-walk mark in both of his seasons, the Cubs have simply lacked the personnel to reach it with any regularity. This year, Kosuke Fukudome will become the 20th Cub to walk 90 or more times in a season without breaking 100.

Even those 20 seasons of 90-plus walks is on the low side, but it does properly suggest that the Cubs have had selective players at times; one of the reasons we shouldn't read too much into their failure to feature more 100-walk seasons is that Ron Santo did lead the league in walks four times in years when there simply weren't 100 walks to go around, doing so with as few as 86 and as many as 96 walks in the '60s. What is not trivial is how the effect of having so many unselective players has expressed itself in the aggregate. The Cubs have only drawn 600 or more walks in a season six times, and their franchise high was 650 in 1975; 119 teams have drawn more. Conversely, the Cubs have drawn fewer than 400 walks once and fewer than 450 seven times since 1972. Their 395 walks in 2006 is a special feat of impatience; excluding years truncated by the labor wars, only 11 teams have drawn fewer than 400 walks in that time. The 2009 Giants, with 384 going into the final weekend of play, have a very good chance of becoming the 12th.

When the Cubs led the league in walks last year, it was the first time they had done so since 1984, when they won the NL East. They had done so twice in the Teens, three times in the '20s, and four times in the 1930s, the last time coming in 1937. It would be 23 years until they did so again in 1960, and another 24 years before they did so again. Resultantly, aside from 2008, the Cubs have led the NL in OBP just once, in 1972 (they were third in walks that year, with Rick Monday leading the club with 78).

The Cubs' impatience has been so pervasive and persistent that it almost seems like a plan, as if various general managers and managers intentionally deemphasized that aspect of the game until recently. If true, only Baker was dumb enough to say so in public. Whatever the motivation, their failure to understand the benefits of ball four has been self-defeating and a key factor in their long years of frustration. Perhaps no other club has had so obvious a need and has so often been lacking it. No club has needed a Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, or Tim Raines more desperately than the Cubs, but they have failed repeatedly to acquire or develop that player.

How the Cubs divest themselves of Bradley looms large over their immediate future. Not only do they have to redeem an embarrassing signing, but they need to replace a key factor in the maintenance of the OBP surge that was so profitable for them in 2008. Even having missed a good deal of the season through injury and personal conflict, Bradley ranks third on the club with 66 walks. Ridding themselves of this unwelcome presence will undoubtedly force them to lose money, but it will also force them to lose something less easily replaced-patience. That's why the rumored swap of Bradley for the Rays' Pat Burrell makes some sense. On one level it is one team's expensive problem for another team's expensive disappointment, on another it could allow the Cubs to recapture all those lost times on base-prior to this year's debacle, Burrell had walked between 98 and 114 times a year each season from 2005 through 2008. If consummated, it would represent perhaps the first time since Dallas Green swapped Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz to the Phillies for Matthews and Bob Dernier that a Cubs general manager put such an explicit emphasis on adding patience to the club.

*: An unrelated note of trivia-it has been 38 years since any Twins player drew 100 walks in a season, as the feat was last achieved by Harmon Killebrew with 114 freebies in 1971.

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

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