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Mommy, Where Do Walks Come From?

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"Well I guess I won't be needing THIS."
"Well I guess I won't be needing THIS."
Jonathan Daniel

Best short answers:

"Mostly from Ubaldo Jimenez."

"Well honey, when a fastball and a bat love each other very much, sometimes you have to make sure they aren't allowed to be together..."

"The Asian food aisle in the kitchen section of Bed Bath & Beyond."

There will now be a medium-sized intermission followed by the long answer.

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Why some hitters draw more walks, and some fewer, is a bit more complex than meets the good eye. Today I attempt to break down the distinct factors that can play a part. They get less obvious as the article progresses...

Plate discipline

Obviously hitters who end at bats earlier in the count will not live to see as many ball fours, as few walks have been issued on the first pitch or even the third one. Batters who see more pitches per at bat see more strikes and more balls, more two strikes pitches and more three ball pitches. It's not the only way, but one way to find walks is to look for them and one way to look for them is to get deeper into counts.

Dangerous bat

Some batters simply get thrown more strikes than others, early in the at bat and late in the at bat. Some batters get thrown more pitches aimed closer to the heart of the strike zone while others get thrown to far more consistently to the corners of the zone.

Basically, good hitters walk a lot because it is dangerous to throw them strikes. It's not a coincidence that Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Mike Trout walk a lot. Their potent hitting is an integral part of why they don't get to do it as often. In contrast, Eric Sogard has excellent plate discipline but it's difficult to walk when opposing pitchers keep throwing you strikes. It takes two (actually four) to tango.

Pitch recognition

This is huge. While Daric Barton was often praised, and often criticized, for his perceived attempts to troll for walks, in fact "plate discipline" was not the main skill that yielded him so many bases on balls. Barton has an elite ability to recognize offspeed pitches that "look like strikes but aren't," which are the bread and butter of many pitchers' success.

That changeup that starts in the strike zone only to fade out of the zone, and the slider that appears headed for the outside corner until it takes a late and sudden right turn? Those are the pitches that pitchers rely on batters chasing, and the hitters who are especially good at recognizing them in time to lay off are going to draw more walks as they turn into balls the very pitches that are so commonly turned into strikes.

I think pitch recognition is very different from "knowing the strike zone" -- one is about the pitch itself, the other about the imaginary rectangle. It's great to know where the outside corner does and does not end (though it's arguably more important to know where the umpire believes it ends), but pitches right on or off that corner are not a hitter's friend anyway. It's much more important to be able to lay off the changeup or splitter in the dirt, or the slider 6 inches outside, if you can gauge in time that this is what you're seeing. Bobby Crosby never couldn, John Jaso usually can.

Batting to reach base vs. Batting to hit

One thing I've noticed, anecdotally, over the years is how some hitters who rarely walk seem to run counts like 3-1 an awful lot for batters who never seems to walk. What I attribute this to is that some hitters get into hitting counts for the sole purpose of hitting: they don't see a 3-1 count as opportunity to reach base, they see it as an opportunity to get a better pitch to drive.

So if you're Jeff Francoeur, Yuniesky Betancourt, or to my selectively biased eyes Kurt Suzuki, you rarely saw ball four yet you often were on the brink of walking only you consistently took a mighty hack at the 3-1 pitch, or at the 3-2 pitch that would have been ball four had you just watched it go by.

But to some batters, those are "hitters counts" and not "takers counts" -- in "hitter's counts," some batters get very selective while others get very aggressive. Jed Lowrie simply will not expand the strike zone on any count. In contrast, sometimes on 3-1 pitches a hacker like Francoeur or Betancourt seems to mistake a "hitter's count" for a hit-and-run.

Free additional point!

Finally, let me point out that one of the things good hitters do is they react to the pitcher. I've seen a lot of debate on AN about "The A's hitters should swing more at the first pitch" vs. "The A's hitters should get deeper into counts," but really neither analysis is cogent.

Against a pitcher who is laying in a first pitch, you want to be aggressive and against a pitcher who is wild you want to let them beat themselves by getting behind in the count, getting deep into counts, and throwing a lot of pitches overall. You need to let the pitcher dictate this by the pitches they throw. Walks work, first pitch singles work, HRs work. Take what is there and the best way to do that is to be observant and reactive, not to have a "one size fits all" preconceived notion of when or how much to swing.

What are some of the other factors you have noticed can contribute to the rather cavernous gap between those batters who draw tons of walks and those who seldom earn a free pass? And what would you like to see which A's hitter do differently?