Caring About Walks and Production

Moments ago, Ruben Amaro, Jr. said something to this effect (I paraphrase, but only gently): I don’t care about walks, I care about production.

He said this in reference to everyone’s favorite acquisition, Delmon Young, against accusations that Young could be a poor fit due to his lack of base-on-ballness. And it’s a fair chance for us naysayers to say j’accuse, because Young doesn’t walk. He was unintentionally walked 19 times in 608 plate appearances in 2012. He’s only topped 30 walks once in a season (35 in 2008). His highest single-season OBP is .336, and his BB% of 3.3% was the second-lowest among all qualified hitters last year (Alexei Ramirez, 2.6%), which is crucial because, as we all appear to grasp and understand, OBP is the elemental root of baseball: not making outs.

The guy doesn’t walk.

Amaro’s counter is that, for whatever reason, walks =/= “production.” That’s the essence of what he’s saying. Thinking generously, he considers walking ability and plate discipline little more than a capillary in a hitter’s bloodstream.

Well, in a surprising turn of events, he’s wrong.

Walks are not the end-all, be-all of a hitter’s existence, but their presence tells us a lot about a hitter. Take the inverse of that BB% leaderboard from 2012; who were the names at the top of the list, rather than the bottom? We find Adam Dunn, Carlos Santana, Dan Uggla, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena as the top five in that category, respectively.

Dunn is renowned for his patience, but also his incredible power. Even if he doesn’t draw a walk by being exceptionally selective, he can force a pitcher to nibble or peck away at the outside for fear of leaving a meatball, even in the face of Dunn’s impressive strikeout numbers. Adam Dunn hit .159 in 2011, and that’s not good, but because he walked 75 times – none of those intentional, despite his known power commodity – he was able to salvage a .292 OBP. Delmon Young posted a .296 OBP in 2012.

Santana has walked more than 90 times in each of the past two seasons, despite not having overwhelming power (35 doubles/27 homers in 2011; 27 doubles/18 homers in 2012). His OBPs those seasons of .351 and .365 represent a +.015 and +.029 difference between themselves and Young’s career-best which, again, was posted almost five seasons ago.

Uggla had a down year in 2012, but still had 25 points of OPS on Young. Uggla’s 94 walks led the National League. That’s 74 more walks than Young, or about an extra 12% of a 600-PA season that’s devoted to getting on base and not making an out.

Zobrist is one of the most productive, still barely-heralded players in the game, due in part to drawing more than 90 walks in three of the past four seasons. Since 2009, Young has made 146 fewer outs than Zobrist, but Zobrist has had 456 more PA. To match Zobrist’s OBP, Young would need to reach base in 285 of those 456 excess PA. That’s a .625 OBP.

Pena has always been a high-strikeout guy, but his patience and past power have enabled him to draw a bevy of walks on his own. Pena has only been within nearly 40 points of Young in AVG in any given year since 2009 – and often, the crevasse is wider – but Carlos wins the OBP battle handily in three of those four seasons thanks to, you guessed it, walking.

It would be one thing if Young were an unholy power threat, like Dunn was, or possessed exceptional contact ability, like Juan Pierre, in place of the void that is his nonexistant walking prowess. He possesses neither, and is thusly not productive.

I’m still waiting for you to prove you do actually care about production in this case, Ruben.