Juan Uribe, Walk Machine

This morning, Mike Petriello put out the following quiz on Twitter.

Assuming you read the headline to this post, I’ve already spoiled the answer, but I’m not sure that knowing that Juan Uribe is the current leader in BB% makes it any less shocking. Juan Uribe! This Juan Uribe.

UribeBB

Uribe is 34-years-old. Uribe has been in the big leagues since 2001, and he’s been hacking his way through almost every at-bat since. Juan Uribe is Yuniesky Betancourt‘s hero*. What is happening here?

*I don’t know if that’s true, but it would make sense if it were true.

Well, the obvious thing that is happening here is small sample size. Juan Uribe has come to the plate just 46 times this year. That’s basically nothing, and two of the walks weren’t even his choice, as they were intentional walks to bring up the pitcher. What we’re seeing is probably just a statistical blip, the kind of thing that shows up when season totals still account for just a few weeks worth of playing time.

Except, you know, this isn’t just a one month thing. I pulled Uribe’s monthly splits from our player pages, and plotted his unintentional walk rate for each of the 66 different months in which he’s batted at least 10 times. Here is a plot of those 66 months, in chronological order.

Uribe

From the beginning of his career through last June, Uribe has posted a double-digit unintentional walk rate just three times in 63 months; in April of 2007 (8 BB, 83 PA), July of 2008 (3 BB, 27 PA), and August of 2009 (7 BB, 62 PA). The first of those three months required you to round up in order to get his BB% up to 10%, and the others were just barely over 10%. Now, here are his walk rates for the three months he’s played since last July: 16% (5 BB, 32 PA), 19% (3 BB, 16 PA), 21% (9 BB, 41 PA).

Uribe’s three highest BB% months are his three most recent months, and it’s not even close. Of course, the last two months of 2012 are even smaller samples than the first month of 2013, and all told, we’re dealing with a grand total of 17 unintentional walks in 89 plate appearances. But Uribe is a guy who has taken fewer walks than that in an entire season.

Back in 2007, he walked 13 times in 495 trips to the plate, and one of those was forced upon him. His career high for walks in season is 45, with six of those being intentional. His career BB% is 5.8%. Uribe has over a decade of walk avoidance, and then, out of the blue, the guy just started taking a free base last summer. He’s no longer good enough to play regularly to accumulate a large sample, but it’s hard to argue that Uribe isn’t doing something differently now than he used to.

The thing that he’s changed appears to be his swing rate. After a career of swinging at more than half of the pitches he’s been thrown, Uribe has chased just 42.5% of the pitches he’s been thrown this year. Again, we’re dealing with crazy small samples, but swing rate is the kind of thing that stabilizes very quickly, kind of like pitcher velocity. The batter doesn’t have complete control over his swing rate — the quality of pitches he’s seeing have an impact too — but it’s mostly just a personal decision, with the outside variables becoming minimally important even in small samples. Juan Uribe, for whatever reason, decided to start taking pitches last summer, and he’s still taking pitches this spring.

I probably wouldn’t bet on him keeping this up, because after all, he’s had a 10+ year career as a free-swinging hack. The guy who made those decisions is still in there, and while you might be able to teach an old dog new tricks, I don’t know that you can unteach old ones. But, for now, just enjoy the fact that Juan Uribe has a higher walk rate than Joey Votto. Juan Uribe has a higher walk rate than anyone.

Baseball!




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


18 Responses to “Juan Uribe, Walk Machine”

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  1. Josh says:

    My assumption is the Dodgers went to him and said, “Look, Juan, you’re terrible. We are going to cut you unless you just stop swinging. Whatever you do, do not swing.” Otherwise, I dont get it

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Actually, I think that’s exactly what happened. Maybe not to that level of hyperbole, but I do believe they spent time with him to get him to lay off garbage pitches.

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      • Victorious says:

        Having watched pretty much every PA Uribe has had this year and comparing it to all of his PAs from previous years, there’s a definite change in approach. He looks more patient up there and not hacking at pitches all over the place.

        Every now and then, for 1 or 2 PAs, he’d revert to his “normal” approach of hacking, but those appear few and far between.

        Some of us speculate that working with Big Mac has helped him and other Dodgers pitchers become more selective with pitches around the zone and it’s the most apparent with Uribe.

        Kemp on the other hand…….

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  2. Anon21 says:

    I’m heard it said that when an aging player’s skills start to decline, their walk rate will sometimes see a “dead cat” bounce, as pitchers continue to pitch to the back of their baseball cards, throwing many pitches out of the zone for fear that fastballs in the zone will be hit with authority. Meanwhile, fewer of those fastballs result in at-bat-ending contact than in previous years, as slipping pitch recognition and declining bat speed cause the hitter to take more and more, sometimes resulting in called strikeouts, but other times resulting in walks.

    Then, once the book gets rewritten and pitchers learn that the guy can’t drive pitches in the zone anymore, they start pounding the strikezone and the end arrives swiftly and mercilessly. I’ve heard it said that Dan Uggla is in some phase of this process right now. Any validity to the concept in general, and might it apply to Uribe?

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    • Guy says:

      If pitchers were pitching to the back of Uribe’s baseball card, they’d be throwing it down the middle.

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      • Dave says:

        Guy, I don’t think you were paying attention to the article. If pitchers were pitching to the back of Uribe’s baseball card, they’d be throwing like they do to intentionally walk a guy. He’ll swing anyways.

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    • Eric says:

      Also, a “dead cat bounce” assumes there was somewhere to bounce _from_, and the bounce is always lower than the peak. This is either a statistical outlier, or an enforced change of approach.

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    • jwb says:

      Validity? Sure. I’ve only heard it in reference to better hitters like Toby Harrah or Gary Matthews, Sr., but I think it is real.

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  3. Tom Greybalt says:

    You can’t talk about Uribe and walks without mentioning this game:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN201005090.shtml

    21 pitches, and he did not swing once. 4 walks and a HBP.

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  4. grant says:

    Oddly, Adam Lind is right there too, having had a crazy spike in his walk rate.

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    • Billy says:

      Adam Lind is taking the approach of “never swing and the walks increase” Problem is, he’s a DH with a .240 average, 0 HR and 3 RBi’s in a month. I’d prefer his free swinging ways, they led to runs at least.

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  5. Synovia says:

    Those two intentional walks to get to the pitcher are almost 5% in 46 plate appearances.

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  6. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Uribe and Sandoval were BFF’s until one called the other a hacker on Twitter.
    It makes perfect sense.

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  7. Some hackers learn to lay off pitchers by either 1) long experience or 2) fear that he needs to finally change to stay in the majors.

    I would offer up another HR hacker who suddenly found BB religion late in this career: Pedro Feliz, another former Giants. Hacker supreme, he was part of the group of Giants hitters that got a local radio announcer fired for saying a racially insensitive remark.

    Tracking his walk rate against his HR rate, it looked like he traded off HR’s to boost up his walks, but it would be my guess that he knew when his power was gone, and if HR power was the only reason he has found a job in baseball, you sure has hell better find another reason for a team to keep you around offensively.

    I agree that if a hitter has been a hacker forever in his career, it is not likely that he suddenly figured things out, that it was something that got him to finally change. Being unable to hit homers (or just hit period, Willie Mays once he couldn’t get hits or homers anymore became a walk machine late in his career and piled up high OBP).

    And looking at Uribe’s chart, it is not like the skill to take walks has not been latent, if you look at his monthly spikes, he was often around 10%, which is not that bad, it was just that he was mostly under 5% most of the time. And the 10% peaks was starting to happen more frequently in recent years, so he’s been changing his approach at the plate in recent years.

    Looks like he started having more good months once he joined the Giants in 2009. That lines up well with a study in THT annual that found that hitters seem to improve when they join Bochy managed teams, to the tune of an extra win per season. Uribe probably just started applying all those lessons more consistently in recent months.

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  8. jj says:

    now look, almost back to normal.

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