Baseball

Question of the Day 6/24

Brilliant Reader Trent asks an overall question about this story, written by old pal Jeff Flanagan, where Royals GM Dayton Moore seems to blame the Royals lack of walks through the years, at least in part, on the size of their ballpark, Kauffman Stadium.

“We have the largest ballpark in terms of square footage of any ballpark in baseball,” Moore told Flanagan. “When pitchers come here, they have the mindset to use that park -- put the ball in play, throw strikes, attack the zone. There isn’t the same fear factor of getting beat deep that you might have elsewhere … I think that plays a huge factor in the walk statistic.”

OK, well, obvious things first: This explanation is ridiculous on its face when you consider that while Royals hitters have not finished top half in walks since 1989 (this is one of the most ridiculous stats I’ve ever seen, by the way) Royals PITCHERS have had the most walks the league four times and finished bottom five in walks 12 times over that same span. Those pitchers, best I can tell, work in the same stadium. So apparently that fear factor works only one way.

But rather than harp on that quote, it might be better to delve into a deeper issue, that the Royals -- and I do believe Dayton Moore would like them to walk more -- seem to think that walking comes down to something trite and vague as “fear factor.” Lots of people seem to think this, the theory being that hitters with power draw more walks because pitchers tend to pitch them more carefully (and hitters without power draw fewer walks because pitchers are happy to challenge them).

I’ve thought a lot about this, and to be blunt about it I don’t believe it is true. Well, yes, it is true that hitters with power often walk more. Not always -- Dave Kingman, Juan Gonzalez, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Banks, Andre Dawson, et. al -- but as a general rule power hitters do walk more than non power hitters. But I think the cause and effect is way off. I think the idea that hitters walk because of a pitcher’s “fear” is, for the most part, hopelessly misguided.

What I think -- and admittedly I’m making this up as I go along, so cut me a little slack here -- is that people mostly got the order wrong. I don’t think hitters walk because they hit with more power. I think hitters hit with more power because they walk. That is to say, I think that plate discipline often (again, not always) leads to power. And not the other way around.

Look, we all know that Major League Baseball players hit with a lot more power on favorable counts -- 1-0, 2-0, 3-1 -- than any other time.

This year is pretty typical -- here are slugging percentages when ahead in the count:

1-0: .544

2-0: .590

3-1: .662

And here are the slugging percentages when behind in the count:

0-1: .465

0-2: .217

1-2: .246

Now, obviously those two strike numbers are skewed by strikeoutss, but even if you take those out of play here are the percentages of home runs hit on balls put into play:

Ahead in count:

1-0 count: 4.4%

2-0 count: 5.5%

3-0 count: 11.6%

3-1 count: 7.4%

Behind in count:

0-1 count: 2.8%

0-2 count: 2.0%

1-2 count: 2.7%

Even in count:

First pitch: 4.5%

1-1 count: 3.3%

2-2 count: 3.2%

Full count: 4.0%

See, big league hitters -- put in favorable counts -- are awfully good. It really doesn’t matter who we are talking about. Jeff Francoeur, when he’s ahead in the count, hits .302/.424/.494. He’s a superstar when he’s ahead in the count -- if he (and he alone) could start every at-bat ahead 2-0, he would be heading for the Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, when he’s behind in the count, he hits .205/.216/.329 … and he’s behind in the count a lot more often than he’s ahead. And this is instructive: It’s kind of ridiculous to say that “fear” is what drives a pitching pattern. Jeff Francoeur has trouble differentiating between strikes and balls. This year, according to the Pitch FX numbers, he is swinging at 45% of pitches out of the strike zone (the league average is 30% or so). So you tell me: Why would pitchers throw him strikes? If a pitcher knows that you will chase sliders in the dirt, you better believe he will throw you sliders in the dirt. Fear has nothing to do with it.

The Oakland A’s play in a big park. They are eighth in the league in home runs. But they lead the league in walks -- lead the league because they have 10 players who have walked 20-plus times (the Royals have four). John Jason, who has all of two home runs (and 22 in his career) has more walks than anyone on Kansas City except Billy Butler. It ain’t the ballpark. It ain’t fear either.

Put another way: I don’t think the Royals low-walk total has almost anything to do with their lack of home runs. If anything, their lack of home runs is a consequence of a stunning and consistent lack of plate discipline.

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