March 24, 2011
Painting the Black
Certain questions can pound away at a curious baseball fan’s mind at bedtime, keeping the frazzled fan up until—where has the time gone?—it’s time to go to work or school. Arguably the most prominent of these questions is whether Babe Ruth really called his shot, but the new age thought might be where the Yankees’ farm system would rank if they had signed Gerrit Cole and held onto Arodys Vizcaino. However, one question that doesn’t get asked until there are no games on slate is “Who walks the unwalkable?” A player like Yuniesky Betancourt, who at times shares the capacity of a jellyfish to flop to first base, still averages about 20 bases on balls per season.
While most of the pitching population enables these batters without walk genes, a select few put their foot down—or, in this case, their pitches—wide of the mark. Who are these folks? To find the answer, let’s examine the five batters with the lowest walk rates during the 2010 season: Jose Lopez, John Buck, Josh Wilson, Pedro Feliz, and A.J. Pierzynski. Simply naming the pitchers may humble and embarrass those involved, but doing so leaves other questions unanswered, like the length of the struggle and the intent behind the pitches thrown.
Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tool allows for the creation of data outputs based on specific events, so accessing the situations where a certain batter drew a walk during the 2010 season is easy to find. To determine the quality of hurlers involved, each pitcher had his SIERA and unintentional walk rate (uBB) weighed by walks allowed to the batter before creating an aggregate total by combining the numbers. Let’s attack this batter by batter.
Jose Lopez (Walked in 3.7 percent of his plate appearances)
Fernando Rodney walked Lopez three times in 2010, a remarkable total given Lopez walked 20 times against everyone else. No other pitcher granted Lopez multiple free passes, and within the context of a game, only two teams walked him twice. Just one of Lopez’s five four-pitch walks was described as intentional, but there are at least two cases (including one with Rodney) in which it becomes apparent the unintentional intentional walk was on. Both saw Lopez up with runners on second and third in the ninth inning, and both came on four or five pitches.
Despite a mediocre composite sketch (a SIERA of 4.47 and uBB of 9.7 percent), some giants of the pitching game gave way to the embattled former Mariner, CC Sabathia, Joakim Soria, C.J. Wilson, Brett Anderson, and Max Scherzer included. Joe Saunders and Kevin Millwood aren’t exactly in that realm, but both shriveled at the sight of the mighty Lopez, and they do show up again against other BB-phobics.
John Buck (3.7 percent)
If the Jays employed a methodology of “swing hard, swing often,” then Buck bought in. The 14 pitchers that walked him combined to have a 5.12 SIERA and granted unintentional walks to 12.5 percent of their total batters faced. A 2010 equivalent for those numbers would be Chad Cordero, who still pitches and is in the midst of a rather sad story. Cordero’s teammate, David Pauley, and division pal Rich Harden were the only pitchers to walk Buck more than once during the season. Now a Fish, there is no word on whether an uglier backdrop will keep the backstop hacking to get back to the dugout faster.
Josh Wilson (3.6 percent)
The other Mariner represented, Wilson and Lopez formed the left side of Seattle’s infield on many a day—and yet folks tried blaming Felix Hernandez for lacking in run support? Wilson is the archetypical utility infielder with a fungo bat. He managed to walk off 13 different pitchers who held a 4.67 SIERA and a uBB percentage of 9.5. The only pitcher who walked Wilson more than once was Saunders, who accomplished this “feat” despite only spending half of his season in the American League. The Angels as a whole walked Wilson four times, more than the rest of the division combined fourfold. Some decent pitchers who lost the zone while Wilson tried desperately to give them every advantage are Jered Weaver, Jeff Niemann, and Josh Beckett.
Pedro Feliz (3 percent)
Feliz split the 2010 season between National League Central teams, but only drew 11 more walks against NL opponents than he did during interleague play. The weirdest part is who walked him, as the pitchers combined for a 3.96 SIERA and walks in 9.4 percent of their plate appearances. Late-inning studs like Billy Wagner and Mike Adams, as well as an ace like Chris Carpenter granted free passes to Feliz. That’s not all, as Ubaldo Jimenez, C.J. Wilson, and former teammate Wandy Rodriguez sent Feliz trotting to first base too.
A.J. Pierzynski (3 percent)
Pierzynski may have tied Feliz for the lowest walk rate in the majors, but he cannot compete in the quality of pitchers who sent him lumbering down the line. The 15 pitchers had a 4.45 SIERA and 10.9 uBB percentage. Unbelievably, Pierzynski’s walks were not cheapies, either. Nine of the 15 came in situations where he either advanced the runner (including one with the bases loaded) or became the only man on base. None were in interleague play, so it was not necessarily a circumstance of batting order coming into play.
Twelve pitchers contributed multiple walks toward the unwalkable quintet’s total, with Kevin Millwood issuing three. Wilson, Frank Francisco, Gio Gonzalez, Javier Vazquez, Weaver, Saunders, Jon Rauch, Beckett, Randy Wolf, Harden, and Jimenez all contributed two, and 51 others appeared once. For Millwood, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this is a good recognition to hold. There are situations where walking someone like Feliz or Lopez makes sense, but without digging deeper, is it believable that Millwood encountered the spots more often than other pitchers based on luck? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that his inability to attack a weak group of hitters like the ones featured here are a large part of the reason why he’s unemployed.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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