We are way beyond the dawn of the "moneyball" era when the Oakland Athletics gained an advantage by targeting players who got on base via the walk. Few if any in the business ignore the importance of bases on balls, yet there are still those players who rarely get on base if not for a hit.
Of the 147 qualified hitters last year, only five players had OBPs separate from their batting averages by 30 points or less. These batting averages are the emptiest of batting averages, meaning that it is highly unlikely the players will allow a pitcher to put them on base without swinging.
To put into perspective how lousy the players at the bottom of the list are at garnering a walk, consider that the average delta between batting average and OBP among the 147 players is 67 points, with players such as José Bautista and Bryce Harper topping the list for the highest delta. (Bautista posted a .234 average / .366 OBP, a .132 difference and Harper .243 / .373, a delta of 130 points.)
The five players whose averages are within 30 points of their OBP are Rougned Odor, Didi Gregorius, Josh Harrison, Brandon Phillips, and Starlin Castro.
Taking a look at their stats, it’s no surprise that four of the five have a wRC+ below league average.
Odor tops the list, as he barely walked in 2016, posting only a three percent walk rate, the lowest in the Majors. Though he did demonstrate a power surge in 2016, Odor walked 19 times in over 630 plate appearances. Despite relying on base hits, he still managed to be six percent better than league average at the plate. There is some room for improvement for Odor, though it appears his OBP ceiling is pretty low. Through the minors, he never posted better than a six percent walk rate. Odor stands to get slightly better as he ages, he is only going into his age-23 season, but the upside is limited.
It is surprising to see two Yankees on the list, as New York has generally been viewed as analytically-savvy and ‘pro-OBP’ before it became common, yet Didi Gregorius is not far behind Odor, and both he and Starlin Castro were bottom-six in walk percentage.
Gregorius’ 3.2 percent rate in 2016 is much lower than his 5.7 career average. Per FanGraphs’ Depth Charts and Steamer projections, Didi is projected to return to that average, possibly the reason ZiPS has him projected for three wins (significantly more than the 1.2 fWAR projected by Steamer or Depth Charts). Unlike Gregorius, Castro has posted two consecutive seasons below his 4.8 percent career walk rate, putting him on the bottom of the list as well.
Next week I will be taking a look at Josh Harrison’s drop-off since he signed his extension with the Pirates, however, Harrison has never been one to often take a walk. Even in his five-fWAR season, he only reached base four percent of the time via the walk. If Harrison is going to improve from his lackluster 1.2 fWAR 2016, it will likely be due to an increase in BABIP or power rather than becoming more patient.
Veteran Brandon Phillips’ walk rate has decreased each year since 2013; though he was once a complementary offensive threat like Joey Votto, he has become almost the anti-Votto. Votto’s 108-point difference between his OBP and batting average is vastly different to Phillips’s 29 points. Phillips has been on the wrong side of the aging curve for many years, and though he may improve his walk rate slightly next year, previous performance is not on his side and his career clock is running out.
Overall, of the five players on the list, Gregorius is the most likely to post a better walk rate in 2017, although there is some hope for Odor due to his young age. With the others on the list, we can probably expect they’ll be in the bottom ten again in 2017, most unwelcome news for teams looking for any sort of offensive bounce-back.