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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

McKeon invites Bonds for some walks in Miami

Barry Bonds is in town this week, with the rest of the Giants, to face the Marlins in a three game series. Coming into the series, Marlins’ Manager Jack McKeon said, again – like he has before every series with the Giants since he became the Marlins manager, that he would not allow Bonds to beat the Marlins, and that if the situation called for it, he would walk Bonds just about every time.

As early as the first inning of last night’s game, the first game of the series, McKeon held true to his word. Bonds approached the plate with a man on first and two outs. While the Marlins television broadcasters tried to make it sound like A.J. Burnett came after Bonds, Barry effectively received an unintentional intentional walk; four successive high and wide pitches were delivered and none of them was close to the strike zone. So Bonds was walked. It won’t go down in the scorebook as having been intentional, but it toed the line pretty closely.

McKeon’s take on the matter surprises me. Yes, McKeon is a mixture of both old school baseball and pure unpredictability, but for something like this, I’d think McKeon would be more of the “go after him approach.” Now this isn’t exactly empirical evidence, but back in the day, teams went after hitters (right, Joe Morgan?) and the intentional walk was rarely deployed. When it was, it was a sign of ultimate respect, or you were just trying to get to the pitcher’s slot in the lineup for a sure out. Don’t believe me? Check this out. Coming into the 2004 season, it was tough to find anyone other than the game’s current top sluggers at the top of the all-time single season intentional walks list. In recent years the number of intentional walks issued has bordered on absurd. Actually, it’s not that the total number of intentional walks is increasing, it’s that they are now much more narrowly distributed.

The intentional walks Bonds is receiving are more than unprecedented. He surpassed the all-time record for intentional walks in a single season (a mark he already held) by the All-Star break (the old mark was 68 and he had 71 by mid-July). How does that compare to some of the game’s other all time great sluggers? Well, using the list shown above, you can see that the career highs for the likes of Ted Williams (33), Henry Aaron (23) and Willie Mays (20) barely total (76) what Bonds alone had received by the All-Star break. You can even add-in Mark McGwire’s most prolific intentional walk total (of 28) and still get a total (104) that Bonds will pass this year. That’s completely absurd. As great of a hitter as Barry Bonds is, he does not deserved to be walked intentionally as much as four of the game’s greatest power hitters of all-time were during their primes.

In the Giants games against the Expos recently it seemed that this was Frank Robinson’s take on the whole thing. Now maybe that’s because the Expos are completely out of the playoff race, but Bonds is still distancing himself further and further from Robinson in the record books with nearly every swing he takes. That’s not really the issue with Robinson though. I suspect that the reason that Robinson has his pitchers pitch to Bonds is simply that it’s the best thing to do and more often than not it will improve his team’s chances of winning the game.

As hot as Bonds has been this season (well, the entire millennium really), he’s “only” hitting about .370. That means that 63% of the time when Bonds is allowed to swing the bat, he makes an out. For those of you who need to see it in front of you, when Barry is walked, he reaches base 100% of the time and makes an out 0% of the time. The name of the game in baseball is scoring runs, and one of the best ways to score runs (other than hitting home runs) is to put people on base.

Let me illustrate this a little better with a specific example from the first inning of last night’s game. Here’s the situation again: Bonds at the plate, two out and a man on first. There are a number of scenarios here, but two major ones: one, that Bonds makes an out (ending the inning); or that Bonds reaches base. If Bonds reaches base, he could hit a single, double, triple, home run, be walked, be hit by a pitch, or reach on an error. Since Bonds is a .370 hitter so far this season, let’s assume that his chances of getting a hit are 37% if you pitch to him (that’s rough and overly simple; it doesn’t account for park factors, recent trends, the opposing pitcher, etc, etc). Of the scenarios where Bonds gets a hit, only the double, triple, or home run would score a run (or two). Given the distribution of Bonds’ hits this year (55% of all of his hits are singles – what, you thought he only hit home runs?), the likelihood of him driving in a run in this situation is .370 (his batting average) multiplied by his frequency of extra base hits (45% of his hits), or .167. So in this situation in the first, the Marlins had a 1-in-6 chance of giving up a run (or two). If he’s allowed to put the ball in play, 5 times out of six, a run won’t score. Sometimes the inning will be extended (and there will be two runners on), but more often than not, the inning will just be over.

They chose to walk him though. Was this the right decision? Well, by walking Bonds, Tangotiger’s run expectancy matrix tells us that the Marlins increased the number of runs they were expected to allow in this situation from 0.251 to 0.466 (a 46% increase). That’s overall though.

In this specific situation you had a surging A.J. Pierzynski coming to the plate. Granted, Pierzynski is no Bonds (but who is), but he’s still a quality major league hitter. He’s hitting .297 for the season and .301 for his career, so for our purposes today let’s call him a .300 hitter. That means if you pitch to him, he has a 30% chance of getting a hit. Even a mere single here will score a run, since there are two outs and a man on second, so the Giants now have at least a 30% chance of scoring a run.

Actually, it’s even a little better than that. A.J. could be walked (by the other A.J.) which would load the bases (increasing the Giants chances per the matrix to 0.815) and bringing the mighty Pedro Feliz to the plate (who’s hitting .265 on the campaign). At that point, the opportunities to score are nearly infinite (wild pitch, hit batsmen, etc).

Now this all turned out to be meaningless, because the Marlins came out to score seven runs in the bottom half of the first inning, but at the time, the best thing to do would have been to pitch to Bonds. Hopefully they will tonight. Maybe they will with lefthanded Dontrelle Willis on the mound. As great as Bonds is, pitching to him gives your team the best possible chance to win the game and it’s also what the fans are paying to come and see.


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