Zomg, Walks! (Part 1)

A look at the importance of walks as a predictive factor of young players future success, using E. Velez, P. Sandoval, and F. Lewis as examples.

It is generally accepted in the post Moneyball era that walking is an important controllable skill for a batter. Walking is a pretty good way to not make an out, and not making outs is ultimately the goal of the batter. If enough batters don't make outs in an inning, runs invariably score.

However, it is also occasionally stated that a player, despite hitting well, does not "walk enough." I will explore this a little and talk about the potential relevance of this in terms of evaluating young players without an established ML track record. (In the interest of brevity I will not, however, delve much into established major leaguers who are sometimes criticized, IMO unfairly, for not "walking enough" despite impressive batting average driven on base percentages.)

To say a player doesn't "walk enough" when that player is hitting well sounds foolish. Ultimately, the how isn't as important as the what and if the player is getting on base at a sufficient rate, that should be all that matters. This is true in terms of evaluating past performance - and also may be true for older, established players who have established performance patterns. Ultimately however, when we are looking at un-established players in a year like 2008, we are primarily interested in predicting those player's future performances. It doesn't really matter if those players had a great or terrible year this year - what does matter is how those players will do in 2009 and beyond. Walks help us do this.

Walking is an indicator of patience and pitch selection. Generally, what this means is that a batter who walks a significant amount of time can both identify pitches out of the strike zone as well as elect not to swing at those pitches. In effect, the batter forces the pitcher to throw strikes during the at bat. In general, pitches in the strike zone are going to be much better pitches to hit, and will result in the batter having a higher chance of making quality contact with the ball. It is pretty clear that a batter who can indentify which pitches he should or shouldn't swing at is going to have an advantage when he does choose to swing. However, that is not necessarily the most important piece of information that a player's walk rate reveals.

Instead, the most valuable piece of information revealed in a players walk rate is the inverse. A player who does not walk puts little pressure on the pitcher to throw strikes at all. This puts the batter at a disadvantage because he is forced to try to make solid contact with bad pitches, typically resulting in weakly hit balls and swinging strikeouts. Major league pitchers will quickly learn that player X doesn't take pitches. As a result, that player will get a steady diet of unhittable garbage out of the zone.

Now, this isn't to mean that a batter cannot be successful in this realm. Several players in MLB attain success with a low walk rate. However, those players also must be able to make hard contact with garbage pitches, the so-called "bad ball hitter." Bengie Molina is an example of this type of player, as is Vlad (despite his average BB %). A player who regularly swings at pitches off the plate but either misses or makes weak contact will never be successful at the ML level. A high strikeout rate combined with a low BB rate is a recipe for a perpetual career in AAAA. (or getting DFA'ed and picked up by the Astros.)

It is easy for us as fans to get overly excited when we see a young player come up and hit the ball all over the yard - but the question of whether or not that player can continue that performance hinges heavily on his walk rate. A low walk rate does not necessarily doom the player - It can certainly be the case that in the small number of at bats we have to analyze that player he didn't see many pitches off the plate, and as a result did not have the "opportunity" to walk. As the sample size grows however, this will invariably make itself evident. ML pitchers are not going to continue to throw a player who is hitting the ball well strikes - and it will then be incumbent on that batter to take the bad pitches, forcing the pitchers to come back into the zone.

If we take a look at three young players who have done fairly well for us this season, we look at their walk rates (and strikeout rates) and get an idea of what to expect in the future (maybe).

Data Disclaimer - Data taken from Fangraphs and BBR. I am using "averages" based on my calculated averages of all position players with more than 400 AB's this season. Perhaps not as good as a compilation of the last several seasons, but I think good enough for what I am trying to do here.

ML -

Average BB rate: 9.3%
Average K rate: 18.3%
Average BB/K: .60
Average OPS: .797

Fred Lewis -

BB rate: 9.8%
K Rate: 26.5%
BB/K: .41
OPS: .791

Fred is the one "young" player that I think we as fans would unanimously agree has been a success this season. His OPS of .791 ranks him right around average of ML left fielders, and his defense has been anywhere from good to great depending on who you ask. Overall, he has been a + player for us this season and is a reason to be excited for the future. On top of that, his walk rate is slightly above ML average this year. This bodes well for him into the future, suggesting that he is waiting for pitches to hit and will continue to see strikes as pitchers have a reasonable concern that he will get away if they nibble too much. Interesting to note is that while the general perception amongst Giants fans is that Lewis walks a lot - that is not especially true. Yes, he walks a lot compared to the rest of the Giants - but compared to the league regulars he is barely above average. Fred really needs to bring his strikeouts down next season to get his BB/K closer to .5 in order to improve his performance at the plate. If he can do this (which I think he can) I think he stands a significant chance of repeating and possibly improving on his 2008 season.

Eugenio Velez -

ML season - total:
BB rate: 4.2%
K rate: 14.0%
BB/K: .31
OPS: .679

MiL season:
BB rate: 9.0%
K rate: 18.7%
BB/K: .53
OPS: .881

ML season - post call up:
BB rate: 4.3%
K rate: 12.9%
BB/K: .36
OPS: .805

I break Velez down because I think it shows something interesting. He is hitting really well since his call up, and extremely well since he has seen semi-regular playing time, .917 OPS since mid August. He however is not really walking. He is well below league average and that is a red flag (he is not striking out very much, however - which helps). The one bright spot is that during his time in Fresno this season, he walked at a league average rate and kept his strikeouts down, too. His .53 BB/K was solid, and tells me that he is at least somewhat capable of identifying pitches and swinging selectively. While his career #'s are close to his ML numbers from this season, his Fresno numbers (over 171 AB's) give a glimmer of hope that as pitchers start to be more careful with him, he will start taking more pitches and force them back into the zone. You can't blame the guy for not walking much this year (since his call up, anyway) because he has obviously been getting plenty of good pitches to hit (.805 OPS). We really need to see more AB's from Velez to see what happens to the BB rate when the bat cools off before we can make any solid predictions - but I think his Fresno numbers mean there is some chance he puts it all together.

Pablo Sandoval -

ML season:
BB rate: 3.4%
K rate: 9.7%
BB/K: .36
OPS: .842

MiL season:
BB rate: 6.4%
K rate: 13.9%
BB/K: .53
OPS .Alot

Pablo is probably far and away everyone's favorite rookie sensation this summer. Hitting his way from A+ to the ML in one season, he has done a lot to make us think he deserves to be here and hope that he is the homegrown impact bat that this team has been missing for so long. There is one problem - the guy doesn't walk. His 3.4% BB rate puts him as tied with Bengie Molina for 4th worst in the ML amongst players with 400 AB's or more. Even more alarming, his walk rate this year in the minors was pretty bad, too. The guy just doesn't walk very much no matter how you try to qualify it. This is a problem. However, what he also doesn't do is strikeout. That means to me that, regardless of what kind of garbage pitchers are throwing him (and they have started throwing him some doosies) he is hitting it. From his OPS, we can see that he is hitting it pretty well, too. It's been said that Pablo is a "bad ball hitter" much in the vein of Vlad or Bengie. This may be true, but if so he would be the exception to the rule. Can he continue his ML success taking as few pitches as he does? Maybe - he does seem to have some ability to turn pitchers pitches into hits. However, I am ultimately pretty worried that ML pitching will find the pitch he can't hit, and he will suffer a significant drop in performance. His track record lacking a respectable walk rate at any level worries me because it speaks to his approach. Unless he turns out to be a see ball - hit ball impenetrable wall like Molina or Vlad, he is going to have to learn pitch recognition on the fly. That could present a significant challenge for the 21 year old sensation.

FWIW, here are the BB rates of all 2008 Giants w/ more than 200 plate appearances:

Randy Winn: 9.1%
Fred Lewis: 9.8%
Rich Aurilia: 6.4%
Aaron Rowand: 7.7%
Bengie Molina: 3.4%
Emmanuel Burriss: 8.7%
John Bowker: 5.8%
Eugenio Velez: 4.2%
Omar Vizquel: 8.5%

The team, as a whole, clearly does not walk "enough". Hmm...

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