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Walk It Off
Welcome back, folks. Sorry about the hiatus I took last week, but moving across the country is rather time consuming. I'm now comfortably settled in to the back woods of North Carolina. While there isn't a major-league team within five hours of my house, there are 13 minor-league teams within 100 miles. Expect to see an increase in scouting reports over the next few months.
Now, back to where I left off. Last time, I delved into the walk rates of four all-star hitters who are notorious for ignoring the base on balls. While the results were interesting, you can't really draw too many conclusions from the early careers of four players.
The point of these columns is to study the minor-league walk rates for "star" hitters. I figure around 50 players will give us a legitimate starting point to analyze whether a hitter must control the strike zone in order to develop into an elite hitter. However, the words "star" and "elite" are rather arbitrary. While not a perfect metric, I've decided the best way to get a sampling of active quality hitters was to look at the careers of all the hitters who played in the past two seasons' All-Star Games.
This gives me a total of 63 different players. I feel that this is a large enough sample from which to draw some solid, if not definitive, conclusions. Not all of these players were voted in due to their offensive presence, of course, but most non-pitchers who make the All-Star Game can hit at least a little bit.
"Most" doesn't mean "all," however. For the sake of this research, I've excluded one player -- Joe Girardi was inexplicably an All-Star in 2000, though I don't think anyone will ever mistake him for a star hitter. Considering he doesn't come close to fitting the desired criteria for the sample, I've eliminated him and dropped the list down to 62 players.
Of those players, 51 (or 82%) drew walks in at least 10 percent of their at-bats in at least one season in either AA or AAA (I didn't include low-minors statistics, due to the variable talent levels). That's an overwhelmingly large number. Only 11 of the 62 All-Stars failed to show a solid knowledge of the strike zone at a young age. When you break it down by player, it's even less.
Roberto Alomar, believe it or not, is one of the eleven. He spent his last season in the minors at age 19 playing in AA, which is a feat in and of itself. He drew 49 walks in 536 at-bats, which is actually a terrific total for a player his age against that competition. It's not a surprise that Alomar has become one of the most patient hitters in baseball.
Another patient major-leaguer on the list is Albert Pujols. He spent his last minor-league season in A-ball at age 20 and just missed the 10-percent barrier. He drew 38 walks (against 37 strikeouts) in 395 at-bats. While he's technically lumped in with the non-walkers, it was pretty obvious Pujols knew the strike zone.
If you bump the margin up to 12% instead of 10, you get down to 9 players. Considering the difference between what Pujols and Alomar did and what our barrier is, it's logical to separate them from the players who have truly become All-Stars in spite of their plate discipline. Those ten players are Cristian Guzman, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Travis Fryman, Barry Larkin, Ray Durham, Edgar Renteria, and Magglio Ordonez.
Again, there are different levels of "All-Stars" here. Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Sosa, and Larkin have become MVP-caliber players and are unquestionably great hitters. Guzman, Durham and Renteria are all good defensive middle infielders who made teams as much for their defense as for their offense. Renteria, particularly, has been a huge disappointment to those who have expected him to blossom into an offensive star. Guzman looked to have developed a good amount of power, but is suffering through a miserable 2002 season and is potentially headed down the Pokey Reese career track.
That leaves us with two unique individuals. Travis Fryman has arguably the worst minor-league track record of any successful major-league player. The Tigers, despite his inability to perform, continually pushed him up the ladder. He spent his last season in AAA at age 21, drawing just 17 walks in 327 at-bats and posting a miserable .723 OPS. Fryman, however, justified the Tigers' decision by blossoming at the major-league level. He drew 77 walks just three years later and became one of the best third basemen in the American League.
The other player, Magglio Ordonez, is the player I alluded to at the end of my last column. While Ordonez got scouts excited with his power, his minor-league track record did not indicate the type of major-league player he would become. In 1002 at-bats between AA and AAA, Ordonez drew just 71 walks.
Unlike almost every other player on this list, Ordonez wasn't especially young for his league, playing at age 22 in AA and the following season in AAA. Chalk one up for the scouts, as Ordonez has become not only a tremendous major-league hitter, but showed a good knowledge of the strike zone in 2001 by drawing an even 70 walks and 70 strikeouts in 593 at-bats.
When you break it down, you have essentially three categories among these non-walkers: The two who improved their plate discipline after reaching the majors, the three who didn't and have become useful but disappointing players, and the four who ignored the strike zone on their way to the Hall of Fame.
The common thread among the superstars is they all reached the major leagues at a very early age. Ivan Rodriguez spent his last season in the minors at age 19. Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa spent their last seasons in the minors at age 20. Barry Larkin never saw the minors after age 22.
Of the 11 players who failed to walk in the minor leagues, eight of them were in the majors for good by age 22. In other words, they were overwhelming physical talents who were so obviously stars that their major-league club pushed them quickly despite their pitch recognition.
These results provide hope for fans of guys like Carl Crawford, who has never posted good walk rates in the minors but has always been extremely young for his league. It's certainly not good news for someone like Ken Harvey, who at age 24 still hasn't grasped the concept of balls and strikes. If past history is an indication, Harvey's chances are slim of ever becoming more than an average major-league hitter.
So for the people out there looking for evidence that you don't need to walk to be a good hitter -- yes, there are examples of this. You can point to guys like Magglio Ordonez and Barry Larkin as examples of players who took the normal career path and became patient after reaching the majors. You can also point to Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Travis Fryman as guys who were rushed to the majors and succeeded anyway.
Just remember that I can point to 51 other guys at those same All-Star Games who understood the strike zone early in their careers; the non-walkers are grossly outnumbered. This continues to show that patience is indeed the number-one virtue among hitters.
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David Cameron believes the "walk" is misnamed. Explain that his suggestion, the "trots," may not be the best alternative at firstname.lastname@example.org.