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September 25, 2012

Western Front

Portrait of a Hacker

by Geoff Young

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Miguel Olivo hooked a two-run homer just inside the Safeco Field left-field foul pole last Friday night against Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando. The eighth-inning blast extended the Mariners' lead to 6-3 and helped secure Seattle's 71st victory of 2012. Beyond contributing to a meaningless win, Olivo's home run inspired the following table (stats here and throughout the article are through games of Saturday, September 22):

Player

Years

PA

BB

HR

BB/HR

Tony Armas

1976-1989

5502

260

251

1.036

Juan Gonzalez

1989-2005

7155

457

434

1.053

Miguel Olivo

2002-2012

3868

152

141

1.078

Don Demeter

1956-1967

3729

180

163

1.104

Alfonso Soriano

1999-2012

7495

447

370

1.208

Matt Williams

1987-2003

7595

469

378

1.241

George Bell

1981-1993

6592

331

265

1.249

Fred Whitfield

1962-1970

2463

139

108

1.287

Dante Bichette

1988-2001

6856

355

274

1.296

Shea Hillenbrand

2001-2007

3816

140

108

1.296

This is a list of the lowest career BB/HR ratio among players with at least 100 home runs. Take a moment to savor it. And pity poor Tony Batista, who drew an intentional walk from Billy Wagner in the ninth inning on September 26, 2007, in the third-to-last game of Batista's career. Batista would finish with a 1.299 BB/HR ratio. He would lose to Shea Hillenbrand.

Before that walk, Batista's BB/HR stood at 1.294, good enough for eighth place on this contrived and not terribly honorable leaderboard. Damn that Willie Randolph!

Batista was hitting .271/.357/.365 at the time of his walk. You may wonder why Randolph had Wagner put him on in that situation. Well, Batista went 3-for-5 with a double and a homer a night earlier. Also, the man who followed Batista's walk, Robert Fick, grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the frame. The move was successful, ergo it was correct. That's how it works, right?

Anyway, enough about Batista. We're here to celebrate the accomplishments of Olivo. Not the home run against Ogando. Enough about home runs, too.

Okay, one more thing: Olivo needs to hit six more home runs without drawing a walk to pass Armas. Because it was bugging you.

Moving on, did you know that on September 18, Olivo drew three walks in a game? Or that this marked the first time in his career he had done so?

Here is a breakdown of Olivo's walk total in 2012:

Month

PA

BB

April

84

2

May

15

0

June

55

1

July

63

1

August

42

0

September (except 9/18)

36

0

September 18

8

3


Sure, the game lasted 18 innings. That's like two games. Still, Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter are to be commended for their efforts. Olivo saw 35 pitches in eight trips to the plate. He took 15 for balls.

Olivo also caught 246 pitches. He was behind the dish for all 18 innings. He homered in the fourth inning and stole second in the 11th. These are incidental to the walks but add to his legend.

Not that Olivo's career needs embellishment. It already is remarkable enough to push the limits of credibility. If he were a fictional character, he'd need to be rewritten—it's that whole willing suspension of disbelief thing.

Because who would believe this:

Player

Year(s)

PA

BB

Barry Bonds

2004

617

232

Barry Bonds

2002

612

198

Barry Bonds

2001

664

177

Babe Ruth

1923

697

170

Mark McGwire

1998

681

162

Ted Williams

1949

730

162

Ted Williams

1947

692

162

Ted Williams

1946

672

156

Miguel Olivo

2002-2012

3868

152

Bonds drew more walks in his first 97 games of 2004 than Olivo has drawn in the first 1,078 games of his career. At his current walk rate, Olivo would need 5,904 plate appearances (about 2,000 more than he currently has) to catch Bonds' 2004 walk total.

Bradley Ankrom interrupts my train of thought by informing me, “Barry Bonds' career intentional walk rate (0.054) is greater than Olivo's career walk rate (0.039).” He adds that “Bonds is the *only* player with an IBBR greater than Olivo's BBR (min. 3000 PA).” It is a welcome interruption.

Olivo could get there. Next year is his age-34 season (he turns 35 in July). Seventeen catchers in big-league history have accumulated at least 2,000 plate appearances from age 34 onward. Most recently, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jason Varitek did it. They were better than Olivo. A lot better. Still, as Olivo's career reminds us every day, just because something is improbable doesn't mean that it cannot happen.

The first walk he ever drew came on September 18, 2002. Careful readers, or those given to attributing meaning to coincidence, will note that this is exactly 10 years before his three-walk game. It came with the bases loaded and two out in the fourth inning of what had been a 1-1 tie. Kansas City right-hander Jeff Suppan walked Olivo on four pitches, forcing home Magglio Ordonez and giving the White Sox a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.

Olivo has drawn 45 four-pitch walks in his career. Bonds drew 46 four-pitch walks in April and May 2004.

Olivo has drawn eight bases-loaded walks:

Date

Pitcher

Score

Inning

Count

9/18/02

Jeff Suppan

1-1

Bottom 4

3-0

4/6/03

Steve Sparks

2-2

Bottom 8

3-1

6/15/04

Nate Bump

5-5

Top 10

3-1

8/4/04

Daniel Cabrera

2-3

Top 6

3-1

9/18/09

Mark Buehrle

0-0

Top 3

3-2

9/24/09

Takashi Saito

2-6

Bottom 8

3-2

5/17/10

Carlos Marmol

1-2

Top 8

3-0

5/30/11

Jake Arrieta

3-1

Bottom 3

3-2

Things to note:

  • Two of these came on the same date as his three-walk game this season.
  • Six tied the game or gave his team the lead (clutch!).
  • Watching him walk against Cabrera and Marmol must have been fascinating.
  • Same with Buehrle and Saito, albeit for a different reason.
  • The most recent one came against Arrieta, who had walked Olivo three weeks earlier. Eight pitchers have walked Olivo more than once in a single season:

Mr. Ankrom interrupts me again with more tales of Great Olivo:

  • Olivo is also the only player in MLB history w/ at least 1500 PA, >= 25% K, <= 5% BB.
  • Miguel Olivo also has the worst SO/BB (7.85) of any player in history w/ more than 2,000 PA.

I should be annoyed by his endless distractions, but I am not annoyed. He is improving my article, letter by letter.

Olivo's legendary plate discipline is nothing new (that's why it's legendary). In various incarnations of the Baseball Prospectus Annual, we have expressed our awe at his ability to swing at everything.

From BP2007:

In 2006, Olivo became just one of a dozen players in the last half-century to come to the plate 400 or more times and failed to draw ten walks. Four of Olivo's nine walks were intentional, giving him an unintentional walk rate of one every 90.4 plate appearances. That's not quite as bad as Alfredo Griffin's 1984 (4 UIBB in 441 PA, or 110.3 UIBB/PA) or the immortal Whitey Alperman's two walks in 442 PA for the 1909 Dodgers, but it's still special.

From BP2011:

For a player who once drew five unintentional walks in 448 plate appearances, Olivo's career-high 22 unintentional passes in 2010 represented something of a breakthrough. Those walks, combined with a personal best in batting average, pushed Olivo's on-base percentage above the Pedro Feliz line for the first time in his nine-year major-league career.

And from BP2012:

...he led his team in runs batted in, despite posting one of the dozen worst OBPs in post-Deadball Era history. Only a truly elite hacker could be both his team's most and least productive hitter, and Olivo is that hacker. He swings at nearly half of all pitches outside the strike zone. He swings at more than half the sliders he sees, and half the curves, and nearly two-thirds of changeups, and 80 percent of splitters. He's a generational hacker.

Aside from disappointment that “Pedro Feliz Line” never became a thing, the takeaway here is that Olivo doesn't draw walks and hasn't for a very long time. If you summed the 90 feet he has traveled for each of his big-league walks, it would come to 2.59 miles.

That's the distance between the Mariners team store at Safeco and the corner of Westlake and Mercer near Lake Union. Google claims it's a 52-minute walk. Google also claims it's only 34 minutes by bus, which doesn't help Olivo but which you might find useful someday. (Take the 72. It runs every half hour on weekdays, with reduced schedules on weekends. If you happen to visit at the right time of year, you can catch the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival, which is—among many other things—free.)

Now that we've had our fill of buses and boats, let's return to Olivo's three-walk game.

  • The walk from Chen came in the second inning and required four pitches. The first was a 91-mph fastball up and in, the last was a 92-mph fastball just off the plate outside. The other two were a 71-mph curve that bounced off home plate and an 85-mph changeup in the dirt, neither of which appears in the PITCHf/x strike zone plot. This suggests that if a pitch's location cannot be identified by sophisticated technology, Olivo might not swing at it:

  • The walk from Arrieta came in the ninth. The first pitch was a 94-mph sinker up in the zone that Olivo took for strike one. After missing up and in with a 79-mph curveball that didn't curve, Arrieta delivered two 94-mph sinkers that appeared to catch the outside corner but that were called balls. Olivo then fouled an 89-mph slider into Matt Wieters' mitt before watching another 94-mph sinker dip down and away for ball four. This marked Olivo's third walk in seven plate appearances against Arrieta, who was removed from the game for his transgression:

  • Hunter entered the contest in the 16th inning. His first pitch was a 98-mph fastball to Olivo that was called a ball, although PITCHf/x disagrees. After throwing a cutter down the middle that Olivo fouled off, Hunter delivered three straight fastballs way out of the zone down and away:

Conclusion? It took 18 innings of baseball for Olivo to draw three walks in a game. There are entire months where he doesn't draw that many walks. In fact, all of them in 2012.

There have been 185 three-walk games in the majors this season. It is an everyday occurrence. Four players (Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, Mark Reynolds, Mark Teixeira) have drawn at least three walks in a game on four separate occasions. It is easy to take such things for granted, but when a player of Olivo's stature does it, be assured that we are witnessing something special.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It should not be forgotten.

1 comment has been left for this article.

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