Before getting into this week’s column, I would like to make a pair of
last week’s feature on the amazing Ichiro Suzuki:
I stated that, assuming Ichiro could continue to get hits in 95% of his
games, that his chances of fashioning a 57-game hitting streak were
extremely high. I did not mean that I expected Ichiro to get hits in 95% of
his games. I was merely extrapolating his performance to date, nothing more.
As it turns out, I screwed up the math anyway. As reader Andy Cleary writes,
"Rany, I’m pretty sure you messed up one piece of math. The flaw is
that you can’t start a hitting streak on ‘any given day.’ You can only start
a hitting streak on a day after you have been held hitless."
Andy is absolutely right. The chance that Suzuki will start a 57-game
hitting streak on Opening Day is (0.95)^57, or 5.4%. However, the chance
that he will start a 57-game hitting streak on the second day of the season
is (5.4% x 5%), because he has to go hitless on Opening Day to start a
streak the following day.
This changes the percentages entirely. Instead of having a 99.7% chance of
having a 57-game hitting streak at some point during the season (again,
based only on his performance to date), Ichiro’s chance of passing Joe
DiMaggio is just 38.6%. (However, over the course of a 1,000-game
career, that chance would increase to 93.6%.)
My apologies for the bad math. And on that inauspicious note, here’s this
Well, he’s done it.
the Marlins shortstop who drew just 15 walks in 136
games as a rookie in 1999, suffered through one of the worst seasons by an
everyday hitter in recent memory last year. Gonzalez hit an even .200, and
with just 13 walks in 109 games, finished with an execrable .229 OBP, the
lowest by any player with 400 or more plate appearances since the immortal
posted a .219 OBP in 1979 (while hitting two points under the
Line named after him).
In the off-season, the Marlins made it clear that if Gonzalez wanted to keep
his job in 2001, he would have to show some discretion at the plate.
Gonzalez got the message. "I know this year I’m going to take more
walks," Gonzalez said during the first week of the season. He’s done
just that; in fact, Gonzalez set a career-high with his 16th walk of this
young season on May 19.
In fairness, five of Gonzalez’s walks are intentional (he had never been
walked intentionally before this season), which makes his walk spike a
little less impressive, if still noteworthy.
What is the largest increase in walks by a batter from one season to the
next? A lot depends on who is eligible. If you limit the list to players who
qualified for the batting title in each season, the list looks like this:
Player Year 1 AB BB Year 2 AB BB Increase
Babe Ruth 1922 406 84 1923 522 170 86 Jimmy Sheckard 1910 507 83 1911 539 147 64 Babe Ruth 1929 499 72 1930 518 136 64 Richie Ashburn 1953 622 61 1954 559 125 64 Reggie Jackson 1968 553 50 1969 549 114 64
The gap between #1 and the four-way tie for #2 on this list is one of, um,
Ruthian proportions. While intentional-walk data is not available before the
mid-1950s, it has been widely speculated that as many as half of
walks in the early 1920s were intentional. That would, of course, imply that
Ruth was given a free pass 85 times in 1923, the year he set the all-time
record for walks.
Regardless of the actual number, it’s pretty clear that Ruth was already the
most feared hitter in the game in 1922, and he didn’t draw 170 walks that
season. Of course, he didn’t come to bat as often as he did in 1923, and
that skews our results some as well.
To adjust for that, we can use "matched sets," whereby the at-bat
and walk totals for each player in the season they batted more often are
scaled down to match their playing time from the other season. For example,
Ruth had just 406 at-bats in 1922, and if we scale his 1923 at-bat total to
406, we find that he would have walked "just" 132 times, an
increase of just 48. The greatest increase in walk totals among
"matched sets" in history:
Player Year 1 Matched BB Year 2 Matched BB Increase
Richie Ashburn 1953 54.8 1954 125.0 70.2 Ted Williams 1940 78.0 1941 145.0 67.0 Mark McGwire 1997 95.2 1998 162.0 66.8 Jimmy Wynn 1968 82.2 1969 148.0 65.8 Reggie Jackson 1968 49.6 1969 114.0 64.4
(By way of comparison, for Gonzalez to match
record in a season of 500 at-bats, he would have to walk 108 times.)
and Reggie Jackson
accomplished their feats in
1969, when the strike zone was shrunk and the mounds were lowered, leading
to one of the greatest league-wide increases in walks ever: the average NL
team increased their walks by 24.5%, the average AL team by 20.1%. Gonzalez,
on the other hand, is taking a leap forward in a season in which the strike
zone has been enlarged and walks are significantly down throughout baseball.
It’s interesting–and probably not coincidental–that two of the three
biggest walk jumps in history coincided with the all-time home run record
and the last .400 season.
This list isn’t particularly relevant to Gonzalez, though, as all five of
these players were pretty patient hitters before their walk spike. Gonzalez,
on the other hand, was one of the most free-swinging hitters on the planet
before this season, and it would be interesting to see whether other
brain-dead hackers have been able to develop plate discipline overnight.
Here’s the same list, limited to players who drew less than one walk per 20
at-bats in Year 1 (since 1900):
Player Year 1 Matched BB Year 2 Matched BB Increase
Al Kaline 1954 22.0 1955 70.3 48.3 Larry Bowa 1978 19.8 1979 61.0 41.2 Joe DiMaggio 1936 23.4 1937 64.0 40.6 Bobby Tolan 1969 25.0 1970 62.0 37.0 Brian L. Hunter 1996 17.0 1997 52.8 35.8
Two rookies appear on this list, and it just so happens that both of them
went into the Hall of Fame. Both
and Al Kaline
appeared headed for stardom even as rookies, though. Larry Bowa‘s
1979 season was a complete fluke; it was the only season in his 16-year
career in which he walked even 40 times.
The player on this list that resembles Gonzalez the most, unfortunately for
him, is Brian Hunter,
who like Gonzalez was in his third full
major-league season when he stopped swinging at everything. Hunter’s
patience fled as quickly as it arrived, though; he drew only 36 walks the
following season as his career began its sink into oblivion.
Hunter, however, was 26 years old when he had his walk spike, while Gonzalez
is just 24. Perhaps younger players who develop the skill of plate
discipline are more likely to hold onto it. So let’s look at one more list,
which like the last one is limited to hitters who walked less than once
every 20 at-bats in the year before their walk spike, but who were 24 or
younger in the year of their walk spike:
Player Year 1 Matched BB Year 2 Age Matched BB Increase
Al Kaline 1954 22.0 1955 20 70.3 48.3 Joe DiMaggio 1936 23.4 1937 22 64.0 40.6 Bobby Tolan 1969 25.0 1970 24 62.0 37.0 Cesar Cedeno 1971 22.9 1972 21 56.0 33.1 Dick Bartell 1931 27.0 1932 24 57.7 30.7 Ted Simmons 1972 29.0 1973 23 58.5 29.5 Lee Tannehill 1904 17.6 1905 24 45.0 27.4 Phil Lewis 1905 16.0 1906 22 41.2 25.2 Tony Gonzalez 1960 15.0 1961 24 39.1 24.1 Paul Molitor 1978 19.0 1979 22 42.8 23.8
Aside from the aforementioned Hall of Famers, the list includes another
and one of the greatest phenoms of the last 50 years
Cedeno’s walk spike coincided
with his emergence as a bonafide superstar, as he hit .320 with 22 home
runs, a league-leading 39 doubles, 55 steals, and a Gold Glove, all as a
21-year-old playing in the Astrodome in a pitchers’ era.
If you look at
our Player Card for Cedeno,
you can see that if his
performance that season was translated into an average park of today, he
would have hit .346/.413/.632 with 33 home runs and 52 doubles, again as a
21-year-old Gold Glove outfielder. Let’s put it this way: Cedeno, at the
conclusion of that season, was a more valuable commodity than any player
active today, up to and possibly including
Yet he finished
his career with barely 2,000 hits, and he never won a Gold Glove, made an
All-Star team, or hit 20 homers after he turned 26 years old. Cedeno is a
sobering reminder that on the road to the Hall of Fame, even the most
reliable car can veer off course if the driver isn’t paying attention.
Back to our study…
and Ted Simmons
both maintained their solid walk rates for the rest of their distinguished
careers (Bartell, known as "Rowdy Richard," was perhaps the best
defensive shortstop in the NL in the 1930s.)
Tony Gonzalez also
maintained his walk spike during his sophomore season, and was a fine
outfielder for the Phillies throughout the 1960s before his recent
reincarnation as the best tight end in the NFL.
walk rate began to slide almost immediately, and he
never again had a season as good as his 1970 campaign (he did miss the
entire 1971 season, and in all honesty, I don’t know why).
and Phil Lewis
were both generally awful players whose
walk rate dipped as soon as pitchers in the dead-ball era figured out that
they had nothing to lose by throwing strikes to either player.
What does this all mean for Alex Gonzalez? Only three of the ten players on
the list did not go on to enjoy long and productive careers after their walk
spike, and of the three, two played in the dead-ball era and one missed the
entire season after his walk spike. For a guy whose career was on the brink
last season, that’s a pretty good sign.
Keep in mind, of course, that Gonzalez still has to show that he’s capable
of maintaining his newly-found discipline all year long. Early returns are
not encouraging: after drawing 12 walks in 22 games in April, Gonzalez has
walked just four times in 18 games in May. Not coincidentally, after hitting
.307/.409/.453 in April, his numbers have tumbled to .167/.231/.200 this
But there’s still time for him to rebound and try to wedge his name onto a
list that contains three Hall of Famers. And let’s not forget that less than
a year ago, his offensive ineptitude evoked comparisons to
the worst hitter ever. That’s progress.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by
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