Neutralizing Barry’s walks

The eternal battle over the strike zone waged between pitcher and batter is, at its heart, a question of trade-offs. The pitcher’s decision to lay it in there, or to keep it off the plate, is based on his judgment of whether the risk of allowing a hit, particularly an extra-base hit, is greater than the risk of allowing a walk. The batter’s decision to swing or take is based on his judgment of whether this pitch offers his best opportunity in the at-bat to get a hit, particularly an extra-base hit, against the risk of taking a called strike.

Back in the early 2000s, when Barry Bonds was hitting just about exactly like Babe Ruth, the league’s pitchers decided that the risk of walking him was vastly preferable to the risk of making him swing the bat. Bonds had demonstrated extraordinary plate discipline from a young age anyway, and this combined with pitchers’ extraordinary fear of him had Bonds, from 2001 through 2004, setting every record for walks—intentional, semi-intentional and otherwise.

The Bonds walkfest stimulated numerous discussions in the sabersphere regarding this collective decision by the National League’s pitching staffs. Yours truly was in the camp touting that the pitchers were doing their teams a net disservice: yes, by walking Bonds so regularly, they were limiting the damage he wrought with home runs and other run-producing hits, but every time they refused to pitch to him they guaranteed he would reach base. Force Bonds to swing the bat, some of us argued, and well over 60 per cent of the time he’ll make an out.

Certainly, every plate appearance isn’t the same as every other plate appearance. The base/out and score/inning situations significantly impact whether it would be sensible to pitch to Bonds, or anyone else. But on an overall “macro” basis, was my camp correct? Did pitchers walk Bonds too frequently? And if so, what precisely was the cost they paid?

Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Neutralizing the walks

The first thing is to decide what constitutes a “normal” walk rate.

Every batter walks sometimes; even the very weakest hitters draw a walk every once in a while. Clearly there’s a nominal rate of walks that’s simply a function of pitchers being human and missing the strike zone sometimes.

But above that baseline, walks are far from evenly distributed. Hitters demonstrate great differences in their intrinsic strike zone judgment, and beyond that, given two hitters with identical strike zone judgment, the one with the greater power will walk more often. Extra base hits (especially home runs) and walks are strongly correlated, for the obvious reason that it’s in the pitcher’s interest to be more careful with the hitter who can hurt him with the long ball. If the greatest damage a hitter is likely to inflict is hitting a single, there’s no reason not to pitch him right down the middle, but once the extra base hit enters the equation, the tradeoff value of the walk enters it as well.

Certainly in the case of a Bonds, this effect is extreme. But to some degree, all power hitters influence the pitcher’s willingness to allow a walk. So in assessing what might be a “normal” walk rate for a power hitter, we shouldn’t just take the league-average walk rate. We should use the walk rate exhibited by the average power hitter.

So let’s calculate the average walk rate presented by the top 100 hitters in career Slugging Percentage with at least 3,000 Plate Appearances, who’ve played most of their major league career since 1920. (Since 1920, because before then, home runs were so rare as to render the relationship between power hitting and walks different than it became with full “live ball” conditions in place.)

But wait a minute! When we do this, we discover something significant. The left-handed sluggers in this group draw, on average, a lot more walks than the right-handed sluggers with equivalent SLG.

Why would that be? Because, even though their production when swinging the bat is equivalent overall, these LHBs are more likely to be given a free pass since most pitchers are right-handed. Simply in seeking the platoon advantage, opposing teams are rationally more prone to walk (whether fully or semi-intentionally) the LHB than the RHB.

So we really need to determine two average walk rates: one from the top 50 lefty-swinging (and switch-hitting, since they always have the platoon advantage) sluggers, and another from the top 50 right-handed sluggers.

When we do so, we get two interesting lists, chock-full of bruising belters. The Bats Left/Bats Both group of 50 extends from Babe Ruth with his .690 career SLG, down to Ted Kluszewski at .498. The Bats Right bunch ranges from Albert Pujols at .624 to Orlando Cepeda and Bob Horner, tied at .499.

When Kluszewski, Cepeda, and Horner are the worst hitters around, you’re visiting an extremely heavy-hitting neighborhood. The BL/BB group hits .298 overall, with 31 homers per 162 games, while the righties hit .300 with 32. The overall Slugging Percentage for both groups is .536.

But the lefties have a walk rate of .128, compared to a rate of .108 for the RHBs. Those are the figures we’ll use as the “normal” or “neutralized” walk rates for power hitters.

Applying the neutralized walks

So let’s see how this works. Let’s take a left-handed-hitting slugger who draws a ton of walks—oh, how about a switch-hitter this time. How about Mickey Mantle in 1961?

This was Mantle’s batting line:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       646  514  131  163   16    6   54  128  126  112 .317 .448 .687 1.135  174

His walk rate was a heady .195. But let’s assume that, in exactly the same number of Plate Appearances, pitchers had given a free pass to Mantle at the average rate for non-right-handed power hitters, that is, .128. Let’s assume that in all those freed-up PAs in which The Mick isn’t now drawing a walk, he produces at precisely his established rate of hits, doubles, triples, homers, and strikeouts.*

This is the resulting walk-neutralized 1961 Mickey Mantle batting line:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       646  557  127  177   17    7   59  139   83  121 .317 .402 .687 1.088  154

This Commerce Comet is allowed to hit five additional home runs (now he’s right on Maris’s heels!), and drive in nearly a dozen more runs than he actually did. (For the formulae to estimate the new rates of runs scored and RBI, as well as all the other stats, see the References and Resources section below.) But in exchange, Mantle is getting on base a whole lot less often, as his OBP plummets from .448 to .402. Thus his OPS goes down by that same margin, and instead of compiling 174 Runs Created, he produces “only” 154.

It becomes quite clear just how much Yankees’ opponents were hurt in 1961 by allowing Mantle to draw 43 more walks than the average lefty-swinging power hitter.

Let’s try it with a right-hander. How about Frank Thomas, 1995.

Actual:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       647  493  102  152   27    0   40  111  136   74 .308 .454 .606 1.061  144

Walk-neutralized:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       647  559   96  172   31    0   45  126   70   84 .308 .385 .606  .991  127

Just like ’61 Mantle, our pitched-to Big Hurt delivers five more big flies than he did in reality, and racks up a bunch of additional RBI. But the huge reduction in walks yields a 70-point drop in OPS, and 17 fewer Runs Created.

We can do this in the opposite direction as well. Let’s do it for an unusually walk-averse lefty slugger, such as, say, Hal Trosky in 1936, actual and then walk-neutralized:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       671  629  124  216   45    9   42  162   36   58 .343 .382 .644 1.026  152

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       671  579  129  199   41    8   39  149   86   53 .343 .428 .644 1.072  158

Our average-patience Trosky produces slightly less-gaudy power numbers than his actual swing-happy counterpart, but his OBP, OPS, and RC are all distinctly improved.

For a free-swinging RHB, why don’t we look at 1987 Andre Dawson. First is actual, then walk-neutralized:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       662  621   90  178   24    2   49  137   32  103 .287 .328 .568  .896  111

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       662  582   94  167   22    2   46  128   71   96 .287 .370 .568  .938  119

The walk-neutralized Dawson would still have led the league in HR and RBI, but by narrow margins in both categories. An interesting question to ponder: would this Dawson—a demonstrably more productive hitter than the actual Hawk, but with slightly less-imposing power counting stats—still have won that season’s MVP vote?

Just for kicks, how about we re-cast the 1998 home run record chasers in this light.

Here’s Sammy Sosa:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       722  643  134  198   20    0   66  158   73  171 .308 .377 .647 1.024  149

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       722  638  134  196   20    0   65  157   78  170 .308 .381 .647 1.028  157

And here’s Mark McGwire:

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       681  509  130  152   21    0   70  147  162  155 .299 .470 .752 1.222  193

        PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
       681  597  125  178   25    0   82  173   74  182 .299 .380 .752 1.133  166

We see no significant difference between Sosa’s lines. He’d been a notorious hacker earlier in his career, but by this point Sammy was walking at just about exactly the average rate for a right-handed power hitter (and I’ve always felt that it was Sosa’s mid-career achievement of strike zone judgment, far more than any taboo substances he may or may not have been ingesting, that was the key to his breakthrough).

But McGwire’s line is radically altered: 82 dingers and 173 ribbies! This makes it clear that it was the enormous difference in walk rates between these two sluggers—McGwire’s was more than twice Sosa’s—that kept their home run totals fairly even. Give them equal walk rates, and McGwire would have blown Sammy away in terms of homers—yet Big Mac would have been a less productive batter than he actually was overall.

But, all right, enough of this frivolity. Let’s get to the main event.

The most respected hitters of all time

If walks are a valid indicator of the respect pitchers accord to hitters—oh heck, let’s just go ahead and call it “fear”—then these last three are in a league of their own when it comes to fearsomeness. What sort of numbers might they have compiled if their walk rates had been equal to the average of left-handed-hitting sluggers?

Ted Williams, actual:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1939  677  565  131  185   44   11   31  145  107   64 .327 .436 .609 1.045  149
 1940  661  561  134  193   43   14   23  113   96   54 .344 .442 .594 1.036  145
 1941  606  456  135  185   33    3   37  120  147   27 .406 .553 .735 1.287  183
 1942  671  522  141  186   34    5   36  137  145   51 .356 .499 .648 1.147  168
 1946  672  514  142  176   37    8   38  123  156   44 .342 .497 .667 1.164  170
 1947  693  528  125  181   40    9   32  114  162   47 .343 .499 .634 1.133  166
 1948  638  509  124  188   44    3   25  127  126   41 .369 .497 .615 1.112  156
 1949  730  566  150  194   39    3   43  159  162   48 .343 .490 .650 1.141  180
 1950  416  334   82  106   24    1   28   97   82   21 .317 .452 .647 1.099   98
 1951  675  531  109  169   28    4   30  126  144   45 .318 .464 .556 1.019  137
 1952   12   10    2    4    0    1    1    3    2    2 .400 .500 .900 1.400    5
 1953  110   91   17   37    6    0   13   34   19   10 .407 .509 .901 1.410   41
 1954  526  386   93  133   23    1   29   89  136   32 .345 .513 .635 1.148  126
 1955  417  320   77  114   21    3   28   83   91   24 .356 .496 .703 1.200  118
 1956  503  400   71  138   28    2   24   82  102   39 .345 .479 .605 1.084  121
 1957  546  420   96  163   28    1   38   87  119   43 .388 .526 .731 1.257  167
 1958  517  411   81  135   23    2   26   85   98   49 .328 .458 .584 1.042  112
 1959  331  272   32   69   15    0   10   43   52   27 .254 .372 .419  .791   45
 1960  390  310   56   98   15    0   29   72   75   41 .316 .451 .645 1.096   95
Total 9791 7706 1798 2654  525   71  521 1839 2021  709 .344 .482 .634 1.116 2382

Ted Williams, walk-neutralized:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1939  677  585  129  192   46   11   32  150   87   66 .327 .414 .609 1.023  147
 1940  661  572  133  197   44   14   23  115   85   55 .344 .431 .594 1.024  145
 1941  606  525  130  213   38    3   43  138   78   31 .406 .485 .735 1.220  185
 1942  671  581  135  207   38    6   40  153   86   57 .356 .443 .648 1.091  164
 1946  672  584  135  200   42    9   43  140   86   50 .342 .429 .667 1.096  166
 1947  693  601  118  206   46   10   36  130   89   54 .343 .429 .634 1.063  162
 1948  638  553  119  204   48    3   27  138   82   45 .369 .453 .615 1.068  153
 1949  730  635  143  217   44    3   48  178   93   54 .343 .429 .650 1.079  176
 1950  416  363   79  115   26    1   30  105   53   23 .317 .405 .647 1.051   95
 1951  675  589  103  187   31    4   33  140   86   50 .318 .406 .556  .961  133
 1952   12   10    2    4    0    1    1    3    2    2 .400 .477 .900 1.377    4
 1953  110   96   17   39    6    0   14   36   14   11 .407 .483 .901 1.384   42
 1954  526  455   87  157   27    1   34  105   67   38 .345 .428 .635 1.063  123
 1955  417  358   74  127   23    3   31   93   53   27 .356 .439 .703 1.142  109
 1956  503  438   68  151   31    2   26   90   64   43 .345 .430 .605 1.035  113
 1957  546  469   93  182   31    1   42   97   70   48 .388 .472 .731 1.203  158
 1958  517  443   78  145   25    2   28   92   66   53 .328 .418 .584 1.002  106
 1959  331  282   31   71   16    0   10   45   42   28 .254 .350 .419  .769   41
 1960  390  335   54  106   16    0   31   78   50   44 .316 .408 .645 1.053   86
Total 9791 8474 1729 2922  577   77  576 2025 1253  777 .345 .426 .635 1.061 2295

In our imaginary universe, The Thumper delivers six seasons with 200 or more hits—in reality he delivered none—and approaches 600 career home runs despite all the military service. He reaches the 40-homer mark five times, while in reality he enjoyed only one such season.

But he also makes some 550 more outs than the actual Williams, and thus his career Runs Created total is reduced by nearly 100.

Babe Ruth, actual:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1914   10   10    1    2    1    0    0    2    0    4 .200 .200 .300  .500    1
 1915  103   92   16   29   10    1    4   21    9   23 .315 .376 .576  .952   20
 1916  150  136   18   37    5    3    3   15   10   23 .272 .322 .419  .741   18
 1917  142  123   14   40    6    3    2   12   12   18 .325 .385 .472  .857   22
 1918  380  317   50   95   26   11   11   66   58   58 .300 .411 .555  .966   72
 1919  542  432  103  139   34   12   29  114  101   58 .322 .456 .657 1.114  128
 1920  616  458  158  172   36    9   54  137  150   80 .376 .532 .847 1.379  200
 1921  693  540  177  204   44   16   59  171  145   81 .378 .512 .846 1.359  229
 1922  495  406   94  128   24    8   35   99   84   80 .315 .434 .672 1.106  116
 1923  699  522  151  205   45   13   41  131  170   93 .393 .545 .764 1.309  209
 1924  681  529  143  200   39    7   46  121  142   81 .378 .513 .739 1.252  194
 1925  426  359   61  104   12    2   25   66   59   68 .290 .393 .543  .936   75
 1926  652  495  139  184   30    5   47  146  144   76 .372 .516 .737 1.253  185
 1927  691  540  158  192   29    8   60  164  137   89 .356 .486 .772 1.258  201
 1928  684  536  163  173   29    8   54  142  137   87 .323 .463 .709 1.172  173
 1929  587  499  121  172   26    6   46  154   72   60 .345 .430 .697 1.128  148
 1930  676  518  150  186   28    9   49  153  136   61 .359 .493 .732 1.225  183
 1931  663  534  149  199   31    3   46  163  128   51 .373 .495 .700 1.195  184
 1932  589  457  120  156   13    5   41  137  130   62 .341 .489 .661 1.150  147
 1933  575  459   97  138   21    3   34  103  114   90 .301 .442 .582 1.023  116
 1934  471  365   78  105   17    4   22   84  104   63 .288 .448 .537  .985   86
 1935   92   72   13   13    0    0    6   12   20   24 .181 .359 .431  .789   11
Tot. 10617 8399 2174 2873  506  136  714 2213 2062 1330 .342 .474 .690 1.164 2718

Babe Ruth, walk-neutralized:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1914   10    9    1    2    1    0    0    2    1    3 .200 .302 .300  .602    1
 1915  103   88   16   28   10    1    4   20   13   22 .315 .397 .576  .973   20
 1916  150  127   19   34    5    3    3   14   19   21 .272 .358 .419  .777   19
 1917  142  117   15   38    6    3    2   11   18   17 .325 .396 .472  .867   22
 1918  380  326   49   98   27   11   11   68   49   60 .300 .391 .555  .946   70
 1919  542  464  100  149   36   13   31  122   69   62 .322 .415 .657 1.073  123
 1920  616  529  155  199   42   10   62  158   79   92 .376 .456 .847 1.303  202
 1921  693  596  175  225   49   18   65  189   89   89 .378 .459 .846 1.306  229
 1922  495  427   92  135   25    8   37  104   63   84 .315 .402 .672 1.074  115
 1923  699  603  146  237   52   15   47  151   89  107 .393 .473 .764 1.237  215
 1924  681  584  139  221   43    8   51  134   87   89 .378 .459 .739 1.198  195
 1925  426  363   61  105   12    2   25   67   55   69 .290 .380 .543  .923   74
 1926  652  556  135  207   34    6   53  164   83   85 .372 .450 .737 1.187  182
 1927  691  589  155  209   32    9   65  179   88   97 .356 .431 .772 1.203  196
 1928  684  585  159  189   32    9   59  155   88   95 .323 .409 .709 1.118  168
 1929  587  496  121  171   26    6   46  153   75   60 .345 .424 .697 1.122  145
 1930  676  567  146  204   31   10   54  168   87   67 .359 .431 .732 1.163  178
 1931  663  577  145  215   34    3   50  176   85   55 .373 .454 .700 1.154  183
 1932  589  512  115  175   15    6   46  153   75   69 .341 .428 .661 1.089  144
 1933  575  499   93  150   23    3   37  112   74   98 .301 .393 .582  .975  113
 1934  471  409   73  118   19    4   25   94   60   71 .288 .382 .537  .919   83
 1935   92   80   12   14    0    0    7   13   12   27 .181 .285 .431  .716   10
Tot. 10617 9102 2122 3121  550  148  779 2408 1359 1441 .343 .422 .693 1.115 2660

Remember that tremendous Mickey Mantle 1961 season we were looking at earlier, the year in which Mantle hit .317 with 54 homers? Mantle’s Slugging Percentage that season was a fat .687, which not only led the majors in 1961, it would be the highest SLG produced by any hitter in any season between 1957 and 1994.

Think about this: Ruth’s Slugging Percentage was higher than that.

For his career.

Check out what kind of counting stats the walk-neutralized Bambino would pile up. Seven seasons with 200 or more hits (with another one at 199). Eight seasons of 50 or more homers. Ten seasons of 150 or more RBI.

My personal favorite has to be 1921: 132 extra-base hits! 175 runs scored, and 189 RBI!

This Sultan of Swat would bow out with well over 3,000 hits, and no fewer than 779 career home runs, beyond Mr. Aaron’s tremendous reach. Yet for all that additional damage, taking more than 700 walks away from him renders this Ruth with more than 50 fewer career Runs Created than the actual Ruth.

And now, Mr. Bonds.

Barry Bonds, actual:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1986  484  413   72   92   26    3   16   48   65  102 .223 .330 .416  .746   64
 1987  611  551   99  144   34    9   25   59   54   88 .261 .329 .492  .821   93
 1988  614  538   97  152   30    5   24   58   72   82 .283 .368 .491  .859  100
 1989  679  580   96  144   34    6   19   58   93   93 .248 .351 .426  .777   92
 1990  621  519  104  156   32    3   33  114   93   83 .301 .406 .565  .970  128
 1991  634  510   95  149   28    5   25  116  107   73 .292 .410 .514  .924  118
 1992  612  473  109  147   36    5   34  103  127   69 .311 .456 .624 1.080  148
 1993  674  539  129  181   38    4   46  123  126   79 .336 .458 .677 1.136  172
 1994  474  391   89  122   18    1   37   81   74   43 .312 .426 .647 1.073  115
 1995  635  506  109  149   30    7   33  104  120   83 .294 .431 .577 1.009  134
 1996  675  517  122  159   27    3   42  129  151   76 .308 .461 .615 1.076  162
 1997  690  532  123  155   26    5   40  101  145   87 .291 .446 .585 1.031  151
 1998  697  552  120  167   44    7   37  122  130   92 .303 .438 .609 1.047  153
 1999  434  355   91   93   20    2   34   83   73   62 .262 .389 .617 1.006   91
 2000  607  480  129  147   28    4   49  106  117   77 .306 .440 .688 1.127  155
 2001  664  476  129  156   32    2   73  137  177   93 .328 .515 .863 1.379  230
 2002  612  403  117  149   31    2   46  110  198   47 .370 .582 .799 1.381  208
 2003  550  390  111  133   22    1   45   90  148   58 .341 .529 .749 1.278  166
 2004  617  373  129  135   27    3   45  101  232   41 .362 .609 .812 1.422  203
 2005   52   42    8   12    1    0    5   10    9    6 .286 .404 .667 1.071   12
 2006  493  367   74   99   23    0   26   77  115   51 .270 .454 .545  .999   98
 2007  477  340   75   94   14    0   28   66  132   54 .276 .480 .565 1.045   99
Tot. 12606 9847 2227 2935  601   77  762 1996 2558 1539 .298 .444 .607 1.051 2892

Barry Bonds, walk-neutralized:

 Year   PA   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS   RC
 1986  484  416   71   93   26    3   16   48   62  103 .223 .324 .416  .740   55
 1987  611  527  103  138   33    9   24   56   78   84 .261 .358 .492  .850   92
 1988  614  531   98  150   30    5   24   57   79   81 .283 .376 .491  .866   97
 1989  679  586   95  146   34    6   19   59   87   94 .248 .344 .426  .770   85
 1990  621  533  102  160   33    3   34  117   79   85 .301 .391 .565  .955  116
 1991  634  536   92  157   29    5   26  122   81   77 .292 .382 .514  .895  103
 1992  612  522  104  162   40    6   37  114   78   76 .311 .402 .624 1.026  128
 1993  674  579  126  194   41    4   49  132   86   85 .336 .420 .677 1.097  163
 1994  474  404   88  126   19    1   38   84   61   44 .312 .407 .647 1.054  103
 1995  635  545  105  160   32    8   36  112   81   89 .294 .389 .577  .966  120
 1996  675  582  116  179   30    3   47  145   86   85 .308 .395 .615 1.010  141
 1997  690  589  117  172   29    6   44  112   88   96 .291 .389 .585  .974  130
 1998  697  593  116  179   47    8   40  131   89   99 .303 .398 .609 1.006  139
 1999  434  372   89   98   21    2   36   87   56   65 .262 .360 .617  .977   81
 2000  607  519  126  159   30    4   53  115   78   83 .306 .395 .688 1.083  139
 2001  664  568  127  186   38    2   87  163   85  111 .328 .425 .863 1.288  200
 2002  612  523  112  193   40    3   60  143   78   61 .370 .463 .799 1.262  185
 2003  550  468  107  159   26    1   54  108   70   70 .341 .440 .749 1.188  146
 2004  617  526  123  190   38    4   63  142   79   58 .362 .457 .812 1.269  187
 2005   52   44    8   13    1    0    5   11    7    6 .286 .372 .667 1.038   11
 2006  493  419   69  113   26    0   30   88   63   58 .270 .380 .545  .925   82
 2007  477  411   68  114   17    0   34   80   61   65 .276 .374 .565  .938   85
Tot.12606 10791 2161 3240  661   83  857 2225 1614 1676 .300 .395 .615 1.010 2556

Walk Bonds at the average rate of lefty sluggers, and he tosses aside the career home run marks of the mere Ruths and Aarons like Godzilla laying waste to a Tokyo commuter train. This Barry reaches the 500 career homer mark in 2000, and surpasses 600 in ’01, 700 in ’03, and 800 in ’06 on his way to a staggering final total of 857.

Walk-neutralized Mark McGwire above had belted 82 in 1998, but walk-neutralized Bonds would best that by five in 2001. The fewest homers this Bonds would produce in the five-season span of 2000 through 2004 would be 53; his average home run output over that half-decade period would be 63.

But this devastating longball carnage inflicted on their opponents would come at a dramatic cost to the Giants. In that five-year span, walk-neutralized Bonds would make over 300 additional outs in the same number of plate appearances as the actual Bonds. Thus despite the tremendous tally of hits, homers, and runs batted in, this Bonds would create over 100 fewer runs for his team in those seasons than the actual Bonds. Over his full career, walk-neutralized Bonds would compile almost 350 fewer Runs Created than the actual Bonds.

It sure might seem counterintuitive, but there it is. Through the heart of Bonds’s awesome offensive peak, the fear he generated in opposing pitchers caused them to present the Giants with the gift of about 20 extra runs per year—in other words, about two wins per year—simply by walking him so vastly more frequently than a left-handed-hitting slugger typically walks.

* For sure, one can take issue with the assumption that a hitter’s production of all non-walk outcomes would continue at exactly the same rate if he walked less frequently. To the extent that a hitter would be swinging at pitches outside the strike zone in these walk-erased at-bats, it’s almost certain that his production rate of hits would decline, probably dramatically, and his strikeouts increase.

But in our thought experiment we aren’t assuming the hitter is swinging at ball four. We’re assuming the pitchers in these PAs are providing him with the same manner of pitches they did in his actual PAs when he didn’t walk. We really aren’t imagining the hitter changing his approach so much as we’re imagining the pitchers changing theirs. So for our purposes, the assumption of constant rate of all non-walk production is reasonable.

References & Resources
Formulae:

The first step is to neutralize the batter’s walk total: if Bats Left or Bats Both, it’s (Plate Appearances * .128); if Bats Right, then it’s (Plate Appearances * .108).

Everything else then keys off of this:

Neutralized AB = ((Actual AB) + (Neutralized BB – Actual BB))

Neutralized R = (Actual R * ((Neutralized BB + Neutralized TB + Neutralized HBP) / (Actual BB + Actual TB + Actual HBP)))

Neutralized H = (((Actual H / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

Neutralized 2B = (((Actual 2B / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

Neutralized 3B = (((Actual 3B / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

Neutralized HR = (((Actual HR / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

Neutralized RBI = (Actual RBI * (Neutralized TB / Actual TB))

Neutralized SO = (((Actual SO / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

Neutralized HBP = (((Actual HBP / Actual AB) * (Neutralized AB))

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Comments

  1. DrBGiantsfan said...

    Does RC account for the quality of other players in the lineup?  Isn’t drawing walks in front of Jeff Kent going to produce a different number of runs than drawing it in front of Benito Santiago?

  2. Dave Studeman said...

    One of the things an analysis like this overlooks is the walk situation.  I think pitchers are more likely to walk batters in high-leverage situations, where a base hit/home run would do a lot more damage.

    Tango used Win Expectancy tables to create a chart of situations in which it made sense to walk Barry Bonds or not.  This is the one for Giant home games:

    http://www.tangotiger.net/walkbondschart2.html

  3. gdc said...

    There might be some reason to think that fewer walks would mean swinging at pitches outside the zone, but it might also mean that the batter is getting more strikes from weaker pitchers who were in real life told not to throw strikes to the slugger, and the batter might do better than his average marks on them.  This would especially be true for LHB’s Ruth and Williams who were in the pre-relief specialist days and might have been walked in late innings by a RH starter they had already victimized.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    “Does RC account for the quality of other players in the lineup?”

    No, it’s an overall average.

    “Isn’t drawing walks in front of Jeff Kent going to produce a different number of runs than drawing it in front of Benito Santiago?”

    Yes, but that’s really just another way of saying that better-hitting lineups score more runs than poorer-hitting lineups.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    All of these points are entirely well-taken.  As my caveat says, there are plenty of specific situations in which the IBB (or semi-IBB) make perfect sense for Bonds or nearly all other hitters. 

    And the calculations I’m offerring are by all means nothing more than crude estimates.  But I find the differences in OPS and RC so great in the cases of extremely-high walks totals that they strongly suggest that, on an overall macro basis, we shouldn’t assume that the opponents of a Bonds, Ruth, or Williams got it exactly right.  An OBP of 1.000 in a meaningful proportion of PAs is an exceptionally powerful thing.

  6. David P. Stokes said...

    One problem that I have with this study is that I don’t think that Bonds would have necessarily had a “normal” number of walks even if pitchers hadn’t walked him intentionally or semi-intentionally so often—he would have still had an above-normal walk rate (even for a power hitter) IMO.  Even in his first year in the majors, he had an he walked a lot for someone with the overall hitting stats he had.  Don’t get me wrong—if pitchers hadn’t intentionally avoided throwing him strikes to the extent that they did, his walks would have dropped and that would have lead to some decrease in his runs created, but I don’t think it would have been as much as the study suggests.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    “Don’t get me wrong—if pitchers hadn’t intentionally avoided throwing him strikes to the extent that they did, his walks would have dropped and that would have lead to some decrease in his runs created, but I don’t think it would have been as much as the study suggests.”

    Completely agreed.  Allow me to clarify the point of the study:  I’m not suggesting that the difference between Bonds’s (or Ruth’s or Williams’s or McGwire’s or Mantle’s) actual walks and his neutralized walks is 100% explained by the manner in which he was pitched.  Certainly, some (and perhaps quite a bit) of the difference is explained by Bonds’s particular skill at strike zone judgment.

    But obviously not all of it is.  Many of the walks Bonds took were egregiously semi-intentional (four straight changeups in the dirt type walks), and obviously a record-shattering number were fully intentional.

    So the neutralizing walks exercise isn’t meant to estimate how many walks a Bonds “would have” drawn had pitchers pitched him the way they pitched the average LHB power hitter.  It’s to estimate how large the difference is between the walk-driven productivity of an average power hitter and the walk-driven productivity of an extreme outlier such as Bonds.

    Some of it (who knows how much) should be credited to Bonds’s walk-drawing skill.  But some of it should also be debited from the opponents’ tactical wisdom.

  8. Mike Treder said...

    Fascinating. It’s not hard to imagine this study coming to the attention of a few smart GMs around baseball, but how they might react to it—and whether they could implement any significant changes—is another story.

    Even if those GMs wanted to alter the approach of pitchers throughout their organization by urging them to challenge hitters more often and convincing them that the increase in long balls would actually be offset by the larger increase in outs made, you still would have human psychology to deal with.

    Under pressure of game situations, with macho prowess on the line, I suspect that the more primitive aspects of the psyche would prevail over the rational approach. Home runs have a powerful emotional impact for both hitters and pitchers (not to mention fans), and the stats we see in real life reflect that.

    Could it be changed? Maybe, but it’s much more than just a matter of explaining these numbers to your pitching staff. It’s the caveman mentality that has to be overcome. With a bunch of jocks. Good luck with that.

  9. Bob Rittner said...

    “Certainly, every plate appearance isn’t the same as every other plate appearance. The base/out and score/inning situations significantly impact whether it would be sensible to pitch to Bonds, or anyone else. But on an overall “macro” basis, was my camp correct? Did pitchers walk Bonds too frequently? And if so, what precisely was the cost they paid?”
    ___________________________________________________
    I want to highlight this point that you made. While I think the macro analysis is meaningful, we need to be careful not to assume that the IBB is always wrong. Wouldn’t it be useful to compare the actual number of runs scored in every situation in which Bonds was walked to anticipated runs scored had he been pitched to and also to anticipated runs scored after he was put on base?

    For example, in one infamous case, Joe Maddon intentionally walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded because in Maddon’s words, he thought Hamilton was too “toasty” right then. So we know that one run scored as a result. Given the pitcher, the batter, the on-deck hitter and the situation and even ignoring for a moment the possibility that a player on a hot streak might be more dangerous than he ordinarily is, how many runs should we anticipate would have scored had Hamilton been pitched to and how many after he was walked? I think only that one run scored and the Rays won, so while that is results based analysis, it still is meaningful if over an entire career similar results occur.

  10. DrBGiantsfan said...

    Steve Treder,

    I disagree that the Kent vs Santiago hitting behind Bonds is simply saying that better lineups score more runs.  If Benito Santiago is less likely to drive in baserunners than Jeff Kent, or even to get on base and keep the inning alive, then the balance of Runs Created is shifted toward Bonds needing to be the man to drive in the runs. Opposing pitchers can exploit that by walking Bonds.

    As Giants fan who watched in abject frustration over the last few years of Barry’s career as promising rally after promising rally was snuffed out because he and the runners on base in front of him were left stranded by the hitters behind him, I can attest to the effectiveness of that strategy.

    RC is a useful stat, but to use it properly, you have to realize that it assumes a normalized lineup.  To say with certainty that it was bad strategy to walk Barry Bonds, a calculation that includes lineup context will be necessary.

  11. Steve Treder said...

    “I disagree that the Kent vs Santiago hitting behind Bonds is simply saying that better lineups score more runs.  If Benito Santiago is less likely to drive in baserunners than Jeff Kent, or even to get on base and keep the inning alive, then the balance of Runs Created is shifted toward Bonds needing to be the man to drive in the runs.”

    Sure, but to what degree?  While as a fellow Giants fan I deeply wish Benito Santiago had been a better hitter than he was, the fact is that he wasn’t exactly Bill Bergen out there.

    “To say with certainty that it was bad strategy to walk Barry Bonds, a calculation that includes lineup context will be necessary.”

    Okay, but perhaps many readers aren’t aware that Bill James performed a study years ago in which he placed 1921 Babe Ruth (oh, yeah!) within a lineup consisting of nothing but abject, utter stiffs, and ran a series of computerized simulations calculating how many runs this lineup would have scored with Ruth walking as frequently as he actually did, versus Ruth being walked 100% of the time—thus completely removing every single, double, triple, and home run Ruth could have contributed.

    The result was that the 100%-walked Ruth lineup would score significantly more runs.

    On-base percentage really, really matters in run production, a whole lot.

  12. DrBGiantsfan said...

    Steve Treder,

    Maybe I’m not as impressed by computer simulations as you are.  The outcome is greatly dependent on the assumptions in the model you give the computer. 

    I wonder if Bill James tried this scenario?:  The 2 or 3 hitters above Babe in the lineup all have high OBP’s, but then there is a big dropoff in both OBP and power in the 2-3 hitters behind the Babe.  That would actually be a lot closer to the situation Barry Bonds found himself in.

  13. Dave Studeman said...

    Steve, I think that many of us are saying that your conclusion…

    Through the heart of Bonds’s awesome offensive peak, the fear he generated in opposing pitchers caused them to present the Giants with the gift of about 20 extra runs per year—in other words, about two wins per year—simply by walking him so vastly more frequently than a left-handed-hitting slugger typically walks.

    …can’t be supported by your analysis.  The runs, maybe, but not the wins.  Looking at Tango’s walk/don’t walk chart, over 30% of plate appearances in close games (3 runs or less) indicate that the opposing team should “go with its gut, walk Bonds or DEFINITELY walk Bonds.”  Nine percent indicate walk or DEFINITELY walk.

    If I’m interpreting your tables correctly, Bonds was walked 944 times more than your standard.  That’s seven percent of all plate appearances—less than the nine percent and WAY less than the 30%.  If you estimate that about 67% of games are settled by three runs or less, then seven percent appears to be about right.

    However, you could argue that opponents didn’t walk Bonds enough!

  14. Steve Treder said...

    “If I’m interpreting your tables correctly, Bonds was walked 944 times more than your standard.  That’s seven percent of all plate appearances—less than the nine percent and WAY less than the 30%.  If you estimate that about 67% of games are settled by three runs or less, then seven percent appears to be about right.”

    Well, that’s 944 times, or 7%, more than the average LHB power hitter over his entire career.  From 2001 onward, his percentage was vastly higher than that.

    And remember that we’re not talking about his percentage being higher than zero walks, but being higher than an already-higher-than-average walk rate:  the walk rate of LHB power hitters, the most dangerous category of all hitters.

  15. Dave Studeman said...

    Sure, but there is play in that 7% figure, all the way up to 25% or so, depending on the matchup.  Doesn’t change my issue with your conclusion.

  16. Eli said...

    Your (*) disclaimer is up-front, but it means this computation just can’t address the question “Did pitchers walk Bonds too frequently?”  If we say that those walks convert into his non-walked rate stats, we’re assuming the conclusion.  We already know he didn’t hit for the 1.000/1.000 (OBP/SLG) that a walk gives him.

    You said there “We’re assuming the pitchers in these PAs are providing him with the same manner of pitches they did in his actual PAs when he didn’t walk.”  In terms of what-if strategy, they can’t just do that.

    For one thing, those BB-outcome pitchers are probably worse pitches, and more righties, as people mentioned above.  But there’s also a more fundamental problem.

    We’re selectively changing history on just the BB outcomes.  The pitcher can’t see the BB outcome and then do it over differently.  He needs to throw each pitch with the goal of avoiding a BB.  Take for example a full count, where he aimed for the corner, missed, BB.  What if that walk hadn’t happened?  Well, what made it hypothetically not happen?  “Aim for that corner *and hit it*” is not a how-to-pitch-to-Bonds strategy we can prescribe.  What can we really say besides take a little off, throw it nearer the middle?  And that’s going to give different rate stats in the non-BB outcomes.

    To translate away some BBs, we need to turn them into stats that reflect “what if pitchers were changing their approach so those BBs wouldn’t have happened?”  Which are different that the historical non-BB-outcome stats.

  17. Steve Treder said...

    “To translate away some BBs, we need to turn them into stats that reflect “what if pitchers were changing their approach so those BBs wouldn’t have happened?”  Which are different that the historical non-BB-outcome stats.”

    OK, fine.  In what way would they be different, exactly?

    My assumption, as articulated in the (*) portion of the article, is that for purposes of this exercise, constant production as already presented in non-BB PAs is reasonable.

    HOW different should they be from that?  In what way? 

    I would be quite ready to incorporate different rates than the constants, but I don’t see a reliable basis for imputing anything else. 

    Certainly, the constants are an imperfect estimate.  But in the absence of anything better, this is the best we can work with.

    And, clearly, the bottom line is that futzing with these rates of production in the newly-non-BB PAs is farting around at the margins.  Unless one is willing to assume (without underlying basis) dramatic changes in production rates in these PAs, one way or the other, then the outcome of the exercise won’t be meaningfully changed.

  18. kds said...

    I think part of what Studes is implying is that you can’t just look at this on a macro (season or longer) level. You should be looking at individual PAs.  Specially derived RE24 tables for the relevant players would be one way to look at it.  Another would be to use Markov chains or some similar form to model the situation.  Again specialized for the players involved.

  19. Eli said...

    “HOW different should they be from that?  In what way?”

    How different a strategy are you giving the pitchers, to avoid these walks?  What strategy?  Then we can talk about how much it affects the outcomes.

    Oh, I’m not saying it’s really an answerable question.  But if we tell a pitcher to avoid walking guys, and we don’t bump up his smarts or his stuff, they’ll hit him some unknown amount better, right?  Either he’s taking something off, or he’s pitching to a smaller zone, or what am I missing?

    So I don’t see it’s a matter of assuming changes “one way or the other”.  I think we can be pretty sure which way, we just don’t know how much.

  20. Eli said...

    To be clear, we *don’t* know how much, and I’m not suggesting you should make up some fudge factor and re-run the numbers.

    I think the numbers you ran are great, just to interpret them as a lower limit.  If pitchers had pitched to avoid walking McGwire, he would have hit *at least* 82 HRs.  Which is even cooler, right?

    The lower limit just happens not to be as useful on the question of whether it’s better strategy for the pitcher to stay in the zone.  Well, it’s a hard question to answer.

  21. Eli said...

    (BTW, I’d think it would be a reasonable first approximation to figure zero change to rates in translating away IBBs.  Since there the strategy switch is just pitch normally.)

  22. John DiFool said...

    We really need to look at what actually happens AFTER the walk to get a gauge on how much the opposing team was helping or hurting themselves by walking him.  I’ve actually done some preliminary checking of this, and (don’t have the exact numbers handy at the moment) while walks with less than two out tended to help the Giants, with two outs the batters coming up after Bonds were horrendous-something like 2 for 47, with virtually no RBIs, and obviously no possibility of further runs scoring.

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