The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Barry, Scoring Runs, OBP, and the Demise of "Baseball Tonight"

As mentioned in previous posts (repeatedly, incessantly, too frequently, or however else you would like to classify it), Barry Bonds is being walked too frequently. Ironic indeed that Mr. Bonds initials are BB, the same as the common scoring symbol for a walk. Few folks today are aware that BB (and not “W”) is used to denote a walk, and that it is short for Base on Balls. Given the alacrity with which Mr. Bonds is racking up walk totals, one must wonder if future generations will assume that BB stands for Barry Bonds.

Maybe we should have known all along. This man’s name was meant for walking. Still, the frequency with which Bonds is being walked is unprecedented. To date this season Bonds has appeared in 25 games (two exclusively for one plate appearance, as a pinch hitter, and in both cases he was walked) and has been walked 44 times. At this rate, Bonds will be walked 274 times this season, which would by far eclipse the single season record (held by Bonds) of 198.

The number of walks Bonds is receiving is so ridiculously high because opposing managers fear the damage Bonds can inflict on the score and their pitcher’s ego with just one swing of the bat. In prior years, opposing managers would walk Bonds in situations like a tie game, with a runner on second base, and no one out. This seemed like a risk averse, but understandable move – although it was more questionable in the early innings. This season, it seems that managers are being even more cautious; Bonds has been walked to lead of the second inning of a scoreless game on more than one occasion. This seems to not only show a lack of confidence in the ability of your pitcher, but it also deprives the fans – particularly those in attendance, who have shelled out hard earned dollars to watch Bonds bat – of an opportunity to see a living legend perform live.

Many before me have written about how no one, not even Bonds at his best, is worthy of being walked so regularly. Even on his hottest tear, Bonds makes an out 50% of the time that he is allowed to swing the bat. During more normal stretches, like the past seven days, when Bonds has hit .273, he is even more likely to make an out – probably about 70% of the time. For those of you who are scoring at home, when Bonds is walked – either intentionally or, more commonly, un-intentionally intentionally – he reaches base 100% of the time.

To some of you this is likely an intuitively bad proposition. Putting a runner – any runner – on base, only increases the other team’s chances of scoring runs. With Bonds, the argument is that by walking him and putting him on first, your odds of giving up a home run or a double that drives in a run, are significantly greater. This is true, but please see the point above about the likelihood of making an out; you’re completely removing it by walking him.

An additional point that a walk-inclined manager might make is that putting Bonds on base curtosey of a base on balls is not a proposition that is likely to score a run (or more) for the Giants. This argument is reinforced by the fact that Bonds has the likes of Pedro Feliz and Michael Tucker hitting behind him. San Francisco’s Giants of 2004 are not the Giants of yester-year where an All-Star like Jeff Kent or Matt Williams could be found protecting Bonds in the batting order.

This argument does hold some merit, although it may be too early to tell. Last night, on the increasingly-becoming-unwatchable Baseball Tonight, “analyst” Harold Reynolds opined that on base percentage is overrated and that you need players who can score from first on a gapper. While I’m sure that old-school scouts across America cheered aloud upon this assessment (and may even be adding this as a sixth tool on their 20 – 80 point scales as we speak), this is a bit of a reach. Like double plays and other relative rarities, scoring a runner from first on a “gapper” is not a defining characteristic of a championship ballclub; sure, it happens, but not to the tune of being a deciding factor in ten (or so) games per year. Now, I haven’t gone back and statistically proven this; it’s just my gut feeling on the subject. I suspect that Mr. Reynolds’ analysis is very similar – more based on experience, than an actual analysis of data. I’m sure that someone out there could do such an analysis and prove Mr. Reynolds or myself correct (or find a different conclusion), or that someone has actually already done such a study.

I didn’t and am not planning to, but Harold raised an interesting point during his discussion last night – that it doesn’t matter how often some players reach base because they aren’t as capable as others of scoring. Harold didn’t say it this way, probably because he eschews onbase percentage, but he essentially said that a .450 OBP from Jason Giambi isn’t as valuable as a .375 OBP from Jimmy Rollins, because Rollins is faster (and/or a better baserunner) than Giambi, and is thus more capable of scoring runs for his team.

To some extent, this is an interesting premise because it is plausible that a runner could be so inept on the basepaths that he could do more harm than good. In fact, during yesterday’s Marlins game, the television announcers joked that if Juan Pierre hit a ball into the gap, he might catch catcher Mike Redmond, who was already on the bases.

Reynolds’s point, as well as opposing managers’ proclivity for walking Bonds, got me wondering how frequently Barry is scoring runs compared to what other players do. Typically Bonds ends up amongst the lead leaders in terms of runs scored, but it’s hard not to when you’re on base all the time and you hit a lot of home runs. But if Harold’s point is true, a Jimmy Rollins or Juan Pierre could be just as impactful as Bonds, because their great speed would allow them to score runs a higher percentage of the time than the typical ballplayer.

To assess if this is true or not, I took a look at the number of times randomly selected players scored runs and divided this by the number of times they were on base (hits + walks + hit by pitches) last year and over their careers. Below is a look at the players I selected (ToB equals times on base, Runs equals runs scored, and % equals the percentage of times a player was on base that he scored; Car equals Career – EDIT: table creating skills so poor that I'm adding commentary instead): - 2003 ToB 283, 124 R, 44%; Career ToB 2,166, 1,099 R, 47%
Giambi, J - 2003 ToB 284, 97 R, 34%; Career ToB 2,266, 818 R, 36%
Jeter - 2003 ToB 212, 87 R, 41%; Career ToB 2,137, 926 R, 43%
Maggs - 2003 ToB 256, 95 R, 37%; Career ToB 1,456, 592 R, 41%
Juan Pierre - 2003 ToB 264, 100 R, 38%; Career ToB 803, 324 R, 40%
Jimmy Rollins - 2003 ToB 219, 85 R, 39%; Career ToB682, 269 R, 39%
Kenny Lofton - 2003 ToB 212, 97 R, 46%; Career ToB 2,751, 1,245 R, 45%

Rickey Henderson - Career ToB 5,343, 2,295 R, 43%

Barry L. Bonds - 2003 ToB 291, 111 R, 38%; Career ToB 4,749, 1,941 R, 41%

First of all, this is obviously not a complete, nor thorough, analysis. I picked a handful of well known players: Giambi and Ordonez (Maggs, for the uninitiated) because they are known as mashers, but not particularly as base runners; because he is all around (and deservedly) regarded as a great player; Jeter because he is over-hyped, and this (as you will soon see) is another good example of how this comes to be; Lofton, Pierre, and Rollins are all speed guys, who should support Harold Reynolds’s contention of the value of speed in scoring runs; Rickey Henderson is both a run scoring and getting on base machine, so I was curious to see what his numbers looked like (although I felt his 2003 numbers were not really relevant to the story here).

A number of things jumped out at me in first looking at this data. First, maybe Harold is right about Giambi. He certainly doesn’t seem to score as frequently as these other players. That may be due to the fact that when he played in Oakland, most of the talent hit ahead of him, and thus there were fewer opportunities for him to be driven in by the batters behind him in the order (he also didn’t light the world on fire last year in New York). Second, seems to score runs an amazing percentage of the time when he reaches base, as does Kenny Lofton. Both of these players are relatively speedy – more-so Lofton, particularly in his prime. What each of these players have benefited from though is being in hitter friendly ballparks and high run scoring lineups for the bulk of their careers. I’m not going to get into park adjusted stats here, but you can either trust me or look it up. For those of you who are more of the Jim Kaat/Harold Reynolds mindset, I’m sure you recall the 1996 Indians and the run scoring machine that they were and the fact that Ken Griffey, arguably the most dominant player of the 90s, and how he hit behind before he was for many years. Those memories alone should be more than enough for you to just take my word for it.

The speed guys seem to score pretty frequently, but not a great deal more so than the other players. What jumped out at me about Jimmy Rollins was that his percentage of times scoring was low, as were his hit by pitch totals. I’ve never paid particularly close attention to Rollins, but I will now. On the surface, and looking at a very limited amount of data, Rollins doesn’t seem to be much of a hustle guy, in the speak of Mr. Reynolds. On the flip side, Derek Jeter has scored quite frequently, at least relative to Rollins. But if you put Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi, and the crew behind me in the lineup, I’d score a few runs myself (mostly because I’d probably draw a few walks too). I suspect, again, without really digging into it, that Jeter’s sparkling numbers here are more a result of playing in a strong lineup than any super-star level performances by Mr. Jeter.

All things considered, Barry Bonds seems to do a fine job of scoring runs in that he reaches home as often as anyone else on the occasions when he reaches first base. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Not only is Bonds powerful with the bat (and home runs give you one time on base and one run scored), but he is also the best power-speed combination in the history of baseball (being the only player to total 400 home runs and 400 steals – in fact he has more than 500 of each).

You probably noticed though that Bonds scored less frequently last year than he has over the course of his career. Like opposing managers have figured out, this is more a result of the relative ineptitude of the lineup surrounding him than it is a factor of Barry’s increasing age. In 2003, Bonds scored 38% of the time when he reached base. In 2002, when the Giants reached the World Series, this total was 33% of the time. In 2001, when Bonds hit 73 home runs, he scored on 38% of his trips around the bases. To date this season, Bonds is only scoring 33% of the time when he reaches base. So this is likely the root cause of the plethora of walks that Mr. Bonds is receiving of late: he is likely to score others, and quite possibly himself, if you let him swing the bat, but if you put him on base via the walk, he’s likely to get stranded out there.

While this is what the data says on the surface, it just doesn’t make sense if you work out the math and really think about it. Through yesterday’s game, Bonds has a batting average of .463 and an onbase percentage of .704. In nearly 45% of his plate appearances, Bonds is being walked or hit by a pitch (actually, so far this year it means a walk, as he hasn’t been hit yet – knock on wood). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Bonds gets 600 plate appearances this season. If he is walked in 45% of those appearances, that’s 270 times on base. Given that Bonds is scoring one-third of the time when he reaches base this year, this means that by walking Bonds, managers are giving the Giants about 89 runs.

“No problem,” you say, “those 89 runs are far less than he’d create and score himself if you pitched to him. He’s just too good.” Oh really? Let’s take those 270 plate appearances and assume that you turn them all into at bats by pitching to him. To take it even one step further, let’s assume that he continues to hit at the implausible .463 clip he’s been on to date this season. That would mean that Barry would reach base 125 times. Assuming again that he would continue to score 33% of the time he reached base, that would mean 41 runs for the Giants. So, without accounting for the runs Bonds would drive in, you would save 48 runs by pitching to him.

How many runs would Bonds drive in over 270 at bats? So far this season, Bonds has driven in one run (net of himself on home runs – since we already counted in the runs Bonds himself scores when he reaches base) every 4.5 at bats (54 at bats divided by 12 – 22 RBI minus 10 HR). So in 270 at bats, Bonds would drive in 60 runs (other than himself), meaning that he would create 101 runs – or twelve more than he would score if you just walked him in those 270 plate appearances.

To assume that Bonds will continue with a .463 batting average over the course of the season it ludicrous though. That has never been done before, and I don’t see why it would be done this year. Yes, Bonds is phenomenal, and on a phenomenal run. But he hit .273 last week, and personally, I think he’s more likely to hit .273 over the rest of the season than he is to hit .463. .273 is too pessimistic though. Let’s assume that Bonds hits .345 over the rest of the year (his average, combined, over the 2001, 2002, and 2003 seasons). That seems fair, if not optimistic.

If Bonds hits .345 in those 270 at bats, he would reach base 93 times, score 31 runs, and knock in the same 60 runs (because the runs created is based on his 2004 RBI/AB to-date), meaning that he would produce 91 runs if you let him hit, versus the same 89 runs if you continue to walk him in nearly half of his plate appearances.

To make this analysis more accurate, you could do a lot of things, most notably to assume than in his 600 plate appearances that Bonds is going to get a certain “normal” number of walks. I didn’t do that here, but I suppose it would change the results to some degree. Overall, my point is that you don’t save much, if anything, by walking Bonds so regularly. He’s eventually going to go into a lull, and will then be a much better proposition to pitch to than it is to walk him and allow him to automatically score 33 – 40% of the time. Besides, it would just be more fun for the rest of us to watch.

Pitch to Barry!


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