The Walking Men
Over the last several years, in large part due to the success of the Yankees and A's, walks have become a much prominent element in discussions about offense and run scoring potential. The concept is nothing new: Rogers Hornsby once told Ted Williams the secret to hitting is getting a good pitch to hit. Williams transformed that advice into a science, then an art form. Bill James picked it up from there and translated Williams' philosophy into numbers and in so doing, revolutionized the way people, some of whom are now major league GMs, approach the game.
Walks aren't nearly as glamorous as home runs or batting average, but early season walk rates may tell us as much or more about a player's future success that season. In looking at this year's walk leaders, I found some surprising entries:
Has anyone noticed that Sammy Sosa is on pace to break Barry Bonds' walk record? He has 21 free passes in 16 games. I know it's early, but Sammy has been increasingly ambulatory in 6 of the last 7 years. And with the majority of the Cubs' line-up being rabidly free-swinging (six players are on pace to strike out 120 times or more), opposing pitchers may decide it's more productive to give Sammy the Barry treatment than it is to let him swing the bat. This would mean fewer chances to hit homers or drive in runs for Sammy, but increased chances for his team mates.
Speaking of Sammy's team mates, it's a good sign to see Hee Seop Choi drawing plenty of walks so far. He's got 15, tied for 4th best in the majors. So often, a young hitter who showed great patience in the minors will try to make a big splash once he gets to the majors in an effort to show that he belongs in the bigs. More often than not, however, he simply gets away from what made him successful, slumps badly and ends up getting sent back to the minors. Choi is staying with his game and making it very hard for manager Dusty Baker to indulge his penchant for playing less productive veteran players. With Choi batting behind Sosa and Alou, his selectivity might yield big numbers this season.
The Padres traded for Ramon Vazquez in December of 2001 primarily due to his career .372 on base percentage in the minors. Last year, he struggled at the plate for the first couple of months, but came on strong after May, posting an on base of .369 the rest of the way and topping .400 in both June and August. This season, he appears to have picked up where he left off, having already drawn 14 walks. While he won't ever be a fantasy stud at shortstop (unless your league uses on base), his discipline will make him more slump-proof than most. It will also assure that he will have a chance to match his career best numbers in homers (10), runs (85) and steals (16).
Ever since he came into the league, there has been no doubt that Erubial Durazo has terrific power. The questions regarding Durazo have regarded his ability to stay healthy and his ability to hit lefties. No one can answer the former yet, although the convenience of being able to DH will help significantly. As for the latter, his minor league numbers suggest a player who is just as capable of hitting lefties - he hit .414 against them in AA in 70 at bats - but with much less power. He's always had strong walk rates, but this will be the first year he gets to play full-time. With 500+ at bats, he should draw at least 90 walks - his current pace puts him at 132 - and post an on base percentage over .400.
Ivan Rodriguez has been a huge surprise, drawing 14 walks so far this season, 5 of them coming in one game, which tied a record dating back to the 1890s. This is a hitter who has never drawn more than 38 walks in any season and now he's on pace for 133. While he will ultimately fall well short of that number, it's a big positive that his hitting focus is going in this direction. Rarely do players become less productive as they become more selective. The new patience might not mean more homers or power in general, especially in Florida's pitcher friendly park, but adding this element should lengthen his career as an offensive player. And for players as great as Rodriguez, that's always a good thing.
But the biggest surprise so far has to be Royce Clayton. Like Rodriguez, he's never drawn many walks; 53 is his career best. But he has always struck out more than walked, usually around two and half times as often. This year, he's on pace to draw 101 walks and strike out only 50 times. Just as surprising is that he's hit 4 homers and 4 doubles, rates which would obliterate his career bests by August. Are the two connected? Quite possibly. Many hitters experience improved power numbers when they become more selective. Can it continue? Well, the odds are against it because 33 year old players don't often transform their games suddenly. But as long as he can continue this new discipline, there's no reason to believe he won't continue to see the improved results.