Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton: Hackers who walk

Thearon W. Henderson

Just because a player is a free swinger with almost laughably poor strike zone judgement it doesn't mean they can't take a walk from time to time.

Watching baseball, while undoubtedly enjoyable for those with the good taste to appreciate it, can be a very frustrating thing. From a purely fan perspective there is always a variety of annoyances related to following a specific team, something that most baseball fans do to one degree or another. Whichever team you support probably isn't going to win the World Series this year, even if it is a really good team. With 30 teams vying for the dubiously-named status of "World Champions" your favorite team, and I mean you personally, has a pretty remote chance of claiming a title in 2014. Sorry to be a downer like that, but it is what it is. As a result, there will almost definitely be one or more moments of complete and utter heartbreak that take all of the wind from your sails and leave you a mere shell of the person you once were. That's the price of doing business when it comes to being a fan.

Even on a more micro level there will probably be things about the team you follow that bother you, even if they somehow overcome the long odds and win the World Series. There is probably a player or two you have an irrational, or perhaps even rational, dislike of for instance. Perhaps the manager has a philosophy when it comes to in-game strategy that does not mesh with yours. Perhaps there are things that bother you on a grander scale in baseball regardless of which teams are playing.

That's what I mean to discuss today. Some fans simply cannot stand the slow pace of certain games, such as any game between the Yankees and Red Sox, making games pitched by guys like Mark Buehrle unreasonably desirable to watch. Some have serious problems understanding and stomaching poor glove work when they see it. Everyone has their own trigger that makes their blood pressure go for a less than leisurely climb in the game of baseball. My personal trigger in baseball is hitters with absolutely no plate discipline, aka "hackers".

I'm not going to too in depth with you as to why that is. Ultimately visitors to Beyond the Box Score are exactly the sort of folks who enjoy a good objective fact or two as opposed to lengthy opinion-based ramblings. I'm happy to do some rambling for you on an On-Demand basis, but this is not the forum for it.

Long story short I find it a very blood boiling experience to watch hitters offer at pitches where there is no way swinging will end well. Not only is getting bases on balls a thing worth doing, but also the vast majority of hitters are far more effective hitting pitches inside the strike zone. On an intellectual level I know it's not that simple, that pitches are deceptive and batters aren't willfully making poor decisions to spite me. However, in real time I find it hard to see that truth. While I'm aware that my feelings can be irrational at times I do have a time honored defense for my venomous dislike of hackers. I can always back up my feelings by claiming that my biggest objection is that these players don't walk and therefore there is a meaningful gap in their skill sets.

It occurred to me that while the claim that hackers don't walk is intuitive, I had always treated it like a rule without exceptions and never examined it closely. In order to do so I first needed a working definition of hacker. Since swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, and too many pitches in general, was the origin of my beef I decided to use O-Zone Swing% and Swing% as a means for defining these players.

Because the league average in O-Zone Swing% in recent years has usually hovered around 30% I decided to peg hacker level at 40%. The league average in Swing% has tended to be in the 45% area, so in order to qualify as a "hacker" a player had to have a Swing % of 55% or more. In the last five years only 10 players met this exacting standard:

Player O-Zone Swing% Swing%
Vladimir Guerrero 46.4% 60.6%
Pablo Sandoval 44.8% 57.7%
Humberto Quintero 43.9% 59.0%
A.J. Pierzynski 43.3% 57.8%
Miguel Olivo 42.9% 56.7%
Adam Jones 42.6% 55.9%
Jeff Francoeur 41.4% 56.9%
Delmon Young 41.3% 58.4%
Josh Hamilton 40.9% 56.9%
Ivan Rodriguez 40.5% 56.4%

With a sample of 10 players with the worst plate discipline in the last five years established we can compare their walk rates to league averages and see if there is a player among the group that can actually reach base via the walk. The following chart includes both league average and "hacker average" (an aggregation of the entire group) over the five year span:

Player BB%
Pablo Sandoval 7.8%
Josh Hamilton 7.8%
Jeff Francoeur 5.0%
Adam Jones 4.7%
Miguel Olivo 4.4%
Ivan Rodriguez 4.4%
Vladimir Guerrero 4.3%
Delmon Young 4.1%
A.J. Pierzynski 3.9%
Humberto Quintero 3.1%
Hacker Average 5.2%
League Average 8.3%

Unlike the rest of their hacking counterparts Sandoval and Hamilton manage to take a walk at a respectable rate, close to the league average. Given their swinging tendencies that would seem borderline impossible. However, in this case the answer is very, very simple. The fact of the matter is that nobody throws either of these guys every strikes. Over the aforementioned five year period the following chart shows the batters with the lowest Zone% league-wide:

Player Zone%
Pablo Sandoval 36.4%
Bryce Harper 38.0%
Josh Hamilton 39.1%
Lucas Duda 39.9%
Prince Fielder 40.1%

Although the presence of Lucas Duda here is a little bit confusing, the hitters here are largely guys who pitchers are scared will hurt them. In the cases of Sandoval and Hamilton those fears are justified. In Hamilton's case one could argue that's no longer true, but it's a bit early to bury the man just yet. Other than last year's awful season, and more specifically catastrophic first half, Hamilton has been a pretty fantastic hitter. The Brooks Baseball zone profile below shows Hamilton's slugging percentage by zone:

If Hamilton does that to pitches in the zone- and those inside for that matter- while also swinging for more balls than almost anyone else in the league why throw him a strike? Sandoval's zone profile is a little less cut and dry as he is almost as dangerous anywhere. That being said, you can still see why pitchers would stay away from him and try and get Sandoval to get himself out on a pitch away from the zone:

Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton are alone in today's game in that they take their walks despite their propensity to swing at everything, whether it's in the zone or not. Because they have been dangerous and pitchers figure they can get swings outside the strike zone they end up seeing so few strikes that they take bases on balls despite themselves.

As Hamilton continues to age and decline further he may be challenged more and see his walk rate go down. This is what happened to Vladimir Guerrero who used to take walks at an above-average clip but failed to do so later in his career, as seen in some of the numbers above. Sandoval, on the other hand, seems to have potential to post decent walk rates for years to come. In fact, he's only getting walked more in recent seasons and has an 8.3% BB rate in the last two seasons.

Kung Fu Panda (who may also be referred to as "Fat Ichiro", "The Round Mound of Pound" or "Little Money according to his Baseball-Reference page) is a unique player in many ways. His massive assortment of nicknames that nobody actually uses is just one of the things that make him special. Sandoval and Josh Hamilton are the rare men who can swing at everything and still take walks. They are living contradictions that inspire enough fear in pitchers to overcome the recklessness in their hitting styles.

Since "Moneyball" patience and plate discipline are being more highly touted as skills than ever before. In years past Kevin Youkilis probably wouldn't have been considered the Greek god of anything, in fact he may never have had gotten a real shot to prove himself in the major leagues. Sandoval and Hamilton are about as different to Youkilis and sabermetric darlings like Joey Votto as you could imagine, but that doesn't mean they aren't effective. The pair has hacked their way to some pretty impressive seasons in recent years and they have even thrown in a few walks here and there for flavor. Patience may be a virtue, but it's not the only way to get the job done.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference.

Nick Ashbourne is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.

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