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Recent wisdom, gossip and conjecture:
Walk to Stardom
The season is now heating up, and we're beginning to see some promotions taking place in the minors. After dominating the Southern League, überprospect Mark Prior was promoted to AAA and proceeded to not only blow away opposing hitters, but the opposing pitcher as well. Prior launched two home runs, giving him two more than new teammate Bobby Hill. Don't be concerned with Hill's slow start, however. He's getting walks, and that generally bodes well for a player's future.
I often get e-mail about comments like the last one, and most of them aren't very agreeable. While the importance of the base on balls is growing in popularity, there is still a large majority of people who believe that drawing walks is not a necessity in becoming a quality major-league hitter.
Often people will point to examples of successful major-league hitters who do not draw very many walks. Vladimir Guerrero, one of the most feared hitters on the planet, has never been confused for being the most patient man on the planet. New teammates Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon have experienced success while avoiding the base on balls. Bret Boone had an historic 2001 season and still drew only 40 walks.
Looking over the minor-league careers of those four players, I think you'd be very surprised as to what you'd find. These four prestigious non-walkers all walked in at least ten percent of their minor-league at-bats.
In 1995, at the age of 19, Vladimir Guerrero hit .333/.388/.650 in his first exposure to full season ball. He drew 30 walks and had just 45 strikeouts in 421 at-bats. While he wasn't the most patient player in the world, his walk rate was actually above average for a player his age.
In 1996, the Expos pushed Guerrero aggressively to AA at age 20. He responded well, but even more impressively, drew 51 walks against 42 strikeouts in 417 at-bats. Guerrero certainly showed a propensity to control the strike zone at a young age against high-level pitching.
Given his solid plate discipline in the minors, we really shouldn't be surprised that a maturing Vladimir Guerrero, now 26, has drawn 23 walks against just 14 strikeouts to begin 2002. Guerrero is among the league leaders in walks and is having his best season to date.
Nomar Garciaparra took a different route to the majors, being a first-round pick in 1994 out of Georgia Tech. His first full season in the minor leagues was 1995. At age 21 he was in in AA ball and drew 50 walks against 42 strikeouts in 513 at-bats. Anytime a player walks more than he strikes out, he's showing tremendous control of the strike zone, and it shouldn't be a surprise that Garciaparra has succeeded at the major-league level even without being among one of the league's top walkers.
Johnny Damon, coming off a disappointing 2001 season with the Oakland Athletics, actually blamed his poor performance on trying to take more pitches, saying it got him away from who he is at the plate. Despite his claims, however, Damon was actually quite the avid fan of the base on balls before reaching Kansas City.
1995 was his last season in the minors, and at age 21, he played at AA Wichita. He hit .343, slugged .534, and stole 26 bases, giving the Royals reason to get excited. However, he certainly wasn't a swing-at-anything hack, drawing 67 walks against just 35 strikeouts in 423 at-bats.
Damon has never approached that level of patience at the major leagues, but its pretty clear that he has that ability if he wants to use it. Growing up in the Royals' organization, it's not a surprise that Damon doesn't believe in the base on balls. Maybe Rickey Henderson can give him a few lessons in the art of patience. It would serve him well.
Having watched Bret Boone on a daily basis last year, I can't express how shocked I was when I dug up Boone's minor-league record. If ever there was a player who swung at everything, Boone is it. However, in the not-so-distant past, Bret Boone didn't even resemble the player he has become.
In 1991, at the age of 22, Bret Boone drew 72 walks in 475 at-bats. He did strike out an alarming 123 times, but that's not overly uncommon for players who work a lot of deep counts. Boone followed that season by drawing 60 walks against just 88 strikeouts in 439 at-bats at AAA. In nearly 1200 career at-bats above AA, Boone drew 162 walks.
These are just four examples, but there is a common theme. All of these successful major-league hitters controlled the strike zone in the minor leagues. They showed knowledge of the difference between balls and strikes. Players like Garciaparra and Guerrero, who can recognize a pitch off the plate and still have the ability to drive it with success, are rare indeed.
Those looking to justify their projected stardom for players such as Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Ruben Mateo, Angel Berroa, Carl Crawford, Wily Mo Pena, Nic Jackson, Tony Torcato, and Ken Harvey would do better to find examples of players who have succeeded at the major-league level in spite of a constant lack of plate discipline.
There are players like that. There just aren't very many of them. Next week, I'll explore the results of the research I've been doing on correlation between minor-league and major-league walk rates and the success of those who don't control the strike zone before they reach the major leagues. I will tell you, however, that I've found only one solid example of a player who didn't control the strike zone (and wasn't young for his level) developing into an all-star player.
Trust me, it's not who you expect.
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David Cameron laments the fact that no young players throw the eephus pitch anymore. Suggest that young players have never thrown the eephus pitch at email@example.com.