Talkin' about the underappreciated base on balls, with Bill James
People have violently different views about walks in baseball. I like them because I believe that they are still the most underappreciated weapon in baseball. Bill likes them because they epitomize team play -- "Hey, if you don't want to throw me a good pitch, that's fine, the guy hitting behind me will hit you, he's pretty good, too."
But some people hate the walk. Some think that the walk takes away the hitters' aggressiveness. Some think walks get away from what the game is all about. Some think a walk is more a reflection of the pitcher than the hitter. Some think that a walk is unmanly ... "I don't believe in that on-base percentage [stuff]," Cincinnati's
The authorities of baseball have never had much use for walks, either. After all, walks are not considered in a players' batting average ... walks don't even count as an at-bat. When Bill first began writing about baseball, it could be hard simply to find out how many times a player walked. Walks were not on the backs of baseball cards. Times have changed ... somewhat. But even now, there are plenty of people who still believe that the walk has no place on the back of baseball cards.
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After that there was SOME awareness of batter's walks, but at a very, very low rate. Batter's walks were never reported during the course of the season, for example. To the best of my knowledge there was NO source for batter's walks, updated during the season, until ... well, I guess the 1960s or 1970s.
At the same time, the awareness of "doing whatever you can to get on base", among some hitters and some teams, was much more "naked" than it is now. In modern baseball it is considered bad form to specialize in walking, and nobody really does. But if you go back to 1900, 1910, 1920, there were a certain number of players -- one or two on each team -- who very clearly understood that their job was to get on base any way they could for the big hitters on the team. These people walked 115 times a year in large part BECAUSE nobody was paying attention to how often they walked.
I can remember a story about
Those numbers have stayed remarkably consistent for decades now. Everyone seems to understand how devastating walks are for the pitcher. I remember at Riverfront Stadium they would put up this cheesy looking ghost on the scoreboard when a Reds player would walk and the words "Walks will haunt!" But, for many, those same feelings don't seem to transfer over to the offensive side of the game.
My theory: I think this goes back to the fact that people see baseball (more than any other sport) through their own playing experiences. And when you're young, walks ARE mostly a reflection on the pitcher. The pitcher can't throw strikes. The pitcher is afraid of a hitter. And so on. But that's not how it works in the big leagues.
One more Big Red Machine story to make the point:
(For the record: There have been 28 every-day players since World War II who were 5-foot-8 or less. Joe Morgan has eight of the top nine walk years among those players).
But McGregor has pitched 8 2/3 innings and is weakening, so
Stoddard's first two pitches miss, and it's 2-0. From that moment on, Amos Otis was GOING to walk. A walk wins the game; Stoddard has poor control, Amos is up 2-0. ... he's taking a walk. A long, long battle ensues, Otis fouling off pitch after pitch, the crowd roaring on every pitch. Must have been 9, 10 pitches. It's what makes baseball, baseball. Finally Stoddard misses outside, and the Royals win the game.
So I'm driving home, and, being a young wannabe sportswriter, I'm think how I would write up this classic confrontation ... should I start off by second-guessing Weaver's strategy in making the game rest on Stoddard-vs.-Otis, in a situation in which a walk will win the game, rather than McGregor vs. Brett in a situation in which it won't? Or should I talk about the heart-pounding drama of it?
So you know what the lead was in the morning paper? "Amos Otis won a game for the Royals for the Royals Tuesday night by doing nothing more than the 34,913 fans who paid to watch the contest." WHAT? WHAT?
But you see ... that's the way people were trained to think in that era; the walk was something the pitcher did; the batter just happened to be standing there when he did it. And saying that batters walk because pitchers are afraid of their power is a vestige of that belief.
Funny that both walk stories involve Kansas City Royals, considering that's a team that doesn't walk. Last year the Royals had 30 games in which they did not walk, by far the most in baseball. This year, during their recent 5-20 slide, they had five games in which they didn't walk.
1) Selectivity or patience. ...that is, trying to get the pitch you want.
2) The desire to get on base by walk.
3) Fear of the hitter.
4) Batting eye (ability to read the pitch).
5) (Maybe the largest element) Bat control.
Anybody that walks a lot has to be able to foul off pitches. You look at any of our guys (Red Sox) who walk a lot. ...
Different hitters walk for different reasons, which is unlike power, or speed, or even hitting for average. Oakland's
Dunn gets knocked a lot -- for his low batting average, for not being aggressive enough, for not being a good defensive player, for not loving baseball enough or whatever. But to me he knows exactly what he can do, he plays to his strengths and he makes pitchers throw him strikes. That might be baseball's rarest skill. People just don't appreciate it enough.