Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Walking's Dead

When Sandy Alderson came aboard as the Mets' general manager three years ago, he was known as an executive who encouraged his players to draw more walks.  More walks mean more base runners.  More base runners mean more runs.  And more runs mean more wins.  Additionally, taking more pitches causes the opposing starting pitcher to reach a high pitch count at an earlier stage of the game, causing him to exit the game earlier even if he's pitching fairly well.

But in 2013, the Mets had many more free swingers in their everyday lineup than they had in the past.  Players like Juan Lagares (20 walks in 421 plate appearances), Marlon Byrd (25 walks in 464 PA) and even Daniel Murphy (32 walks in 697 PA) spent more time trying to get four hits than four balls.  The end result was fewer big innings and fewer opposing pitchers being removed early.

Let's put this season's lack of patience at the plate in perspective.  There were only three players on the team who drew more than 40 bases on balls.  Those players were Lucas Duda (57 walks), David Wright (55 walks) and Ike Davis (55 walks).  Omar Quintanilla finished fourth on the team with 38 free passes.

Do you know when the last time was that the Mets had as little as three players draw 40 or more walks?  You'd have to go back to 2003, when Cliff Floyd (51 walks) and Ty Wigginton (46 walks) were the only two Mets to take ball four at least 40 times.  And for those who have a short memory, the Mets finished 66-95 in 2003 - the only year in the last two decades that the team finished with fewer than 70 victories (not including the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons).

Does that mean having fewer players drawing walks on a regular basis contributes to poor seasons?  Let me put on my mad statistician's cap (which is pretty much just a Mets cap with cat hair on it) and present to you some of my research.  Below is the list of seasons in which the Mets failed to have more than three players draw as many as 40 walks in a season (excluding all strike seasons).  Keep an eye on each team's final won-loss record, which is listed at the end of each line.

Players With 40+ Walks
Duke Snider (56), Jim Hickman (44), Ron Hunt (40)
Joe Christopher (48)
Johnny Lewis (59), Bobby Klaus (45)
Bud Harrelson (48), Ron Swoboda (41)
Ron Swoboda (52), Jerry Grote (44)
Rusty Staub (77), Wayne Garrett (50)
Keith Hernandez (64), Ron Hodges (49), Darryl Strawberry (47)
Bobby Bonilla (72), Howard Johnson (43), Eddie Murray (40)
Todd Hundley (79), Bernard Gilkey (73)
Cliff Floyd (51), Ty Wigginton (46)
Lucas Duda (57), David Wright (55), Ike Davis (55)

There have been eleven seasons in Mets history in which three or fewer players were able to draw at least 40 walks.  The Mets failed to win 75 games in all but one of those seasons.  Their average record in those eleven campaigns was 64-98.

In case you think other factors were involved in those teams' lack of success, let's take a look at the walk totals for players on some of the most successful teams in franchise history.

The 1969 World Series champion Mets had five players who took 40 or more free passes (Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson, Ron Swoboda, Wayne Garrett).  Seventeen years later, the 1986 champs were also able to produce five such hitters (Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, Ray Knight).  In addition, seven other players on the '86 team walked 30 or more times.  But wait, there's more.

Half of the starting eight in 1988 walked 40 or more times, with three of them (Howard Johnson, Darryl Strawberry, Dave Magadan) drawing 60 or more bases on balls.

The 1999 squad had seven players with 40 or more walks.  Five of the seven reached base freely 60 times.  One year later, Benny Agbayani drew 54 walks.  That total would have led the 1964, 1967, 1968 and 2003 squads.  But in 2000, that was just the sixth-highest total on the team.

Finally, in 2006, David Wright was one of four Mets to make it to 40 walks.  His 66 bases on balls would have led most Mets teams.  But in 2006, that was only good for the bronze medal in the walk-a-lympics behind Carlos Delgado (74 walks - silver medal winner) and Carlos Beltran (95 walks - gold medal winner).

What do those six teams have in common besides having lots of players with lofty walk totals?  All six of them won 94 or more games and made it to the postseason.  And for those of you asking about the 1973 National League champion Mets - well, they also drew their share of walks, with four players reaching the 40-walk mark and three of those four surpassing 60.

Benny Agbayani showed a lot of life for someone who was a walker.

So let's recap.  Eleven teams in franchise history did not have more than three players draw 40 or more walks.  Ten of those teams finished with fewer than 75 victories and all eleven teams combined to finish 365 games under .500.

Meanwhile, the seven Mets teams to reach the postseason combined to produce a total of 35 players who walked 40 or more times.  Twenty-two of those 35 players drew 60-plus free passes.

Having many players with the capability and willingness to draw walks leads to more big innings.  If a team only has two or three players who can get on base regularly via the walk, that makes it more difficult to put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard because fewer players are drawing walks in the same inning.  That's not so hard to understand, is it?

When Sandy Alderson came on board following the 2010 season, he professed patience for his hitters.  In 2013, the Mets didn't listen to their professor, as most of the players adopted a "hack now, take pitches later" approach.  For anyone familiar with Mets history (or the chart ten paragraphs above), that approach is a recipe for disaster.  And that recipe has produced some of the worst seasons the team has ever seen.

The walking is dead at Citi Field.  And until more batters learn how to take ball four, nothing - especially pennants - will rise in Flushing.

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