Talkin' about the underappreciated base on balls, with Bill James

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The following is the continuing evolution of an experiment that we tried a few weeks ago -- and the latest installment of a new weekly column on It's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so...

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 Brandon Phillips was quoted as saying earlier this year, and his career walk rate (one per every 17.7 plate appearances) suggest that he's a man of his word.

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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Bill James: The leagues started printing walk totals in about 1908. In one of the old Reach Guides there is a statement given to the media accompanying the first release, which says, in essence, "Our statistician has done these counts of how many walks were issued to each hitter. Of course, there is not much value in them, in that that's just a matter of who is standing at the plate when the pitcher has lapses in control, but they may reflect some differences in how reluctant the pitcher is to pitch to one batter as opposed to another, so we'll pass them along for what they're worth."

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 Donie Bush, who was a little tiny guy, 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, and a teammate of Ty Cobb ... the story was about Bush taking a vicious rip at a 3-1 pitch, and his manager tore into him as if he'd set off a stink bomb in the dugout, telling him in extremely clear terms that he was not up there to hit; he was up there to slap the ball or take the walk, get on base for Ty Cobb. I actually can remember a lot of stories like that. There were players in that generation who were much more specifically dedicated to getting on base by the walk than any player post-1960, and these were guys who hit two homers and drew 110 walks every year, like Maxie Bishop and Burt Shotton and Roy Thomas. Players like that continued into the 1950s ... Ed Yost and Eddie Stanky.

Joe Posnanski: In 1974 Pete Rose walked 106 times. It was the only time in his career that he walked 100 times or more ... and he hated it. Pete hated walking. But 1974 was a bad year for Rose; it was the only year between 1965 and 1979 that he did not hit .300. So he angrily took his walks, and he actually led the National League in runs scored. The next year the Reds wanted to cut his salary by $30,000 because he didn't hit .300. Rose had to fight like mad with management just to keep his salary close to what it had been the year before ... and my favorite part is that at some point in the heated negotiations he brought up that he had walked 100 times. Reds management basically laughed at him, and Rose stormed out, and he would remember being furious at himself for bringing up his walks.

Bill: I remember an anecdote about Johnny Temple. When Birdie Tebbetts managed the Reds in the mid-1950s he had a rule that Temple was not allowed to swing the bat until he had two strikes on him. Temple would walk 90, 100 times a year, not much power, but the anecdote was that, when Tebbetts was fired, Jimmy Dykes took over the team, and Dykes turned Temple loose. The next game or a few games later, Johnny Antonelli faced Temple, and he threw a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate, and Temple hit it out of the park. Antonelli was furious, and he screamed at Temple as he rounded the bases, "You #%$^# son of a bitch; you're not supposed to swing at that!"

Joe: The funny part is that from the first day of little league, coaches will tell you that "A walk is as good as a hit." Few grownups in the game seem to believe it, but it's absolutely true. This year teams that walk zero or one time win about one third of their games. If they walk two to three times it jumps up to about 45 percent. If they walk four or five times they win about 57 percent of the time. And if they walk six times or more their winning percentage is .646.

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: Joe Morgan led the league in walks four times in his career and walked 100 times every year but one from 1969 through '77. He did this because he was a great hitter, but several times a year, every year, he would either have to answer a dumb question or a read an article suggesting that the reason he walked so much was because he was only 5-foot-7. This had pretty much nothing to do with it, but that's how we think about baseball: Hey shorter guy, smaller strike zone, that must be why he walks a lot.

(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).

Bill: Back when I was a young wannabe sportswriter I sat in the press box for a game: Aug. 12, 1989. The Royals and Orioles are tied 3-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. ... It's first-and-third, two out, George Brett at the plate. Scottie McGregor is on the mound. McGregor and Brett were high school teammates, but McGregor was the kind of pitcher who gave Brett fits -- a lefty who throws off-speed stuff; Brett in his career was 12 for 54 against McGregor, .222, and he didn't hit anybody LIKE that very well.

But McGregor has pitched 8 2/3 innings and is weakening, so Earl Weaver replaces McGregor with Tim Stoddard, and Brett is hitting around .400 (I think he was still over .400 at the time) ... so Weaver intentionally walks Brett, bringing up Amos Otis with the bases loaded.

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.

Joe: One of the most amazing things I've ever seen on a baseball field began with one of those walks. That was Carlos Beltran back in 2003, he was also playing for the Royals, and he was facing Arizona's Matt Mantei, who was throwing serious gas that day. The Royals trailed by one and Beltran fully realized that there was no way he was going to actually get a hit off Mantei, but he had to do something. So he just fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch. And finally, he got the walk, stole second, stole third and scored the tying run on a fly ball that was so shallow the second baseman could have caught it.

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.

Bill: In reality, the batter has more to do with when a walk occurs than does the pitcher. Walks are a very complex phenomenon -- much more complex than power. They involve ...

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. ... Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew, Dustin Pedroia ... they foul off a huge number of pitches. They're not trying to walk (except Pedroia sometimes); they're trying to force the pitcher to throw them something they can hit.

Different hitters walk for different reasons, which is unlike power, or speed, or even hitting for average. Oakland's Jack Cust walks because he has a very small plane where he can hit the ball 400 feet, and if the ball isn't on that plane, he's not interested. Jason Bay walks because he's not going to chase a pitch down and you can't get a fastball by him up; if it's too high to hit he'll foul it off. Kansas City's Coco Crisp walks because he is trying to get on base any way he can.

Joe: I think this is why one of my favorite players in baseball is Washington's Adam Dunn. Every year he hits you 40 home runs (exactly 40 -- he hit 40 homers in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008) and every year he walks about 110 times (he might walk 109 times this year since an old umpire friend of mine, Tim Timmons, called him out on ball four in the Randy Johnson 300th-victory game). Basically, that's what he offers. Power and walks.

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.