There is a big, obvious explanation as to why we place so little value on walks in "traditional" metrics like batting average ... it's that to earn a walk, technically speaking, you don't necessarily have to DO anything. You don't have to have a skill. You don't have to be a baseball player. You don't even have to be alive. ... The walk is one of the few positive statistics you can earn simply by doing absolutely nothing.I do think that a lot of people believe this, that the walk is simply about standing around. Bill James tells a famous story of watching Amos Otis draw a game-winning walk and reading in the next day's Kansas City Star that Otis had become a hero doing exactly what everyone else in the stadium had done -- nothing.
Trouble is, of course, this patently isn't true. Nobody in big league history has ever walked by doing nothing. Even Eddie Gaedel, the closest example you could come up with to someone who walked doing nothing, had a unique baseball skill: He was 3-foot-7 and he crouched. If any person went to the plate promising to do nothing -- promising not to swing the bat -- they would never, ever walk. There isn't a pitcher who ever took a mound in the big leagues who could not throw three obvious strikes if he was guaranteed the batter would not swing, and there isn't an umpire who ever crouched behind the plate who would fail to call those strikes.
So, you might say: Well, what about intentional walks? Well, no pitcher would intentionally walk anyone if the batter promised not to swing. Intentional walks build from situations. The hitter is so good, the pitcher does not want to face him. The situation is so dire -- second and third, no outs, for instance -- that the pitching team believes setting up the double play is the better move. The idea that a big league walk is ever achieved without at least some effort seems to me utterly false.
But, of course, most walks are not intentional or a matter of a pitcher who has lost the strike zone. Most walks are a result of a skirmish between pitcher and hitter. Which brings us to the ninth inning Friday.
The Cardinals scored four runs. Carlos Beltran doubled. After Matt Holliday grounded out and Allen Craig struck out against Drew Storen, Yadier Molina walked. David Frese walked to load the bases. Daniel Descalso hit his single off the shortstop's glove to score two. Pete Kozma's single to right scored two more. And the Cardinals won.
And, if you ask me, you know what was the most important pitch of the entire inning? It was an 85-mph slider Storen threw to Yadi with the Cardinals still down two runs. At that moment, the count was 2-2. The crowd was flipping out, waving those red towels, jumping up and down, bracing themselves for the moment. Storen's slider is nasty, when it's right. It looks like a strike for 50 or 55 feet, but the last bit it drops right out of the strike zone, into a manhole, and hitters flail helplessly at it. That's what Craig had just done, which tells you the slider had some hypnotic powers. Storen threw the slider, and it did just what it was supposed to do, it looked like an oncoming strike, then it crash landed, Molina flinched like he was going to swing at it. This is the crucial decision for a hitter. If it's a fastball and he doesn't swing at it, it's strike three and he looks the fool. If he does swing at it, and it's the slider, he will miss it, and the game is over, the Nationals win.
At the last possible instant, Molina held back.
Even in that instant -- before the inning came together (or fell apart, depending on your side of the aisle) -- I found myself awed that Molina did not swing at that pitch. The skill of big league hitters often astounds me, but in that moment, with the crowd, with the intensity, with the significance, with Molina's history (he likes to swing the bat), I have absolutely no idea how Yadi held up there. No clue.
It was like a magic trick.
David Frese had a similar moment in his at-bat -- 1-2 count, two men on, crowd going crazy -- and he got the slider, and he too held back. It did not seem to me quite as good a slider, plus I had already seen Molina's remarkable take so it was not quite as dazzling. But it was still pretty darned good. The hero was Descalso with his single and stolen base, the hero was Kozma with his tie-breaking single, I know that. But if you ask me the singular moment of that inning was Molina holding off strike three. It seemed a lot more to me than doing nothing.