Walks. The Holy Grail for sabermetricians, and the bane of Dusty Baker. Walks made Kevin Youkilis famous. Dubbed the Greek God of Walks, the former 8th round draft pick trotted to first in 18 percent of his minor league plate appearances, and used that plate discipline to be a very productive major league hitter.
Every good sabermetrician knows that walks are good for hitters and bad for pitchers. Maybe those scorekeepers back in 1887 who counted walks as hits were really proto-sabermetricians, and not idiots. But, how do hitters go about drawing walks? Clearly there's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's also more than one way to draw a walk. Obviously there's some overlap between the following methods, but here are the three main ways in which hitters earn walks.
1. Being very powerful
Pitchers tend to be scared of power hitters. Thus, they don't throw them as many pitches in the strike zone as they would to Punch-and-Judy types such as Ben Revere. Steve Staude's hitting correlation tool shows a -0.54 correlation between ISO and Zone %. Hitters that exemplify this category are Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, and Bryce Harper. They aren't overly disciplined at the plate, but pitchers don't like to give them pitches they can handle. Even extremely free swinging gentlemen such as Josh Hamilton, Chris Davis and Yasiel Puig draw an average or close to average number of walks because of the damage they can do with pitches over the plate.
2. Being very patient
Taking pitches tends to lead to walks. There's a -0.61 correlation between Swing % and walk rate. On average, hitters swing at right around 46 percent of pitches. John Jaso and Chris Snyder are good examples of how patience is a virtue, as are Joe Mauer and Mike Trout (of course, Trout is, because he's the perfect baseball player). They swing at 37-39 percent of pitches. Joey Votto fits into this category, too, though he wouldn't be out of place in the first one either. Votto, who might as well be an honorary sabermetric ambassador, recently stated that he will be even more discriminating in choosing which pitches to swing at this year in hopes of drawing more walks and hitting for more power. You can just feel saber nerds all over the internet swooning.
3. Being very pesky
These are guys that draw walks despite the fact that pitchers do their best to pepper the strike zone when they are at the plate. They take pitches (category 2), they foul off pitches, and they rarely swing and miss. Perhaps nobody represents this group better than Jamey Carroll. Because he has no power (one home run in the last four seasons), pitchers throw him more strikes than any other hitter. Still, he's managed a 9.6 percent walk rate in the Pitch f/x era, thanks in large part to a 3.4 percent swinging strike rate and a very low chase rate. Also, he fouls off two-strike pitches at a very high rate. Marco Scutaro, Brett Gardner, Chone Figgins, and Nick Punto also manage to make themselves exceedingly bothersome to pitchers despite being largely devoid of extra base power.
In addition to batting in front of the pitcher (Since 2008 Ryan Hanigan has more IBB than Matt Holliday), these are the main ways hitters draw walks. As stated before, there's overlap between these categories, and most prominent walk drawers will be good at more than one of these things. Maybe this is the biggest difference between the average baseball fan and the numbers-savvy one. One yawns at a walk, the other writes 700 words about it.
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Stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant
Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves