Plate discipline: It’s that thing you don’t haveby Geoff Young
May 13, 2009
I'm staring at Miguel Olivo's line because that's the sort of thing I do in the morning. As of this writing (through May 10, 2009), the Royals catcher is batting .229/.260/.357. That's bad, but what catches my attention is the one walk and 26 strikeouts. Even by Olivo's standards, this is remarkable. I didn't think he was capable of much "better" than what he'd done the past few years:
Perspective? Olivo has drawn fewer total walks over the past 4+ seasons than Barry Bonds drew intentional walks in June and July 2004. Here's the visual:
|Bonds, June & July 2004||221||79||44|
Wait, a quarter of Olivo's walks have been intentional? I don't want to get too hung up on Olivo, but intentional? I guess maybe because he just won't do it on his own.
I've kind of beaten that drum to death (but oh, what a drum), and besides, he is just a springboard for what follows, which is (speaking of drums) a look at some of the most hacktastic performances in big-league history.
When I was talking about shortstops the other week, I mentioned that Rob Picciolo drew 25 walks in 1,720 career plate appearances. He once fanned 63 times in a season while walking just twice. Yeah, that means that Olivo would have to expand his strike zone even further to catch Picciolo.
But enough about Olivo. Really. This time I mean it.
What I wanted to find were guys who don't know a strike from a hole in the ground. So I looked, because looking is the first step in finding. Right?
Anyway, I went to my best friend (aka Baseball-Reference; sometimes we sip Scotch together and talk about the good old days) and searched for players who qualified for a batting title and drew 10 walks or fewer. This used to happen all the time—of the 79 instances, 63 occurred before 1923. Yes, everyone's favorite bad hitter, Bill Bergen, is represented.
So is my new favorite name, Ossee Schreckengost. But I digress...
The thing is, this gives us way too many players. It also doesn't quite get at what I'm seeking. Ozzie Guillen '96 shows up on the list because he walked only 10 times, but he also struck out only 27. He was just putting everything in play.
Incidentally, before we get to our actual point (and I'm hoping as much as you are that there is one), I need to give props to two men for doing the unthinkable. Carlos Baerga ('94) and Shawon Dunston ('95) are the only players to draw 10 walks or fewer (10 exactly in both cases) while qualifying for a batting title who managed to finish with an OPS+ of 100 or greater. Baerga hit .314/.333/.525 (118 OPS+), while Dunston hit .296/.317/.472 (107 OPS+).
Okay, how about we add a strikeout component? Let's say, 80 strikeouts. Here is the list of men in MLB history who have drawn 10 walks or fewer in a season while striking out 80 or more times:
Oh, Miguel; I just can't quit you.
What about the rest of these guys? Williams is better known as the general manager of the Chicago White Sox. He hit .218/.269/.339 over parts of six seasons.
Truby hit .231/.269/.388 over parts of four seasons. He was also the subject of one of the funnier internet baseball jokes back in the day.
Rodriguez will end up in the Hall of Fame thanks to his defensive reputation and the fact that he was a pretty darned good all-around player before he hit the wall at age 33. He also gets bonus points for being the only player in big-league history to draw 10 walks or fewer and strike out more than 80 times while qualifying for the batting title.
Let's tweak the criteria again. This time we'll try five walks and 50 strikeouts in a season. That gives us 25 players, most of whom are pitchers. If we go with just the position players, we end up with seven names:
Megaprops to Dave Duncan for getting it done in 106 plate appearances. No wonder he became a pitching coach.
Another Duncan—Mariano—is the last to accomplish this feat. How weird is that? Two of the seven guys are named Duncan. Both ended up coaching. Clearly if you cannot tell the difference between balls and strikes and your last name is Duncan, you will become a coach. Someone, somewhere may find this knowledge comforting.
That person probably could use a tutor in statistics. Or logic. Or common sense.
How about over the long haul? Who are some guys that hacked with reckless abandon over the course of an entire career. We'll ignore active players for this one because I'm tired of talking about Olivo.
The criteria I used in searching for such players were 5 percent or lower BB/PA and at least three strikeouts for every walk. I chose several different thresholds of plate appearances (starting at 2,000 and incrementing by 1,000) so that we wouldn't miss anyone important.
2000 PA threshold
This first list is fun. Seven men in the history of MLB have drawn 100 walks or fewer and struck out 300 or more times in at least 2000 plate appearances. One of them (first ever to achieve the feat, in fact) is in the Hall of Fame.
Spahn was a pitcher, and a great one at that, so we'll cut him some slack.
McKay played for the 1980 Oakland A's. We'll talk more about that team a little later.
The rest of these guys are pretty random. Kosco was an outfielder, Jordan a first baseman. Thomas and Espinoza played infield, while Melvin caught (and later, until very recently, managed in the big leagues).
3000 PA threshold
Two players have drawn 150 walks or fewer and struck out 450 or more times in at least 3,000 plate appearances:
Apropos of nothing, Meares' most similar player according to Baseball-Reference is Billy Martin, who managed the '80 A's. Hillenbrand made a couple of All-Star teams. In 2005, he was plunked (22 times) nearly as often as he walked (26 times).
4000 PA threshold
Only one guy meets our criteria at this level:
Salazar is the San Diego Padres all-time leader in games played at third base. That says more about the Padres than it does about Salazar.
5500 PA threshold
I'm cheating here because only one player appears at the 5,000 level, and I wanted to include the other guy on this list:
You cannot talk about epic hacking without bringing Armas into the discussion. He and Dunston are remarkable in their longevity. Most hitters who lack such fundamental understanding of the strike zone get weeded out much sooner.
Armas hit 251 homers in his career, while Dunston had a great arm and a personality that allowed him to kick around as a spare outfielder long after he had stopped being a productive shortstop. He was sort of the precursor to Damion Easley.
Speaking of Armas, he played for the aforementioned 1980 A's. This is a fascinating team for many reasons. First and foremost, Martin managed and had his starting pitchers throw 94 complete games.
Beyond that, not only did the A's feature Armas, one of the all-time hacking greats, but they also got incredible performances from Picciolo and McKay that year. At the other end of the spectrum, Rickey Henderson drew 117 walks while Dwayne Murphy drew 102. Henderson went on to become MLB's career leader in walks.
Yin and yang. Armas, Picciolo, and McKay cannot exist without Henderson and Murphy. Nor can Henderson and Murphy exist without Armas, Picciolo, and McKay.
It's a beautiful thing.
References and Resources
Once again, Baseball-Reference made this possible.
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.