Is Walking Hitting?
January 21, 2009
Without looking at the play by play in retrosheet.org: The first two MLB games that I attended were at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY. I have no recollection of any details. My first game at Yankee Stadium was in early September, 1958. I was ten. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra hit home runs, Yogi's was a walk off. The Yankees defeated the Red Sox who were not very good and I had no idea who Ted Williams was and I do not think that he played that day. I have no idea whether Mickey or Yogi walked.
My next visit to Yankee Stadium was July 4, 1961. Mickey did not homer. The Yanks split a doubleheader against a very good Detroit team. I have no idea whether Mickey walked. Next was a Sunday doubleheader in early August 1961 against Minnesota. The Mick homered in his first two at bats in game one and in his first at bat in game two. Yanks swept. I have no idea whether Mickey walked.
Get the picture? We attended games to see the big guy hit homers, not walk. We booed if Mickey walked. Nobody got excited if the cleanup batter walked as they do now. Mantle was not judged on walks. They were considered non events. Lesser hitters were considered in a positive light if they walked, the most notable in the 1950s being Eddie Yost, the walking man. Yost had a modest batting average and no power. Walking was his claim to fame. Yost is tenth all time in walks.
A few years ago I attended a Yankee Red Sox game with my friend Eric. This was during the height of the rivalry. About the fourth inning Boston pitcher Derek Lowe was in trouble, loading the bases with the Yankee cleanup batter, Bernie Williams, up with fewer than two outs. Eric and I were excited but for different reasons. Eric wanted Williams to walk. I wanted Williams to drive the ball and break open the game. After a long at bat Williams walked and Eric was in a frenzy. I thought he was nuts. Imagine getting worked up over a non event. Of course, Bernie Williams was not Mickey Mantle and his walking was not actually disappointing especially since he was not that different from the batters immediately before and after him in the Yankee lineup. The Yanks went on to route Lowe and win the game, so maybe Eric was correct.
All walks are not created equal. Walking the good batters is not the same as walking the weak batters. Let's consider a Yankee lineup. The 2008 Yankee lineup is too balanced to make the point plus cleanup batter Alex Rodriguez was in choke mode most of 2008 and his walking was usually a relief as it was better than seeing A-Rod swinging at a pitch two feet out of the strike zone. How about the 1961 Yankees? Here is a representative lineup.
1. Bobby Richardson 2B
2. Tony Kubek SS
3. Roger Maris RF
4. Mickey Mantle CF
5. Yogi Berra LF
6. Elston Howard C
7. Bill Skowron 1B
8. Clete Boyer 3B
9. some weak hitting pitcher
If you are manager Ralph Houk and you are given a walk to assign before the game begins to a batter other than the pitcher, to whom would you give it? Obviously to one of the weak batters: Richardson, Kubek or Boyer. Then it is a matter of deciding who can do the most good. I would give it to Kubek because he bats immediately before the big boys. The last batter to whom you would give the walk would be Mantle, your best hitter. A walk to Kubek would be more valuable than a walk to Mantle.
Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth are unique as far as I know. They had a lot of home runs, walks and strike outs. I do not know of any other batters who ranked so high in all three.
At the time they retired they ranked:
Home Runs: Ruth 1 Mantle 3 (behind Ruth and Mays)
Walks: Ruth 1 Mantle 3 (behind Ruth and Williams)
Strike Outs: Ruth 1 Mantle 1
Reggie Jackson leads in strike outs but is only 29th in walks. Mike Schmidt is 7th and 17th. Barry Bonds is 35th and first.
One hundred years ago there were not many of any of those three. Ruth did more than any single player to change all three. Mantle was most similar. Baseball lost its way when it let the walk rule interfere so fundamentally with the game. I have written about the stupidity of this elsewhere.
In the 1940s sluggers were expected to drive in base runners. By the 1990s sluggers were expected to get on base like the non-sluggers. What happened to change that and how should we judge players, on today's standards or on those from the player's era?
DiMaggio v. Williams
We come to the classic dilemma. Joe D. v. Teddy Ballgame. Aggressiveness v. patience. Team player v. individual. Oh, that last one offends you? It shouldn't. Back in the 1940s their reputations contained those elements. I can recall in the late 1950s and early 1960s hearing Yankee announcer and former Yankee SS Phil Rizzuto mention that Williams was sometimes too selective with runners on base, that he took pitches that he could have driven, leaving it up to the next batter to drive in the base runners. Phil was not suggesting that Williams chase bad pitches just that he swing at pitches that he could handle. Eventually someone had to swing the bat and a team wants that someone to be its best hitter. DiMaggio is now accused of being the selfish one, that because he had so few walks he must have been swinging at bad pitches. Joe's incredibly low number of strike outs contradicts that but the notion persists.
Walks were called free passes. That contributes to the impression that they do not count for sluggers, that what counts is slugging average. Here are the top ten in slugging through 2008.
Rank Player (age) Slugging % Bats
1. Babe Ruth+* .6898 L
2. Ted Williams+* .6338 L
3. Lou Gehrig+* .6324 L
4. Albert Pujols (28) .6238 R
5. Jimmie Foxx+ .6093 R
6. Barry Bonds* (43) .6069 L
7. Hank Greenberg+ .6050 R
8. Manny Ramirez (36) .5934 R
9. Mark McGwire .5882 R
10. Joe DiMaggio+ .5788 R
+ - Indicates Hall of Famer. Bold indicates active player
* - bats left-handed, # - switch hits, ? - unknown, else - bats right-handed
Obviously, Williams beats DiMaggio without even considering his much higher on base percentage: Williams is first, DiMaggio is tied with Elmer Valo for 62nd.
But did Williams walk too much? Could he have swung at pitches in the strike zone during at bats in which he eventually walked, pitches that he could have driven? Would Williams swinging at such pitches be better than the next batter? By today's standard he did the right thing. He was helping his team. He was avoiding an out. The next batter was pretty good as Williams teams scored well. By the standards of his time Williams may not have been considered as good a team player as he could have been. Long time Yankee manager Joe McCarthy was quoted by Rizzuto as often saying: "Never let the big man beat you". Williams was the big man.
I don't know what to do about walks. I think that they inflate the worth of players, even those I like: Babe Ruth and my boyhood favorite, Mickey Mantle. Ignoring them in judging a player's contribution is not the answer. Walking batters is part of what pitchers do to avoid giving up home runs. Orlando Hernández, El Duque, was a recent practitioner. El Duque did not seem to care who he walked as long as he got a batter to swing at his preferred pitch. I want aggressive swings at pitches that a batter thinks that he can drive.
Walking is the only event that has a positive result with no action among the three major team sports in America: baseball, football and basketball. You must descend to soccer and hockey to find an analogy: a non moving goal tender being hit with a ball or puck and being credited with a save. We can dig up Babe Ruth's remains, place it in the batters box and eventually the Babe will get credit for yet another walk.
Is walking hitting? No, but I do not know what it is.
--- The End ---