The Disappearance of Hitters Who Walk More Than They Strike Out

While watching the Mets pound on the Cubs yesterday, I noticed that David Wright still has a walk rate (BB%) higher than his strikeout rate (K%). If Wright managed to continue this trend through the end of the season it would be the first time in his career he achieved such a feat.

Right now, there are a grand total of six qualified hitters who also have a higher walk than strikeout rate:

Name PA BB% K% ISO wRC+
David Wright 308 14.60% 13.00% 0.200 170
David Ortiz 308 12.70% 12.30% 0.311 162
Joe Mauer 276 13.80% 12.30% 0.114 138
Ben Zobrist 301 16.60% 15.30% 0.190 121
Carlos Lee 246 7.70% 6.10% 0.123 111
Jose Reyes 333 10.80% 8.70% 0.113 101

I wondered how rare a feat this is, even given the increase in the three true outcomes. Turns out, it’s exceedingly rare.

Using a similar methodology to my TTO article a few weeks back, I plotted the percent of qualified hitters in each season with BB% greater than their K% (white bars above). I then included the strikeout, walk, and home run rates for each season as well to see if they helped explain the trends we see.

First, we see the drastic decline of hitters that walk more than they strikeout. In 1929, 80% of all qualified hitters had higher walk rates. In 2011, only 6% managed the feat. The lowest percentage the league has ever seen was in 2010, when only Joe Mauer, Jeff Keppinger, Daric Barton, and Albert Pujols pulled it off (3% of all qualified hitters). That’s an incredible drop.

Second, as with the rise of TTO players, strikeout rates seem to be the driving force. Yes, home run rates have certainly increased. However, it pales in comparison to the 10%+ rise in strikeouts per plate appearance since 1920. With strikeouts becoming so prevalent and walk rates essentially fluctuating between 8-10% each year, it’s very hard for a player (particularly a good one who typically displays quite a bit of power) to end the season with more walks than strikeouts.

Given the prevalence of such hitters in previous eras, the leader board for this metric is a little skewed. However, if we look at those hitters with the most seasons of BB% > K% we do manage to find decent representation from a number of eras:

Name # of Seasons % of Player’s Qualified Seasons First Year
Carl Yastrzemski 18 86% 1961
Mel Ott 17 100% 1928
Joe Morgan 17 100% 1965
Rickey Henderson 17 89% 1980
Stan Musial 16 100% 1942
Tris Speaker 15 100% 1913
Luke Appling 15 100% 1932
Ozzie Smith 15 94% 1978
Pete Rose 15 71% 1963
Babe Ruth 14 100% 1919
Frankie Frisch 14 100% 1921
Paul Waner 14 100% 1926
Nellie Fox 14 100% 1950
Wade Boggs 14 100% 1983
Tony Gwynn 14 100% 1984
Mark Grace 14 100% 1988
Charlie Gehringer 14 93% 1926
Gary Sheffield 14 93% 1990
Barry Bonds 14 82% 1987
Eddie Collins 13 100% 1913
Ty Cobb 13 100% 1913
Harry Hooper 13 100% 1913
Sam Rice 13 100% 1917
Joe Kuhel 13 100% 1931
Billy Herman 13 100% 1932
Doc Cramer 13 100% 1933
Ted Williams 13 100% 1939
Richie Ashburn 13 100% 1948
Willie Randolph 13 100% 1976
Goose Goslin 13 93% 1923

I knew Yastrzemski was good, but I never would have guessed that he would have the most seasons with a higher walk than strikeout rate. Even accounting for longevity, he accomplished the feat in 86% of his qualified seasons. He did benefit a bit from the sharp decline in strikeout rates that started in 1969, but even still amassing 18 such seasons is an impressive feat.

If we just restrict the list to players whose first season in the majors was later than 1970, the leader board looks like this:

Name # of Seasons % of Player’s Qualified Seasons First Year
Rickey Henderson 17 89% 1980
Ozzie Smith 15 94% 1978
Wade Boggs 14 100% 1983
Tony Gwynn 14 100% 1984
Mark Grace 14 100% 1988
Gary Sheffield 14 93% 1990
Barry Bonds 14 82% 1987
Willie Randolph 13 100% 1976
George Brett 13 72% 1975
Tim Raines 12 92% 1981
John Olerud 11 92% 1991
Brett Butler 11 85% 1983
Darrell Evans 11 73% 1972
Brian Giles 10 100% 1999
Bill Madlock 10 91% 1974
Don Mattingly 10 91% 1984
Toby Harrah 10 83% 1973
Albert Pujols 10 83% 2001
Frank Thomas 10 71% 1991
Buddy Bell 10 67% 1972
Mike Hargrove 9 100% 1975
Brian Downing 9 90% 1975
Keith Hernandez 9 82% 1977
Edgar Martinez 9 69% 1990
Chipper Jones 9 64% 1995
Ted Simmons 9 60% 1971
Eric Young 8 89% 1993
Ken Singleton 8 67% 1972
Todd Helton 8 67% 1998
Paul Molitor 8 47% 1978

We can see that the leader board is dominated by players whose first season was between 1980 and 1989 (14). That’s partially a function of the starting year, but also reflects the hitters in that era (Boggs, Gwynn, etc.) as well as the sharp increase in strikeout rates starting around the 1992 season.

The big takeaway is that finishing the season with a higher walk rate is incredibly rare in the current environment. It wouldn’t be surprising if at least a few of the current six players didn’t manage to hold on through the end of this season.

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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.

36 Responses to “The Disappearance of Hitters Who Walk More Than They Strike Out”

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  1. schmenkman says:

    Nice work, Bill.

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  2. Mike B. says:

    Of the post-1970 players, Gary Sheffield sticks out as something of a surprise. I knew he walked quite a bit but his avoidance of strikeouts is pretty amazing–tied with Bonds for # of seasons (14) with more BB than K, quite a feat for power hitters.

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  3. Sean says:

    Nice. This always intrigued me. We all are well aware of the skewing of stats by the “Steroid Era” and the “Dead Ball Era”, but the “BB > K” throws the stats off kilter as well.

    I wonder what Joe DiMaggio’s BB/K would be if you dropped him in to the current era…

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    • John says:

      Joe D would have a lot more SOs than he did.

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    • RMD says:

      DiMaggio played most of his years before the AL integrated. There were seven other teams he played against with an artificially low talent pool due to segregation. His numbers would look a lot different.

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      • jscape2000 says:

        He also wouldn’t have to hit into the 490 ft Death Valley in left-center field. His numbers would look different, but I think he’d still be an MVP.

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  4. jdbolick says:

    Nice work. I guess it’s impossible, but it would be interesting to tease out how much comes from hitters being more aggressive and how much is attributable to the other side with specialized relief pitchers and increased use of sliders, etc.

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  5. Jack says:

    I cannot imagine two more different players than Jeff Keppinger and Albert Pujols, but apparently they share the distinction of Walking more than striking out.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      Emilio Bonifacio and Carlos Lee are surely more different than Jeff Keppinger and Albert Pujols? Or maybe Kent Hrbek and Rickey Henderson.

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  6. TKDC says:

    I thought a brief picture of active career numbers would be interesting. Aside from Pujols, Jones and Helton, the only 4 active players (min. 3000 PAs) with career BB% greater than their career K% are Pedroia, Mauer, Carlos Ruiz (barely), and Pierre (barely).

    WIth retirements and decline, by next year the list could be down to 3-4.

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    • Spencer Silva says:

      Don’t forget about the amazingly disciplined Ian Kinsler:

      2011: 89 BB [12.3%], 71 K [9.8 %]

      Although he’s regressing a bit this year, albeit with a greater BA.

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  7. John says:

    Next up… The emergence of pitchers that strikout a higher rate of hitters!

    Two-way street here.

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    • jscape2000 says:

      Was thinking about this just today! Different pitches, multiple pitchers per game, and the hitters’ willingness to swing away behind in the count (allowing pitchers to throw off the plate and still get outs) are just as much a change as the appreciate of the all-or-nothing approach.

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  8. John says:

    Surprised Cal Ripken didn’t make the list.

    Would have guessed he had 8 seasons in which he had more BB than SO.

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  9. GUY says:

    FWIW, Votto would have been on this list 2 days ago. He’s currently at 60:60
    K:BB, but he K’d 6 times in his last 4 games while walking twice.

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  10. Mr Punch says:

    Nice piece.

    I find it striking that although these (“modern” group) are all good hitters, they don’t seem to have much else in common. Madlock and Evans, for instance, contemporary NL 3B: Evans struck out a lot (several years over 100) and walked a ton, while Madlock walked some and struck out rarely.

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  11. Big Jgke says:

    I’m pretty sure Jose Bautista has been fairly close to more BB’s than K’s all season.

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  12. Ron says:

    Your list is missing the great Al Kaline, 17 years.
    But I think this is one of those things that has changed in the game, lack pitch recognition, plate discipline be dammed, most every player is now looking to drive a ball well over 400/450 feet, and not working the count, and taking pitches low or off the corner.

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  13. vivaelpujols says:

    Looks like Pujols is probably gonna do this again. 3 walks last night and he only has 6 more strikeouts than walks on the season. He’s done it every year since his rookie season in 2001, and in some years (2008 and 2006) he’s had nearly twice the amount of walks as strikeouts.

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  14. Snowblind says:

    Attributed to hitters being conditioned to Chicks Dig The Longball sort of mentality? Pitcher specialization? A hell of a lot more data on hitters’ zones and tendancies through video and pitch F/X? Some combination thereof?

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    • Cidron says:

      naa, more attributable to not getting on base by any means necessary, even if its a bunt, or a walk, or a “less glamorous” manner. I dont want to merely be on base. I wanna be the person that is on the nights highlight reel. Bunts and walks dont get me there. Plus, ever hear of a player being paid very well because he can hit a bunt or take a walk? (as his big line on the resume)

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      • CJ says:

        Absolutely there are players who are good just because of that. If Carlos Pena couldn’t take a walk he’d be a bad, bad player. Same with Adam Dunn, and all your TTO hitters.

        It’s two things, really – now, pitching prospects MUST be able to strike guys out, so we take high K pitchers rather than “pitch to contact” guys. And now people are realising that striking out 200 times a year is not bad if you walk a ton and club 40 homers like a Mark Reynolds.

        So we’ve incentivised pitchers to strike guys out, and de-emphasised the K as a negative outcome for hitters. Sure you’re going to see more strikeouts.

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  15. KB says:

    According to your graph walk rates have not trended up since 1920. Walk rates reached their peak in 1948-1949 – fell until about 1970 – then made a one year rise and have largely remained flat since.

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    • bill says:

      Yeah, according the graph at least walk rates look like they’ve been 8-10% for 90 years. Strikeout rates and walk rates truly diverged in about 1950, looks like.

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  16. Brian says:

    Amazingly, walks are still just not valued enough. My favorite is Gene Tenace’s 1977 season when he hit .233 with a .415 OBP. But there’s also Jimmy Wynn’s 1976 when he hit .207 with a .376 OBP. Players like that just don’t exist anymore.

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  17. miguel says:

    I would like to see a study of this data against the trends of the effectiveness of pitchers…however someone would like to judge pitcher effectiveness.

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  18. MrKnowNothing says:

    any possibility that an effect could be felt from the rise of latin players? the old adage of, “you don’t walk off the island” and all that.

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  19. Dylan says:

    It took me about 10 minutes to understand the drop in the mid 1940’s. Now I feel really, really dumb.

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