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June 7, 2010

Between The Numbers

Dead Men Walking

by Ben Lindbergh

What’s a baseball fan to do when The Day After Ubaldo coincides with Strasburg Eve? If you answered, “Watch and chat about the draft,” well, you can take that kind of attitude elsewhere, mister (or ma’am). As the baseball world passes the time until 7 PM Eastern, let’s explore a statistical oddity, and see what (if anything) we can uncover.

My buddy Craig Glaser tweeted an interesting factoid  on Saturday: Brewers catcher George Kottaras is one of only three players with at least 75 PA this season to have more walks to his name than hits. The other two are somewhat more accomplished: Nick Johnson, and presumptive Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Rather than devote my energies to a pursuit that might leave the world a better place than I found it, I decided to take a quick look into what makes these players tick. From 2000 to 2009, 28 players (in 35 player seasons, since some players were repeat offenders) managed to accumulate at least 75 PA in a single season while maintaining a higher walk total than hit total. Of those 28, 6 were pitchers, whom I’m removing from the sample on the grounds that they shouldn’t have been batting in the first place (yeah, I went there).  That leaves us with the following 22 players (and 29 player seasons), whom I’m dubbing the Perambulator Posse:

Year

Name

Age

PA

BB

UBB

H

TAv

BABIP

2000

Mark McGwire

36

321

76

64

72

.370

.313

2000

John Jaha

34

133

33

33

17

.243

.276

2000

Jon Nunnally

28

92

17

17

14

.251

.255

2001

Barry Bonds

36

664

177

142

156

.428

.266

2001

Todd Pratt

34

212

34

31

32

.230

.257

2002

Barry Bonds

37

612

198

130

149

.451

.330

2002

Tim Raines

42

114

22

18

17

.233

.225

2002

Brady Anderson

38

101

18

16

13

.226

.211

2002

Jack Cust

23

78

12

12

11

.190

.303

2003

Barry Bonds

38

550

148

87

133

.403

.304

2003

Jeremy Giambi

28

156

26

26

25

.247

.250

2003

Jay Bell

37

142

22

21

21

.191

.266

2003

Frank Menechino

32

109

19

18

16

.239

.212

2003

Brandon Larson

27

104

13

13

9

.101

.136

2004

Barry Bonds

39

617

232

112

135

.438

.310

2005

Jim Thome

34

242

45

41

40

.255

.256

2005

Jose Valentin

35

184

31

29

25

.226

.211

2006

Morgan Ensberg

30

495

101

94

91

.295

.251

2006

Barry Bonds

41

493

115

77

99

.333

.251

2006

D’Angelo Jimenez

28

88

16

14

13

.217

.211

2007

Jack Cust

28

507

105

103

101

.319

.355

2007

Barry Bonds

42

477

132

89

94

.352

.254

2008

Nick Johnson

29

147

33

29

24

.303

.238

2008

Mark Sweeney

38

108

15

15

12

.134

.184

2008

Brian Bocock

23

93

12

12

11

.164

.229

2009

Josh Whitesell

27

133

24

20

21

.233

.256

2009

Chris Gimenez

26

130

17

17

16

.183

.178

2009

Matt Stairs

41

129

23

20

20

.267

.221

2009

Greg Norton

36

97

20

20

11

.202

.196

AVG

WITH BONDS

33.3

253

60

46

48

.266

.248

AVG

W/O BONDS

31.9

170

32

30

27

.231

.239

 
The first thing you might notice is that Bonds guy rearing his bulbous head—not just once, but on six separate occasions. Regardless of how you reconcile his success, Bonds was a sports singularity, upsetting our conception of how the baseball universe worked by confronting us with inexplicable occurrences like bases-loaded intentional walks, players with .350+ TAvs unable to beg a roster spot at the major league minimum, and, to use a glaring example, 73-home-run seasons. Because his statistics distort everyone and everything within their event horizon, I included both a with-Bonds average and a without-Bonds average. Without exception, Bonds’ appearances on this list hinged on his copious quantities of intentional free passes; if we restrict the list to “true” Perambulators, who required little assistance from the opposing manager to qualify (in other words, those with UBB>H), we’re left with only 18 seasons.

Another obvious observation is that these players are old. Even with Bonds removed from the equation, the average perambulator was pushing 32. The two 23-year-olds on the list, Jack Cust and Brian Bocock, paid dearly for their anomalous performances as youths; Cust accumulated only 88 major league plate appearances in his subsequent three seasons after making his first appearance on this list in 2003, and Bocock has been banished from MLB since last sighted in May of 2008 (one wonders how a middle infielder with a .447 OPS and a 7.2% BB% in AAA managed a 12.9% walk rate for a brief time in the majors, even batting 8th in the NL). Bonus fact: Bocock currently sports a .159 TAv for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League.               

With or without Bonds, the Perambulator Posse doubles as a low-BABIP brigade; few of these players were speedy to begin with, but most of them reached new BABIP lows in the seasons listed above. Of course, since BABIP declines with age as players lose both bat speed and foot speed, we shouldn’t be shocked to see such low figures concentrated among the elderly and infirm.

It’s very difficult for a player to be productive with more walks than hits, unless he’s slugging in the .700s, as were Bonds or McGwire. Nick Johnson is one of the three others on this list to have managed the feat, suggesting that the Yankees need not worry about  the ultra-selective approach of OBP Jesus, should he ever resurface (more worrisome is the fact that both of his Perambulations  preceded serious wrist injuries, suggesting that “OBP Lazarus” may have been a more fitting moniker). In many cases, a year with more walks than hits signaled the approaching end of a career. For Jon Nunnally, Tim Raines, Brady Anderson, Jeremy Giambi, Mark Sweeney, and Greg Norton, the seasons above marked the end of the line. Their demises may have been hastened by some amount of bad luck on balls in play, but it’s more likely that their bottom-feeding BABIPs reflected a change in true talent that told them (as well as their potential employers) that it was time to go.

So what does that mean for those players currently Perambulating? Here they are once more, in tabular form:

Year

Name

Age

PA

BB

UBB

H

TAv

BABIP

2010

Chipper Jones

38

189

38

34

36

.289

.268

2010

George Kottaras

27

112

26

25

18

.322

.197

2010

Nick Johnson

31

98

24

24

12

.269

.213

 
Johnson currently sports the second-largest differential between walks and hits of any qualifier (non-Bonds division), behind only John Jaha’s 16 in 2000. Whether he’ll get a chance to narrow the gap in 2010 is anyone’s guess. As Marc Normandin ably detailed, the 38-year-old Chipper Jones’ skills, so recently intact, seem to have slipped significantly, and his appearance in this post can’t be construed as anything other than an ill omen. Despite that, Chipper has managed to remain productive; if you’re not slugging up a storm, walking up a whirlwind will do the trick, and Chipper’s 20.1% walk rate ranks second in all of MLB (minimum 100 PA).

Speaking of which: If you had “George Kottaras” in the “Which player’s walk rate (unintentional or otherwise) will be leading MLB on June 7th?” pool, congratulations. After walking less than half as frequently in a backup role for Boston last season, and only 11.9% of the time in almost 1000 AAA PA, Kottaras has walked in an extraordinary 23.2% of his plate appearances this season. Assigning Kottaras an 11% “true” walk rate (which may be overly generous), the probability of his walking at least as often as he has over 112 PA, through chance alone, is roughly 1 in 5800 (although clearly there's some selection bias involved here, since we're selecting Kottaras as a result of our prior knowledge of his unusual performance). Granted, he’s had the same batting-before-the-pitcher bonus that Bocock had going for him, but some of the credit has to go to his approach: Kottaras simply hasn’t swung at anything (32.8% swing percentage, compared to the 44.9% league average), especially outside of the zone, where he’s swung at pitches 14.3% less often than average.

Since Kottaras has been making contact at an above-average clip on his swings in the zone, and two thirds of his hits have gone for extra bases (the UBB>H and XBH>non-XBH club is even more swanky and exclusive), pitchers have been forced to nibble, rather than simply pound the zone, and Kottaras has allowed them to work themselves into trouble. According to Chris Dutton’s expected BABIP calculator, Kottaras would be expected to have a .281 BABIP with his current distribution of batted balls; as his walk rate regresses to the mean (accelerated, perhaps, by a change in lineup position), his BABIP should, too, allowing him to stay afloat, if not to continue to qualify as a Perambulator.

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

Related Content:  Jack Cust,  George Kottaras

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