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The Disappearance of Hitters Who Walk More Than They Strike Out

Posted By Bill Petti On June 28, 2012 @ 1:00 pm In Astros,Daily Graphings,Marlins,Mets,Rays,Red Sox,Research,Twins | 36 Comments

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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