With the year winding to a close, Baseball Prospectus is revisiting some of our favorite articles of the year. This was originally published on May 19, 2015.
"Stand up like a man," catchers used to tell him. He’d be in that deep Rickey crouch, shrinking that strike zone until it was “smaller than Hitler’s heart,” in Jim Murray’s words. “So low and so exaggerated,” Peter Gammons wrote, “that Angel manager Gene Mauch once described it as a ‘three-inch strike zone.’" But nobody likes a player who just tries to walk, one of baseball’s strangest bigotries, the mistrust of the walker. So, the catchers would needle, “stand up like a man.”
Back in 1981, Rickey explained his crouch not as a way of shrinking his strike zone, but of hitting the ball better. “I can see the ball better this way than standing up. Stand-up hitters see only the top half of the ball. I see the whole thing."
What you might forget is that Rickey Henderson once slugged .577, had the AL’s fourth-best isolated power, led the league in OPS+. In his prime he was basically Mike Trout without the freakish youth, a genuinely frightening hitter who was scary enough to draw nearly as many intentional walks in his career as Jim Rice. He hit the ball so hard it almost made sense to walk him.
But he then hung around for a long, long time. You might have thought in 1997, after he hit .183 and slugged .261 with the Angels, that he would think about retiring, but he played six years in the majors after that. Those six years—and, especially, the final four—were arguably more interesting than the previous 18.
In 2000, while with the Mets, he hit .219 and slugged .229. His on-base percentage: .387. His walk rate was 20.2 percent; Barry Bonds’, for his career, was 20.3 percent. Now, he didn’t spend long with the Mets, and the smallness of the sample applies here, but here are Rickey’s four final slash lines:
In 2000, when Rickey qualified for the batting title, his OBP was 1.2 times higher than his slugging percentage; only one player in the post-1993 expansion era has had a more disproportionate OBP—Walt Weiss, in 1995, and he benefited from hitting in front of pitchers. With the exception of two starts in the second spot, Henderson batted exclusively leadoff during those four final years.
Think about the probability of a non-walk as a box with four quadrants. Each quadrant is filled in to a greater or lesser extent depending on the circumstances:
1. Is the pitcher good or bad at throwing strikes?
2. Is the batter good or bad at taking balls?
3. Is the alternative to a ball (letting the batter swing at a strike) particularly damaging?
4. Is a walk itself particularly damaging?
(1) doesn’t change. Well, it does, but not because Rickey comes to the plate. That’s the stable one. So for Rickey to get far more walks than other hitters, it has to be a combination of (2), (3) and (4).
But here’s the crazy thing: For Rickey, (3) goes in the wrong direction. He could do almost no damage in those final four years. His slugging percentage was in the 3rd percentile among all major leaguers (min. 800 PA), just behind Rey Ordonez. This is, no surprise, not the profile of a hitter who generally draws a lot of walks. Last year, for instance, the correlation between batting average and walk rate was virtually non-existent, at .04. But the correlation between slugging percentage and walk rate was robust: .52. Rickey had variable no. 3 going badly against him.
Crazier: For Rickey, no. 4 also goes against him. Even late in his career, even in his early 40s, Rickey’s primary value was his ability to steal bases. In 1998, when he hit .236/.376/.347, he led the league in stolen bases, and after turning 40 he still stole 38 bases per 162 games. He was a solidly above-average baserunner overall during those final four years, as well. We see throughout his career that this was a significant consideration for opponents: With runners on—when, generally, Rickey wouldn’t have an opportunity to steal if he was walked—he drew walks in 18.4 percent of his career plate appearances; with the bases clear, when a walk often meant a double, he walked in 15.4 percent. (The league as a whole also walks more with runners on base; for Rickey, the effect was larger. So they were trying to keep him from walking into a double.) Add in his batting order position—a walk is certainly more damaging when it precedes the third and fourth hitters than, say, eighth and ninth hitters—and you imagine there was never a walk in those four years that wasn’t followed by a cuss from the mound, a cuss from behind the plate, and a cuss from the opposing manager.
So, we have our four quadrants; one is neutral for Rickey, and the other two are working hard against him, and still he was walking more often than peak Jason Giambi. So just imagine how big his final quadrant must have been.
Rickey claimed that umpires picked on him. In 1987, Gammons wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated called “What Ever Happened To The Strike Zone,” with a section on the controversy over Rickey’s.
Henderson, who walked 89 times last year, claims that the umpires call strikes on him that would be balls on other batters. Steinbrenner called the league to task on the subject last year, citing the umpire committee's 1978 guidelines. The umpires say that Henderson comes out of his crouch to swing at the ball, and according to Springstead, the strike zone should be determined by "the normal hitting stance when a batter is swinging at the ball." Stop-action photographs of Henderson, though, reveal that he really does stay down when he swings at a pitch.
Three years later, Gammons again, but now the discussion was beyond the crouch:
"What makes it worse is that he bitches so much that umpires give him everything," says California Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann.
"Not so," says Rettenmund. "Rickey has such a precise knowledge of his strike zone—like a Ted Williams or a Wade Boggs—that umpires bear down even harder with him. They don't like it when he disagrees, so they work harder.”
So which is it—did umps pick on him, because of his reputation, or was he the hitting equivalent of a great-framing catcher, able to bend the umpire’s definition of the strike zone. (There is no zone.) Sadly, we’ll probably never know for sure.
We can estimate how well a catcher in the pre-PITCHf/x era framed, just by knowing how often pitches in each count were called strikes with him behind the plate (and adjusted for the umpire and the pitchers). For hitters, however, it’s impossible to say without knowing the location; the pitches a batter gets, and the pitches he chooses to take, are unique to him, and thus (without knowing the location) skew any expectations of how often they should be strikes.
We do know, in general, how much influence a hitter can have over the zone: Some. Using the demonstrated pitch-tilting talents of PITCHf/x era hitters as our guide, we can say that the difference between the most extreme “framers” is, roughly, four called strikes per 100 called pitches. (That excludes pitches swung at, of course.) So, over the course of a season, the batter who best works the umpires gets around 20 more calls than the batter who is the worst at it. On a per-PA basis, that’s nearly as much influence over the strike zone as pitchers have (though considerably less than catchers.)
These skills—or, if you prefer, batter characteristics—are pretty persistent. Dustin Pedroia, for instance, got the most extra calls in baseball in 2014; he also got the most extra calls in 2012, and in 2010. (Placido Polanco, Russell Martin and Yadier Molina also show up repeatedly, if you're curious. Colby Rasmus got the most balls “taken” from him in 2014, and appears twice more on the list of the 30 worst “framing” hitter seasons of the PITCHf/x era.) If Rickey were as good as Pedroia—and we don't know that he was—he’d get about 10 balls more than the average hitter per year, which would mean a few extra walks per year, not the dozens of extra walks he actually got. These numbers leave two possibilities: The umpire effect isn’t enough to explain things, or Rickey was much better than Pedroia is. The former is more likely, though the latter more fun.
Whether Rickey’s umpire-affecting abilities were legendary or just urban legend, he was doing something, because his patience (passivity?) isn’t enough to explain his walk rate. In his final two seasons, he swung at 35 percent of pitches, which was one of the lowest swing rates in baseball. But it wasn’t the lowest—it was fourth, assuming you put the plate-appearance minimums where I chose to—and the guys around him walked less often than he did, even though they were in many cases far more dangerous hitters (and thus were presumably pitched around more):
Just look at Rickey and Dave Roberts. They’re almost impossible to distinguish in the batter's box: Same slugging percentage, same swing rate, both serious threats to steal second. But pitchers figured out how to avoid the one obviously unforgivable outcome against Roberts. They couldn't figure it out against Rickey.
A couple years ago, before an old-timer's day appearance, Henderson shared his advice to Billy Hamilton and other basestealers.
“People ask, ‘How do you steal all those bases?’ But they never say, ‘What do you do to get on base?’ A lot of leadoff hitters, they’re free swingers — they’re not patient enough to take a pitch or two knowing that they can hit with two strikes and get themselves a chance to get on base more. As a leadoff hitter, you’ve got to be patient. The leadoff hitter always has to learn how to hit with two strikes. Learn the strike zone. What is your strike zone? Stay inside your strike zone.”
Any leadoff hitter who takes this advice to heart will eventually hear the taunt of the opponent who has been beaten: Stand up like a man. When strategy, preparation, natural ability, and adjustment all fail, the defeated turn to shaming. Rickey was smart enough to beat the strike zone, so he was sure as hell smart enough to beat the shaming.
You remember that after Rickey got old he still didn't want to quit baseball. When they wouldn't sign him to play in the majors anymore, he kept playing in independent leagues until he was 46. There, against inferior competition, Rickey could once again hit like he had in his prime, like the guy you didn't want to throw a strike to. In 220 games, he hit 22 homers, had a .930 OPS, stole 62 bags with a 90 percent success rate. He wasn't quite Mike Trout without the freakish youth, but he was, once again, feared—he even drew seven intentional walks. And, with all that thunder again in his bat, he… kept being him. He drew a walk a game, a walk in 23 percent of his plate appearances.
Baseball's not nice. When you're young, baseball wants to cheat you. When you're in your prime, it wants to grind you. When you're old, it wants to euthanize you. The other team is a predator; it exists to defeat you. Rickey knew there was no prize for helping them out.
Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance.
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