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It's simple -- walks mean runs, and runs mean wins

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
September 4, 1988

Kirby Puckett is putting some impressive numbers up on the board this season: .347 Batting Average, 19 homers, 32 doubles as of last week. And if Minnesota makes a serious run at the Athletics in the AL West, you'll probably hear some loose talk about Kirby for MVP.

But Puckett isn't close to being the best hitter in the American League. In fact, he's arguably not even the best hitter on the Twins. That honor could very well belong to Kent Hrbek.

"How can that be?" you ask. Hrbek is hitting 42 points less than Puckett, has eight fewer doubles, six fewer stolen bases and just five more homers. Go ahead. Ask.

The answer is simple. Kirby Puckett never met a pitch he didn't like. The 5-8 slugger swings the bat like he's sporting Dave Kingman's colossal strike zone and consequently has the fifth worst walk-per-plate-appearance ratio in the major leagues this year.

Offense is made up of three components: getting on base, power and speed. Puckett's six stolen bases are hardly a factor in a matchup with Hrbek, who has none, though he should get some Brownie points for speed. But Hrbek has a higher On-Base Percentage, .394 to .370, and more Isolated Power, .223 to .186. (Isolated Power is Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average. It measures power better than Slugging Percentage by excluding singles, which are already accounted for in On-Base Percentage, anyway.)

A .347 Batting Average hides many faults and Puckett can afford the luxury of a crazed, first-ball hitting assault on pitchers. That kind of wild aggressiveness may even be the secret of his success. But few hitters, and the teams that employ them, can afford to pay the price. In the long run, it costs runs.

I take a lot of grief from friends who insist that my idea of the perfect action-packed ballgame is for every batter to walk. That's because I can't mention Willie Wilson's career .295 average without mentioning his puny .329 On-Base Percentage, or because I attribute John Shelby's resurgence not to his "new-found power, but to the doubling of his walk rate. (His Isolated Power in '88 is nearly identical to his career mark.)

Obviously, a walk's value is situational; a walk is as good as a hit leading off an inning, but not nearly as important with a man on third and two outs. Thirty years ago, baseball visionary and former Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey estimated a base on balls' overall statistical value at 75 percent of a hit's.

Since then, computer analysis of vast numbers of games has placed that value closer to 65 percent.

For some people, it's hard to imagine that Kirk Gibson is more effective taking four balls than taking his chances by swinging the bat. So let's do a little computer simulation of our own. If Gibson's 62 walks are reapportioned among the various hitting categories, he adds 19 hits in 62 trips to the plate, four doubles, no triples, three homers and, most importantly, 43 outs.

Using the tried-and-true Bill James Runs Created formula, we can calculate that Gibson's offense with the 62 walks is responsible for production of about 95 runs; with the walks reapportioned, he's worth 84 runs. That's assuming that he would be able to maintain his fine offensive pace while swinging at bad pitches.

One critic of the base on balls as an offensive weapon insists that the CB (Crack of the Bat) factor, and the terror it instills in opposing pitchers, can't be ignored. I'll start working on a formula to incorporate CB when I've figured out the computation for the BF (Bored in the Field) factor, which measures the defensive detriment of a pitcher lulling his teammates to sleep with wild pitch after wild pitch.

Drawing a walk isn't copping out. Nobody ever accused high-percentage walkers like Wade Boggs, Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Darryl Strawberry, Eddie Murray, Will Clark, Jack Clark or George Brett of shirking their duty. Or Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, for that matter.

Don Mattingly sounded positively jealous a couple of weeks ago when talking about MVP candidate Mike Greenwell of the Red Sox. "He walks a lot too, something I don't do," Mattingly told the New York Times. "I wish I could do it." Mattingly has 34 walks, Greenwell 73.

And Branch Rickey claimed in a 1954 Life magazine article that nothing gave Ted Williams more satisfaction than his walk totals. "Ted Williams ... bragged more about the 162 bases on balls he got five years ago than about his .343 batting average or his 43 home runs."

Walks mean runs and runs mean wins. It's as simple as that.

The Seattle Mariners have far more Isolated Power than the Oakland A's, .144 to .136, and nearly as high a team Batting Average, .260 to .257, yet the lowly Mariners have scored 99 fewer runs in the same number of games.

It's because of walks. Oakland is fourth in the league (four behind the No. 2 club) with 464; Seattle is fourth from the bottom with 375 despite a yeoman effort by Alvin Davis.

In the National League the Cubs are hitting seven points higher than the Giants, .262 to .255, and have nearly the same Isolated Power, .125 to .123, yet the Giants lead the league in scoring runs with 568 while the Cubs languish in sixth place with 519. The difference? The Giants have walked 437 times, the Cubs a league-low 310.

The irony of this hotly contested debate about the value of walks as an offensive weapon is that virtually no one doubts their detriment to the defensive side. How many times have you heard a baseball announcer moan about what a killer leadoff walks are, or chalk up a lost game to a pitcher's poor control?

So, if Alfredo Griffin suggests to Tommy Lasorda that he bat leadoff (again) despite a pathetic career record of drawing a base on balls once every 22.5 trips to the plate, I hope Lasorda tells him, "Take a walk."

The Best

Clark W.NY7.345.57DanielsCin7.706.43
Davis A.Sea7.586.11Clark W.SF12.296.88
Evans Dw.Bos6.586.35ButlerSF8.886.89
Ripken C.Bal10.736.43BrunanskyStL9.357.21

TartabullKC8.837.24James D.Atl9.648.10
McGriffTor6.007.33Davis E.Cin7.488.45

The Worst

White F.KC19.9824.78SantiagoSD34.7820.10
BrantleySea14.3224.50James C.Phi15.4318.50

White D.Cal16.1520.33DykstraNY9.5817.52
Hall M.Cle13.1916.24PalmeiroChi13.2517.19

* Pre-'88 BB is the number of Plate Appearances per Walk. For example, Jack Clark walked once every 7.34 trips to the plate (AtBats + BB) prior to '88.
* '88 BB is the number of Plate Appearances per Walk this season as of Aug. 28.
Players must have at least 397 plate appearances to qualify for the chart.