Talkin' about the underappreciated base on balls, with Bill James
Some baseball people hate the walk, others appreciate its strategic value
The more walks a team draws in a game, the higher its winning percentage
The batter has more to do with when a walk occurs than does the pitcher
The following is the continuing evolution of an experiment that we tried a few weeks ago -- and the latest installment of a new weekly column on SI.com. It's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so...
People have violently different views about walks in baseball. I like them because I believe that they are still the most underappreciated weapon in baseball. Bill likes them because they epitomize team play -- "Hey, if you don't want to throw me a good pitch, that's fine, the guy hitting behind me will hit you, he's pretty good, too."
But some people hate the walk. Some think that the walk takes away the hitters' aggressiveness. Some think walks get away from what the game is all about. Some think a walk is more a reflection of the pitcher than the hitter. Some think that a walk is unmanly ... "I don't believe in that on-base percentage [stuff]," Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips was quoted as saying earlier this year, and his career walk rate (one per every 17.7 plate appearances) suggest that he's a man of his word.
The authorities of baseball have never had much use for walks, either. After all, walks are not considered in a players' batting average ... walks don't even count as an at-bat. When Bill first began writing about baseball, it could be hard simply to find out how many times a player walked. Walks were not on the backs of baseball cards. Times have changed ... somewhat. But even now, there are plenty of people who still believe that the walk has no place on the back of baseball cards.
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Bill James: The leagues started printing walk totals in about 1908. In one of the old Reach Guides there is a statement given to the media accompanying the first release, which says, in essence, "Our statistician has done these counts of how many walks were issued to each hitter. Of course, there is not much value in them, in that that's just a matter of who is standing at the plate when the pitcher has lapses in control, but they may reflect some differences in how reluctant the pitcher is to pitch to one batter as opposed to another, so we'll pass them along for what they're worth."
After that there was SOME awareness of batter's walks, but at a very, very low rate. Batter's walks were never reported during the course of the season, for example. To the best of my knowledge there was NO source for batter's walks, updated during the season, until ... well, I guess the 1960s or 1970s.
At the same time, the awareness of "doing whatever you can to get on base", among some hitters and some teams, was much more "naked" than it is now. In modern baseball it is considered bad form to specialize in walking, and nobody really does. But if you go back to 1900, 1910, 1920, there were a certain number of players -- one or two on each team -- who very clearly understood that their job was to get on base any way they could for the big hitters on the team. These people walked 115 times a year in large part BECAUSE nobody was paying attention to how often they walked.
I can remember a story about Donie Bush, who was a little tiny guy, 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, and a teammate of Ty Cobb ... the story was about Bush taking a vicious rip at a 3-1 pitch, and his manager tore into him as if he'd set off a stink bomb in the dugout, telling him in extremely clear terms that he was not up there to hit; he was up there to slap the ball or take the walk, get on base for Ty Cobb. I actually can remember a lot of stories like that. There were players in that generation who were much more specifically dedicated to getting on base by the walk than any player post-1960, and these were guys who hit two homers and drew 110 walks every year, like Maxie Bishop and Burt Shotton and Roy Thomas. Players like that continued into the 1950s ... Ed Yost and Eddie Stanky.
Joe Posnanski: In 1974 Pete Rose walked 106 times. It was the only time in his career that he walked 100 times or more ... and he hated it. Pete hated walking. But 1974 was a bad year for Rose; it was the only year between 1965 and 1979 that he did not hit .300. So he angrily took his walks, and he actually led the National League in runs scored. The next year the Reds wanted to cut his salary by $30,000 because he didn't hit .300. Rose had to fight like mad with management just to keep his salary close to what it had been the year before ... and my favorite part is that at some point in the heated negotiations he brought up that he had walked 100 times. Reds management basically laughed at him, and Rose stormed out, and he would remember being furious at himself for bringing up his walks.
Bill: I remember an anecdote about Johnny Temple. When Birdie Tebbetts managed the Reds in the mid-1950s he had a rule that Temple was not allowed to swing the bat until he had two strikes on him. Temple would walk 90, 100 times a year, not much power, but the anecdote was that, when Tebbetts was fired, Jimmy Dykes took over the team, and Dykes turned Temple loose. The next game or a few games later, Johnny Antonelli faced Temple, and he threw a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate, and Temple hit it out of the park. Antonelli was furious, and he screamed at Temple as he rounded the bases, "You #%$&#^# son of a bitch; you're not supposed to swing at that!"
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