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An early look at walk rate changes

In the Three True Outcome Era, it’s important to have a high walk rate. Here are the players who have seen their year-over-year walk rates change by the most so far.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Walking and plate discipline have become a very important skill in late-2010s baseball. In the Three True Outcome Era that we are currently in, players are welcomed to — often even encouraged to — swing and miss at many pitches if it means they have the opportunity to hit a home run. The only caveat to this strategy is that those same players are expected to walk at extremely high rates in order to make up for any of the lost production from the strikeouts.

According to FanGraphs, a player’s walk rate does not become relatively stable until about 120 plate appearances in. Every single qualified hitter as of today has at least 120 plate appearances this season, so it’s the perfect time to start talking about walk rates.

For this research, I began with all 169 qualified hitters for this season and took out any players from either Top 10 list who had fewer than 100 plate appearances last season, in order to ensure that we are seeing something resembling a legitimate change in approach.

Without further ado, the ten biggest increases in individual walk rates from 2017 to 2018:

Ten Most Improved Walk Rates

Name Team 2018 BB% 2017 BB% Change
Name Team 2018 BB% 2017 BB% Change
Matt Davidson White Sox 15.3% 4.3% 11.0%
Denard Span Rays 15.7% 7.4% 8.3%
Bryce Harper Nationals 21.9% 13.8% 8.1%
Trea Turner Nationals 14.6% 6.7% 7.9%
Didi Gregorius Yankees 12.0% 4.4% 7.6%
Aaron Altherr Phillies 15.3% 7.8% 7.5%
Justin Bour Marlins 18.2% 11.0% 7.2%
Joey Wendle Rays 14.0% 7.1% 6.9%
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 15.3% 8.4% 6.9%
Josh Reddick Astros 14.1% 8.0% 6.1%

There are some interesting names on this list. First is Bryce Harper, who is already known for his elite plate discipline. Somehow, he has managed to nearly double his already double-digit walk rate from 2017 to 2018. That might not be the case long-term, but he might be able to maintain a walk rate in the 16-18 percent range over the course of this season, which would be nearly Joey Votto level. That is especially true because pitchers are just afraid to throw him a good pitch in the zone. Harper has 33 hits this season — 13 are home runs.

Matt Davidson, who tops this list, sports a 15.3 percent walk rate so far this season along with a 11.0 percentage point increase. He was the story of the majors after hitting three home runs on Opening Day, but even still, his .244/.367/.553 slash line will absolutely play going forward despite the 30.7 strikeout rate.

Lastly, Lorenzo Cain is doing something that he’s never done in his entire career. Prior to this season, Cain’s career walk rate was 6.7 percent, even after setting a career-high in walks last year with 54. This year, the walks have continued to pile up for Cain; a quarter of the way through the season, he has 27 walks. His offensive production, with his .277/.386/.439 slash line would tie him for a career-high in wRC+ if it holds throughout the rest of the year. The Brewers’ front office has to be feeling pretty good about this offseason addition.

And, now, the ten players to see their walk rates fall the most:

Ten Least Improved Walk Rates

Name Team 2018 BB% 2017 BB% Change
Name Team 2018 BB% 2017 BB% Change
Edwin Encarnacion Indians 7.4% 15.5% -8.1%
Stephen Piscotty Athletics 5.4% 13.0% -7.6%
Kole Calhoun Angels 4.1% 10.9% -6.8%
Zack Cozart Angels 5.8% 12.2% -6.4%
Lucas Duda Royals 6.2% 12.2% -6.0%
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 7.7% 13.2% -5.5%
Derek Dietrich Marlins 2.5% 7.8% -5.3%
Joey Gallo Rangers 8.8% 14.1% -5.3%
Marcell Ozuna Cardinals 4.6% 9.4% -4.8%
Yonder Alonso Indians 8.4% 13.1% -4.7%

Edwin Encarnacion, in his second year with the Indians, is having a bad start. After posting yearly wRC+s of at least 130 for six straight years, it might be time to wonder if his performance is starting to decline at the age of 35. He might be getting BABIP’d, no doubt, but a single-digit walk rate is uncharacteristic for him. If this holds, this would be his first walk rate below 10 percent since the 2011, the year before his breakout as an elite power hitter.

Also notable on this list is Joey Gallo, who pretty much defined Three True Outcome Era baseball with his surprisingly valuable 2017 season. He hit just .209 last year, but his .327 isolated power alongside a 14.1 percent walk rate made him one of the most tantalizing players in baseball. The question was: could Gallo, despite the bad numbers on paper, actually be good? Any sabermetrician would tell you yes, but, without the walks, Gallo becomes nothing more than a bench or platoon bat with power. He’s tied for second in baseball with 13 home runs, but his 90 wRC+ is 33 points lower than last year.

An almost identical result occurred for a second “Mr. Three True Outcome” player in Yonder Alonso. Alonso’s batting average wasn’t as bad as Gallo’s in 2017, but he too centered his game around launch angle and walks, nearly tripling his previous career-high in home runs from nine. . .to 28. But like Gallo, the strategy does not work unless you have the walks; Alonso doesn’t, and that’s why his wRC+ has dropped 40 points.

On the whole, over the past ten years, 2018’s 8.8 percent walk rate across all batters would be the second-highest single-season mark, behind 2009’s 8.9 percent walk rate. As we’ve seen before — and will likely continue to see — Three True Outcome baseball is here to stay. For many hitters, that means that those 90-foot strolls are necessary in order to be productive.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.