• Jul
    07

    HHP: The Price of Impatience.


    by Kerry Leibowitz

    The Price of Impatience

     

    No one who has watched the Orioles play this year would take issue with the statement that this is an impatient club.  We’ve all seen it; the Orioles are, as a team, extremely aggressive at the plate and they don’t walk much.  But does this matter?  Is this impacting their offense negatively?  After all, they’ve spent the entire season at or near the top of the American League in runs, so why mess with a good thing, right?  Well…

     

    There’s Impatience and There’s IMPATIENCE

    First, let’s quantify the Orioles status as it pertains to walks relative to the American League in 2013.  At first glance, the situation looks bad, but not horrifically so.  After all, the Orioles rank ninth in the league in on base percentage (all 2013 data in this presentation is through games of July 5).  That’s not much worse than halfway down the league.  Not so bad.  But the Orioles rank third in the AL in batting average.  Batting average is the largest fundamental opponent of OBP, so a team that ranks third in hitting ought to rank somewhere near third in OBP.  So there’s a discrepancy here.

     

    TEAM

    GP

    BB

    Oakland

    87

    327

    Boston

    88

    323

    Tampa Bay

    87

    304

    Detroit

    85

    302

    Cleveland

    86

    301

    Minnesota

    83

    282

    Los Angeles

    86

    273

    Toronto

    86

    262

    Seattle

    86

    262

    Texas

    86

    244

    New York

    86

    240

    Houston

    87

    224

    Baltimore

    87

    213

    Kansas City

    83

    210

    Chicago

    83

    203

     

     

    As you can see from the chart above, the Orioles rank 13th in the 15-team league in total walks drawn.  That’s bad, obviously, but it can’t be epically bad, right?  I mean, there are two teams in the league who are even worse.  In raw number terms, that’s true, but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.  The Orioles have played four more games than the two teams with fewer walks.

     

    TEAM

    BB/G

    Oakland

    3.76

    Boston

    3.67

    Detroit

    3.55

    Cleveland

    3.50

    Tampa Bay

    3.49

    Minnesota

    3.40

    Los Angeles

    3.17

    Toronto

    3.05

    Seattle

    3.05

    Texas

    2.84

    New York

    2.79

    Houston

    2.57

    Kansas City

    2.53

    Baltimore

    2.45

    Chicago

    2.45

     

    The above table shows the numbers transformed into walks per game.  So the Orioles have fallen into a virtual tie for last place with the White Sox.  (The league average, by the way, is 3.09 walks per game.)  Okay, that’s awful.  But again, there’s still one team as bad as the Orioles in terms of drawing walks, right?  Well…

     

    The games played categorgy isn’t the best choice to parse walk data.  We really should be looking at the number of plate appearances for every walk drawn, because some teams come to the plate more often per game than others.  So, I ran those numbers, which are reflected in the table below.

     

    TEAM

    PA/TBB

    Oakland

    10.32

    Boston

    10.60

    Cleveland

    10.89

    Tampa Bay

    10.98

    Detroit

    11.23

    Minnesota

    11.33

    Los Angeles

    12.21

    Seattle

    12.45

    Toronto

    12.55

    New York

    13.32

    Texas

    13.38

    Houston

    14.24

    Kansas City

    14.72

    Chicago

    15.13

    Baltimore

    15.44

     

    The format has changed here so, just to clarify, the numbers reflect the number of plate appearance per walk.  The lower the number, the more frequently the team walks (this is why the table is sorted from lowest number to highest).  So we’ve cleared away all of the clutter.  The Orioles are, hands down, the lowest walk frequency team in the American League.  (The league average is 12.34.)

     

    Believe it or not, we still aren’t done.  All of the tables above show total walks.  We really should separate out intentional walks, since IBBs aren’t a sign of patience at all.  So, here are the plate appearances per unintentional walk:

     

    TEAM

    PA/UBB

    Oakland

    10.95

    Cleveland

    11.23

    Tampa Bay

    11.36

    Boston

    11.45

    Minnesota

    11.66

    Detroit

    12.02

    Toronto

    12.74

    Seattle

    13.00

    Los Angeles

    13.28

    Texas

    14.13

    New York

    14.80

    Houston

    15.04

    Kansas City

    16.10

    Chicago

    16.42

    Baltimore

    17.31

     

    And there you have it.  The Orioles are not only dead last in the league, they’re last by a wide margin.

     

    Historical Context

    So, the Orioles walk less than any other team in the league.  So what?  Who’s to say that a team like the Orioles, with a relatively high batting average and very high slugging percentage can’t overcome that and still be an elite offensive team?  Good question.  Let’s put the Orioles walk rate in some sort of historical context.  How does this walk rate compare to historical rates and what can we say about teams that walk at this rate?  How do they perform offensively?

     

    Prior to this year, there have been 2322 team-seasons in modern major league history (modern is defined as beginning with the current American League/National League structure in 1901).  Of those 2322 teams, 60 had walk rates that were lower than this year’s Orioles have managed through July 5.  That puts the Orioles in the 2.6 percentile when it comes to walk rate.  So the rate at which the Orioles are drawing walks this season is an historically low one.

     

    Wait, it gets worse.

     

    Baseballs:  Dead and Live

    Fully 37 of the 60 teams in modern major league history that have walked at a rate lower than the Orioles are deadball era teams.  Walk rates in the deadball era were far, far lower than in the live ball era that followed.  The differences in style of play are so substantial that, in the interest of cogent analysis, it makes sense to separate the deadball and liveball eras. 

     

    The live ball era began in 1921.  In 1920, Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch and subsequently died.  The powers that be in pro ball determined, at the time, that at least part of the responsibility for the tragedy could be attributed to the misshapen, defaced balls that were routinely used in major league games.  Beginning in 1921, umpires were instructed to remove “damaged” balls and replace them with fresh ones whenever necessary.  With the elimination of the deformed, somewhat softened balls that gave a character to the deadball era, the liveball era began literally overnight.  With baseballs always retaining their shape and hardness, pitchers were loathe to simply “let the batter put the ball in play,” and walk rates subsequently jumped dramatically.

     

    Eliminating the deadball era teams from the analysis reduces the base number of team seasons to 2154, but it also reduces the pool of teams with walk rates lower than this year’s Orioles to a mere 23.  This drops the 2013 Orioles’ percentile to 1.1.  The 2013 Orioles, at least thus far this season, are among the least patient 1.1% of teams in the live ball era of major league baseball.

     

    Who are these 24 teams and what kind of offenses did they put forth?

     

    The Other Non-Walkers in Baseball History

     

    YEAR

    TEAM

    G

    R

    PA/UBB

    R/G

    Rnk

    # Teams

    2006

    Seattle Mariners

    162

    756

    17.39

    4.67

    13th

    14

    1957

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    155

    586

    17.55

    3.78

    8th

    8

    1966

    Cincinnati Reds

    160

    692

    17.67

    4.33

    4th

    10

    1963

    Philadelphia Phillies

    162

    642

    17.71

    3.96

    5th

    10

    1988

    Chicago Cubs

    163

    660

    17.81

    4.05

    3rd

    12

    1972

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    155

    691

    17.82

    4.46

    3rd

    12

    1978

    Montreal Expos

    162

    633

    17.97

    3.91

    6th

    12

    1965

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    163

    675

    17.97

    4.14

    5th

    10

    1990

    Chicago Cubs

    162

    690

    18.01

    4.26

    6th

    12

    1968

    New York Mets

    163

    473

    18.09

    2.90

    9th

    10

    1972

    California Angels

    155

    454

    18.21

    2.93

    12th

    12

    1934

    Cincinnati Reds

    152

    590

    18.23

    3.88

    8th

    8

    1968

    Atlanta Braves

    163

    514

    18.33

    3.15

    7th

    10

    1968

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    163

    583

    18.44

    3.58

    5th

    10

    1966

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    162

    759

    18.65

    4.69

    2nd

    10

    1968

    St. Louis Cardinals

    162

    583

    18.67

    3.60

    4th

    10

    1964

    New York Mets

    163

    569

    18.79

    3.49

    9th

    10

    1921

    Philadelphia Phillies

    154

    617

    19.21

    4.01

    8th

    8

    1967

    New York Mets

    162

    498

    19.40

    3.07

    10th

    10

    1967

    Cincinnati Reds

    162

    604

    19.99

    3.73

    8th

    10

    1966

    St. Louis Cardinals

    162

    571

    20.08

    3.52

    10th

    10

    1967

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    163

    679

    21.35

    4.17

    3rd

    10

    1968

    Cincinnati Reds

    163

    690

    21.91

    4.23

    1st

    10

     

    The table is sorted by PA/UBB, and the Orioles would slot just above the team at the top of the list (the 2006 Mariners).  These are the 23 lowest walk rate teams in the liveball era.  (Note:  “# Teams” refers to the number of teams in the league for the team in question and “Rnk” refers to a team’s ranking in its league in terms of runs scored.  So, for example, the 2006 Mariners ranked 13th in runs scored among 14 AL teams that year.)

     

    A couple of interesting things worth noting:  first, there are only two AL teams on this entire list.  Second, almost 2/3 of the list is made up of NL teams during the period 1963-68, with 11 of the 23 teams made up of NL clubs from 1966-68.  Third, literally half the 1968 National League is represented on this list.  This period in the mid- to late-1960s, immediately prior to beginning of divisional play, is the closest thing to the deadball era that major league baseball has seen since the deadball era itself.  (1968 has been known, ever after, as “the year of the pitcher.”)

     

    It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from a list that is so heavily represented by teams that played during years that are so different in character from 2013, but generally speaking—and this should be no surprise—teams that don’t walk much don’t usually score much either. 

     

    Even looking past some of the 1960s teams—the 1968 Reds, after all, led the league in scoring despite retaining the lowest walk rate in the entire liveball era—there are some exceptions to the rule.   The 1988 Cubs and 1972 Pirates were among the top scoring teams in their respective leagues despite walking at rates even lower than this year’s Orioles.   These are clear exceptions to the trend, but it’s worth noting that they look, at first glance, a lot like the 2013 Orioles.  The Cubs led the NL in batting average in 1988, and finished second in slugging, but finished in the middle of the league in OBP.  The Pirates paced the NL in batting average and slugging percentage in 1972, with a middling OBP.

     

    Expanding the Sample

    As a means of bookending the above clubs, what do the 23 teams in the history of the liveball era that are slotted immediately above the Orioles in PA/UBB look like?

     

    YEAR

    TEAM

    G

    R

    PA/UBB

    R/G

    Rnk

    # Teams

    1971

    Atlanta Braves

    162

    643

    16.80

    3.97

    5th

    12

    1980

    Chicago White Sox

    162

    587

    16.81

    3.62

    14th

    14

    1965

    Milwaukee Braves

    162

    708

    16.81

    4.37

    2nd

    10

    1921

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    154

    692

    16.84

    4.49

    4th

    8

    2008

    Kansas City Royals

    162

    691

    16.86

    4.27

    10th

    14

    2005

    Detroit Tigers

    162

    723

    16.92

    4.46

    11th

    14

    1932

    Boston Braves

    155

    649

    16.92

    4.19

    7th

    8

    1932

    New York Giants

    154

    755

    16.96

    4.90

    2nd

    8

    1983

    Kansas City Royals

    163

    696

    17.00

    4.27

    12th

    14

    1973

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    162

    704

    17.01

    4.35

    4th

    12

    1922

    Brooklyn Dodgers

    155

    743

    17.04

    4.79

    6th

    8

    2009

    San Francisco Giants

    162

    657

    17.07

    4.06

    13th

    16

    1970

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    162

    729

    17.07

    4.50

    8th

    12

    1964

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    162

    663

    17.09

    4.09

    4th

    10

    1964

    Houston Astros

    162

    495

    17.13

    3.06

    10th

    10

    1933

    Boston Braves

    156

    552

    17.16

    3.54

    7th

    8

    1930

    Boston Braves

    154

    693

    17.22

    4.50

    7th

    8

    1966

    San Francisco Giants

    161

    675

    17.23

    4.19

    5th

    10

    1993

    Colorado Rockies

    162

    758

    17.25

    4.68

    4th

    14

    1921

    Brooklyn Dodgers

    152

    667

    17.26

    4.39

    6th

    8

    2002

    Detroit Tigers

    161

    575

    17.27

    3.57

    14th

    14

    2007

    Seattle Mariners

    162

    794

    17.30

    4.90

    7th

    14

    1982

    San Diego Padres

    162

    675

    17.30

    4.17

    7th

    12

     

    The Orioles would slot at the bottom of this table, just below the 1982 Padres.

     

    This is a much wider sample of teams, with the AL more heavily represented and a more even distribution of clubs across the past nine-plus decades of play.  Still, it’s noteworthy that no team from the 1940s appears anywhere in either list; only one team from the entire decade of the 1950s and only one team from the 1990s is represented.  Additionally, if all the teams from this year keep up their current walk rates, the Orioles would be the first (and to date, only) team from the current decade to fall into this historically lowest tier of teams.

     

    As was the case with the previous table, most of the teams in this slightly less impatient sample didn’t score very much, though this group progressed a bit closer to the median point in their leagues.  And, once again, there are some outlying cases that merit closer examination, most notably the 1932 Giants and the 1965 Braves, both of whom finished second in their respective leaves in scoring despite very low walk rates.

     

    The 1932 Giants are truly an oddball case.  They finished only fifth in the NL that year in batting average and sixth in OBP; they were third in slugging.  Yet the Giants somehow finished second in runs scored that year.  Perhaps they were simply off the charts in terms of success with runners in scoring position.  Regardless, they’re an outlier in a group of outliers.

     

    The 1965 Braves finished third in the 10-team NL in batting average (7th in OBP) and second in slugging, and are a better fit for the small group of outlying teams that managed to finish near the top of their leagues in scoring despite very low walk rates:  high marks in batting average and slugging percentage.

     

    How the Other Half Lives

    Just for the sake of comparison, I thought it would be interesting to look at the 45-odd highest walk rate teams in the liveball era.

     

    YEAR

    TEAM

    G

    R

    PA/UBB

    R/G

    Rnk

    # Teams

    1949

    Boston Red Sox

    155

    896

    7.39

    5.78

    1st

    8

    1948

    Boston Red Sox

    155

    907

    7.57

    5.85

    1st

    8

    1949

    Philadelphia Athletics

    154

    726

    7.57

    4.71

    4th

    8

    1947

    Detroit Tigers

    158

    714

    7.95

    4.52

    3rd

    8

    1941

    St. Louis Browns

    157

    765

    7.99

    4.87

    3rd

    8

    1949

    Detroit Tigers

    155

    751

    8.06

    4.85

    3rd

    8

    1951

    Boston Red Sox

    154

    804

    8.15

    5.22

    1st

    8

    1949

    New York Yankees

    155

    829

    8.17

    5.35

    2nd

    8

    1948

    Philadelphia Athletics

    154

    729

    8.18

    4.73

    4th

    8

    1932

    New York Yankees

    156

    1002

    8.19

    6.42

    1st

    8

    1947

    Brooklyn Dodgers

    155

    774

    8.21

    4.99

    3rd

    8

    1938

    New York Yankees

    157

    966

    8.28

    6.15

    1st

    8

    1949

    Chicago White Sox

    154

    648

    8.43

    4.21

    7th

    8

    1950

    Detroit Tigers

    157

    837

    8.48

    5.33

    3rd

    8

    1950

    St. Louis Browns

    154

    684

    8.50

    4.44

    6th

    8

    1931

    New York Yankees

    155

    1067

    8.50

    6.88

    1st

    8

    1933

    New York Yankees

    152

    927

    8.56

    6.10

    1st

    8

    1952

    Philadelphia Athletics

    155

    664

    8.60

    4.28

    4th

    8

    2000

    Seattle Mariners

    162

    907

    8.61

    5.60

    4th

    14

    1939

    New York Yankees

    152

    967

    8.61

    6.36

    1st

    8

    1950

    Cleveland Indians

    155

    806

    8.65

    5.20

    4th

    8

    1946

    Brooklyn Dodgers

    157

    701

    8.65

    4.46

    2nd

    8

    1950

    Philadelphia Athletics

    154

    670

    8.65

    4.35

    7th

    8

    1938

    Detroit Tigers

    155

    862

    8.67

    5.56

    3rd

    8

    1999

    Oakland Athletics

    162

    893

    8.67

    5.51

    4th

    14

    1955

    Cleveland Indians

    154

    698

    8.69

    4.53

    5th

    8

    1934

    New York Yankees

    154

    842

    8.70

    5.47

    2nd

    8

    1950

    Boston Red Sox

    154

    1027

    8.71

    6.67

    1st

    8

    1946

    Boston Red Sox

    156

    782

    8.74

    5.01

    1st

    8

    1937

    New York Yankees

    157

    979

    8.75

    6.24

    1st

    8

    1948

    Detroit Tigers

    154

    700

    8.83

    4.55

    5th

    8

    1949

    Boston Braves

    157

    706

    8.83

    4.50

    4th

    8

    1951

    Philadelphia Athletics

    154

    736

    8.84

    4.78

    3rd

    8

    1941

    Boston Red Sox

    155

    865

    8.85

    5.58

    1st

    8

    1950

    Washington Senators

    155

    690

    8.86

    4.45

    5th

    8

    1950

    New York Yankees

    155

    914

    8.86

    5.90

    2nd

    8

    2000

    Oakland Athletics

    161

    947

    8.92

    5.88

    3rd

    14

    1925

    Chicago White Sox

    154

    811

    8.95

    5.27

    5th

    8

    1956

    Boston Red Sox

    155

    780

    8.96

    5.03

    3rd

    8

    1948

    Boston Braves

    154

    739

    8.97

    4.80

    4th

    8

    1953

    New York Yankees

    151

    801

    8.98

    5.30

    1st

    8

    1952

    Brooklyn Dodgers

    155

    775

    9.00

    5.00

    1st

    8

    1947

    Boston Red Sox

    157

    720

    9.00

    4.59

    3rd

    8

    1936

    Chicago White Sox

    153

    920

    9.03

    6.01

    4th

    8

     

    The AL is omnipresent here, with the seasons of the late 1940s and early 1950s dominating the sample.  Half the 1949 American League is on the above chart; literally 7/8 of the 1950 AL is represented.

     

    A quick glance at the table verified the presumed link between effective offenses and high walk rates.  The vast majority of teams in the above table fall in the upper half of their leagues offensively.  Roughly 1/3 of the clubs listed led their leagues in scoring.  The only teams that finished near the bottom played in seasons where all of the teams above them that year also made the list.  There are no high walk/bad offense clubs.  And the teams that finished with high walk rates that had middling offenses?  As you might expect, they’re teams with low batting averages and (particularly) low slugging percentages.

     

    There’s a clear, strong positive correlation between walk-rates and offensive proficiency, just in case anyone had any doubt.

     

    Conclusions

    The above data essentially give credence to what logic dictates—when it comes to scoring runs, there’s no substitute for getting on base, and a very large component of getting on base consists of a willingness/ability to draw walks. 

     

    So, what’s the upshot for this year’s Orioles?  The quickest solution would be for them to start becoming more patient, but that’s not going to happen without a wholesale transformation of personnel, something we’re not going to see this season.  Few players become significantly better at drawing walks during their careers and almost no one makes that kind of a transformation in the middle of a season.  It’s possible that the infusion of Nolan Reimold and Brian Roberts—hitters who have demonstrated decent levels of plate discipline over their careers—in the lineup for the rest of the season might mitigate the team’s historically low walk rate and push them outside of the tiny group of teams from baseball history that we’ve examined above…but it’s not at all likely.  The bottom line is that the Orioles are an extremely aggressive team at the plate and that fact almost certainly won’t change this year.

     

    The historical data shows the road map for offensive success for teams that walk very little:  they must maintain a high batting average and they must keep up a very high slugging percentage to have any chance of finishing near the top of the league in runs scored.  The Orioles have done just that for the first half of the season, hence their standing thus far.

     

    But we’ve seen some slippage of late.  The Orioles ranking in runs has fallen to third and they’re very close to dipping to fifth place.  They no longer lead the league in slugging percentage and they’ve slipped into a tie for third in batting average.  This may simply be the result of a modest team slump; let’s hope so.

     

    Of course, scoring runs is only one half of the equation for winning baseball; preventing them is the other half, and a team that is successful at the latter need not be dominant at the former to win.  While the Orioles defense is stellar and their pitching staff seems to be finding its footing of late, the ingredients for elite run prevention don’t appear to be in the mix.  The Orioles have allowed more home runs than any other team in baseball; they stand 12th in the league in earned run average, 11th in opponents batting average, 10th in opponents OBP and 12th in opponents slugging percentage.  Even with substantial improvement over the second half of the season it’s difficult to see how the Orioles could be any better than a middling team at run prevention. 

     

    To have a good chance to reach the postseason this year, the Orioles’ offense must be among the best in the league and, given their impatience, the only recipe for success is a whole lot more of what we saw in the first couple of months of the season.

     

    In future years, the Orioles would do well to implement Dan Duquette’s publicly stated affinity for a more OBP-friendly approach.  That will mean a concerted effort on an organizational level to emphasize plate discipline at the developmental level and, more importantly, a focus on acquiring players who are already predisposed to drawing walks. 


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