Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Toronto Blue Jays (7th) @ New York Yankees (1st)

In spite of their loss to the Devil Rays Wednesday night, New York’s 14 walks in the game remind us that the Yankees are once again asserting themselves as the biggest bunch of bat droppers in the land. In 1931, the Yankees became the first team ever to draw 700 walks in a season. The next year, they became the second, setting the team record in the process. By the end of the decade, they had done it eight times without any other team having done it. In the late ’40s, there occurred in the American League a walk explosion the likes of which we have not seen since and the ’32 Yankees team walk records fell. The three highest walks-per-game totals ever came in the three-year period of 1948-1950. In those seasons, A.L. batters drew 4.3, 4.6 and 4.4 walks on a per-game basis.

These years are significant to the 2006 Yankees because, after their walkfest on Wednesday night, they have an outside shot at reclaiming the team record set by a club in that period. Putting aside length of season, here are the most team walks ever drawn:

835: 1949 Boston Red Sox
823: 1948 Boston Red Sox
783: 1949 Philadelphia A’s
775: 2000 Seattle Mariners
770: 1999 Oakland A’s
766: 1932 New York Yankees
765: 1993 Detroit Tigers
762: 1947 Detroit Tigers
751: 1949 Detroit Tigers
751: 1951 Boston Red Sox

In all, 30 American League teams have drawn 700 walks or more. Only seven National League teams have done it. The first, and still the team with the league record, was the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers with 732. That would rank 15th in the American League all-time annals.

With 103 walks in their first 20 games, the Yankees are at a pace to draw 834 in 2006. That would put them right there with the ’49 Red Sox. True, this is a rather small sample size from which to be making projections. After all, a 14-walk anomaly at this stage of the season like the one against Tampa Bay can push a projection up a hill pretty fast. Even removing that game from the accounting, however, the Yankees are working at a 759 pace, putting them in the top 10.

That the Yankees could even have a shot at this now illustrates how the American League appears to be dancing away from the low-walk precipice of 2005. Last year, for the first time since the pitcher’s coup of 1968, the American League averaged just 3.0 walks per game. This is a far cry from the walk spike of 1999-2000 when the league averaged in the 3.7-3.8 range. The National League saw similar numbers in those years as the league amassed nearly 10,000 walks in 2000. The N.L.’s drop-off has not been so precipitous after that, getting no lower than 3.3 in this century. This year so far, the A.L. is back up around the 2001-04 range of 3.2-3.3 per game while the National is at 3.6. (There was a time when the American was the walking league compared to the National. While the presence of such renowned walkers as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Max Bishop and Eddie Yost certainly accounts for some portion of this, it can’t answer for the fact that from 1913 to 1969 the AL had more walks per game than the NL in every year but 1928 and 1944.)

As for going after the record, the Yankees are getting maximum walk production out of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Jorge Posada has been his usual selective self while Hideki Matsui is operating at an acceptable level. If the Yankees have any hope of getting the record, they’re going to need to see more from Gary Sheffield (one walk per 14 at bats so far) and Robinson Cano (three walks in over 70 plate appearances). Sheffield has been unusually walk-averse given his previous record. Cano shows no sign of fitting into the Yankee method any time soon. Among the regulars, that leaves just Bernie Williams. Just two years ago, he was walking about once every eight plate appearances. As the rest of his game showed signs of decline, the ability to work a free pass, at least, remained. Even that appears to be gone now.

How long will the Yankees stand for Williams? So far, Joe Torre has shown a great reliance on his starting nine. Whether or not Williams remains a part of that body depends mostly on the Yankees’ sense of nostalgia weighed against their need to keep the Red Sox and Blue Jays at bay. If things keep going as they are, however, this version of the Yankees could end up getting more mileage out of its starting lineup than any team of recent memory. So far, they have been allotted about 92% of the plate appearances. Reserves Andy Phillips, Miguel Cairo, Kelly Stinnett and Bubba Crosby have seen precious little playing time. Between them, they have started just eight games.

As the schedule thickens, Posada will be due more days off. One would also assume that in a lineup where the second-youngest player is 30 there would have to be numerous provisions for time off. In any case, I wouldn’t bet on the 2006 Yankees besting this lot, but, given the strength of their bench, you can’t blame them for trying. What follows are the teams the Yankees need to beat to become the most starter-centric (or bench-averse, if you prefer) team of the Expansion Era. The method for identifying these teams was devised by Keith Woolner. He describes his methodology this way: “I looked at each player and assigned him to the position most frequently played in that season. Then, for all the players at a given position on the team, the one with the most total plate appearances was considered the starter. All other players were bench players. Under this scheme, it’s possible for a team to have fewer than nine starters (eight for non-DH teams, as I removed all pitcher plate appearances from consideration.”

.891: 1962 Minnesota Twins (91-71; 2nd place)
The fewest games played among the starters was 144 by Vic Power. The reserve with the most playing time was Don Mincher who logged 157 plate appearances. He walked an impressive 34 times in those trips. If the Yankees had a young Mincher on their bench we could give them better odds on breaking the team walk record. In all, 10 players other than the starters fought over about 10 percent of the playing time. This included Tony Oliva in a September call-up. The September call-ups could derail a Yankee bid for the record, except the team is likely to be in the thick of things then, and not too keen on spending too much lineup coin on wannabes. A 1962 ballclub was probably carrying 10 pitchers and 15 position players at any given moment as opposed to the 12 and 13 currently being employed by New York.

.884: 1975 Oakland A’s (98-64; 1st in American League West)
Among starters on this team, Joe Rudi lost a month to injury and played the fewest number of games. He still qualified for the batting title as did all nine regulars. Reserves made about one start in nine. The Oakland bench was squeezed somewhat by the presence of not one but two full-time pinch runners. After Herb Washington was released, Don Hopkins was joined by Matt Alexander to act primarily as “designated runners” as Charlie Finley tried to prove to the world that baseball needed to emulate football’s move toward specialization.

.881: 1972 Houston Astros (84-69; 2nd in National League West)
Astros reserves made just 117 starts out of a possible 1,224 in this strike-shortened season. Catcher Johnny Edwards was the only regular who did not qualify for the batting title. Larry Howard, his backup, got a career-high 175 plate appearances in his stead.

.881: 1978 Montreal Expos (76-86; 4th in National League East)
The only sub-.500 team to appear in the top five. One might ask why a manager would stick with his regulars when the results were less than a 50-50 proposition to win. The answer is that this was a team on the rise. In contrast to the current Yankees, most of these players were playing a lot because they were being given time to establish themselves. Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine were all 23 or 24 that year. Among starters, only Dave Cash (30) and Tony Perez (36) would find themselves among their age peers on the current Yanks. The main eight started all but 104 games with Stan Papi getting most of the extra infield work and Del Unser the outfield.

.877: 1984 Boston Red Sox (86-76; 4th in American League East)
The Red Sox got a lot of work out of their outfielders Jim Rice, Dwight Evans and Tony Armas. When Armas wasn’t patrolling center, he was starting DH, moving Mike Easler–another player with over 650 plate appearances–to first. Reid Nichols and Rick Miller were the only bench players who got more than 100 plate appearances.

Just for fun, here are the teams who got the least amount of playing time out of their core starters:

.535: 2003 Cincinnati Reds (69-93 5th in National League Central)
Only Sean Casey qualified for the batting title. The Reds started three different catchers, making it the most stable position on the team outside of Casey’s first base, although three others started there in his place on occasion. There were six different starting shortstops, seven starters each at second base, third base and centerfield. Eight players got starting assignments in right field and 10 started games in left. Obviously, some of these were the same players, but still…

.546: 1993 New York Mets (59-103; 6th in National League East)
The storied “worst team money could buy” not only didn’t get a lot of wins out of its fancy dan lineup, they didn’t get a lot of playing time either. Eddie Murray was a favorite target of the press that year, which never made any sense because he was one of the few producers on the team and he showed up for work. Maybe it was because he was in the lineup every day–unlike most of his colleagues–that made the press see him as a symbol of the disaster.

.555: 1976 Montreal Expos (55-107; 6th in National League East)
Like the Expos team of two years later, this was a very young squad. Unlike that team, though, there were a lot of guys here you didn’t want clogging up your future. Pete Mackanin, Jerry White and Pepe Mangual were going to need to step aside for their betters. 14 players got at least 200 plate appearances.

.556: 2004 Kansas City Royals (58-104; 5th in American League Central)
Only Joe Randa and Angel Berroa qualified for the batting title. The Royals gave playing time to 33 position players.

.558: 2005 Los Angeles Dodgers (71-91; 4th in National League West)
Injuries unraveled this lineup from nearly top to bottom with only Jeff Kent staying healthy or competent long enough to get the minimum 502 plate appearances in. Eighteen players had at least 100 plate appearances as the Dodgers scrambled to patch a broken outfield. At least they have that rock of lineup stability now, Nomar Garciaparra.

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