When Walk Years Don’t Work

The theory goes that some players can turn it on in the final years of their existing contracts on their way to free agency. The data say otherwise, as both writers and teams, have discovered. In 2013, we witnessed two contrasting examples of walk years from Ubaldo Jimenez and Phil Hughes. Jimenez seemingly flipped a switch in June, pitched like his old self and exercised an out clause in his deal with Cleveland to jump feet-first into a cash-rich free-agent crop. Then there was Hughes, a pitcher who statistically regressed in his walk year. As Buster Olney tweeted yesterday:

If you talk to informed fans and analysts, everyone has a theory on what went wrong with Hughes. Mike Axisa, of River Ave Blues, reviewed Hughes’ issues last week. Axisa highlighted problems with home runs, with pitch-count efficiency and with Hughes’ inability to work deep into games. The latter issue was a byproduct of the fact Hughes is primarily a two-pitch pitcher who lacks a put-away pitch.

Mitchel Licthman recently published work on the penalty two-pitch pitchers paid each time through the batting order. His work discovered pitchers who relied primarily on two pitches saw their opponents’ wOBA increase by 24 points from the first to the third time through a batting order. Hughes, at least for 2013, was quite the outlier as his wOBA was relatively consistent, but only because it was consistently high.

Year 1st PA 2nd PA 3rd PA
2010 0.277 0.299 0.357
2011 0.325 0.337 0.387
2012 0.304 0.338 0.357
2013 0.354 0.358 0.359

Throwing strikes and working while ahead was not a problem for Hughes, either. Hughes threw strikes 67% of the time this past season, which was one of the 10 best rates in baseball. He also was tops in baseball in throwing first-pitch strikes. In fact, just 15% of the pitches he threw in 2013 came in hitter-favorable counts. However, his .472 wOBA in those situations was nearly 50 points above the league average; his .382 wOBA when he was even in the count didn’t help matters, either.

Pitching in Yankee Stadium was also certainly an issue for him, as 17 of his 24 home runs came at home. HitTrackerOnline shows that Hughes led the Yankee staff in “just enough” home runs last year with six. Clearly, he could benefit from pitching his home games in a more spacious park, like, for example, Kauffman Stadium. The data show that Hughes would have potentially allowed eight fewer home runs had he pitched his home games there, rather than in Yankee Stadium. Historically, his home/road wOBA splits have been more alternating at home while remaining rather steady on the road.

Year Home Away
2010 0.324 0.277
2011 0.389 0.302
2012 0.322 0.334
2013 0.381 0.315

Two factors that didn’t help when Hughes pitched at home was his hit rate and his home-run-to-fly-ball rate. Hughes had a .288 BABIP during his 2013 road starts but a .360 BABIP when he pitched at home. His HR/FB rate was just 6.6% on the road but more than doubled to 14.5% at home.

Perhaps like Ed Whitson, Javier Vazquez and A.J. Burnett before him, Hughes’ pitching in a physical — as well as a mental — situation that did not suit his game wore on him. Yankee Stadium is a challenging place to pitch, especially for an extreme fly-ball pitcher. His process, while far from flawless, has played out well on the road but has had inconsistent results in The Bronx.

It would seem likely he would find more success in a better run environment, and his success could be furthered by improving his third pitch. A team looking for a back-end starting pitcher who pitches in a suppressing run-environment may find themselves a bargain for the near future.




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33 Responses to “When Walk Years Don’t Work”

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  1. Fandagan says:

    I recall Andruw Jones had a down walk year only to follow it up with a historically bad season in LA.

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  2. Brad Johnson says:

    This is all tied up in clutchiness. The idea that players can just suddenly become better because they want to be better (due to situation, walk year, or whatever) absent of any other change is positively ludicrous.

    Is it believable that players may undergo more rigorous conditioning, especially during the offseason, eater healthier, study more game tape and generally prepare better than they would if it wasn’t a walk year? Absolutely. But what if the player already did all those things right (as a lot do)? Then there’s really no scope for magical improvement in the walk year.

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    • tz says:

      For example, if Adrian Beltre had a magic “walk year” formula that led to his monster season in LA, you’d think he’d just turn that same switch on during his final year in Seattle.

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      • NS says:

        I think we can discard this “magic” and “absent of any other change” canard. None of the people who believe in the walk-year phenomenon are taking the position that the motivation *by itself* improves performance.

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        • tz says:

          People who use the word “canard” tend to be dismissive of other viewpoints, using phrases such as “I think we can discard….”

          They also invariably like to generalize about those they disagree with :-~

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        • NS says:

          I encouraged you to address the things people actually say rather than straw caricatures. If doing that is the same as being “dismissive of your viewpoint”, your viewpoint very probably deserves to be dismissed.

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        • tz says:

          Tongue in cheek, man. Although, my snarkiness was probably triggered by the “canard” phenomenon:

          – I’ve maybe seen or heard the word “canard” used about a dozen times ever

          – Each time, except for one or maybe two, the person using that word was a known douchebag.

          – So, based on the SSS-driven correlation of my memorable discussions where the word “canard” was used, I am biased to believe that the person using that word is, well, you know…

          All kidding aside, great seasons “timed” just right before impending free agency tend to stick out in our minds strongly enough to make us prone to believe in a walk-year phenomenon. Even before Beltre in 2004, I had observed how Danny Jackson seemed to get healthy and very effective right before his next crack at free agency.

          (It also doesn’t hurt the walk-year perception when Beltre and Jayson Werth, two of the biggest walk-year stories, happen to be Scott Boras clients.)

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        • pft says:

          Motivation may improve strength and conditioning due to increased workouts, which may improve performance. Yaz had a Triple Crown after spending the off-season working out with a strength coach for the first time, and more doubling his career season high HR totals. Many other examples.

          I don’t think its too far fetched to believe that better conditioning and strength improves performance, and you need to be motivated to work out in the offseason. Money is a great motivator, that’s why players take PED’s (which is just an extreme way to improve conditioning in conjunction with gym time).

          In fact, with the testing some players may be limiting PED usage to contract years. Then the question is was their performance improved due to the PED’s or the increased workouts due to their increased motivation. Not that it matters.

          Some of the disappointment with players who have signed long term deals in recent years and underperformed projections may be precisely because of the reduced motivation that results in lower strength and poorer conditioning of the player due to less intense and/or less frequent workouts in the off-season.

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      • Mr Punch says:

        He did it in Boston.

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      • pft says:

        He was injured his final year which was why he signed a 1 yr deal to get another shot at the contract year. Hitting at Fenway and being healthy did not hurt either, but he was in great shape. Whether he was in the same shape with Seattle or subsequently in Texas I can’t say.

        Not every player will slack off after getting a long term deal but some surely do, which makes character assessment an important factor in signing such players to long term deals.

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        • tz says:

          Good point on the injury pft. Ironically, Beltre had a busted thumb all throughout 2004, but allegedly the pain was so bad on any mishit ball that he changed his approach – which appears to show up in a career low O-Swing % in 2004.

          I also wonder if the character assessment may explain some of his results in Seattle. Beltre is one of the most intense and competitive athletes out there, and looking at his plate discipline numbers in Seattle one would think he was pressing very hard to be an “RBI guy” (looking at his dramatically higher O-Swing %). If ARod began taking PEDs to live up to his big contract in Texas, certainly other players may have had bad reactions to their long-term contracts because of good character traits.

          In short, there may be a place to look at character assessment in predicting player behavior under various scenarios, including contract status. However, the interplay of character and performance is probably more complex than “bad character = walk-year phenomenon”. Players who “try too hard” to live up to a big money long-term deal might have a similar performance pattern as the ones who only give a crap when there’s money to be made the following year.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I don’t think it’s so far-fetched for someone to take it easy once they have a guaranteed contract. They won’t necessarily become a slob like Andruw Jones, but it’s easier to take a day off, or not wake up early, when you have a multi-year contract for $10MM/year. Heck, look at how people look 2 years after they get married – once they have the commitment, there’s not as much motivation to give it 100% :)

      I don’t think it will have a major impact, since most professionals have enough pride and dedication to stay in shape regardless of their contract situation, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous that they’d give it a little extra effort when they’re in a contract year.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        We also have to keep in mind that professional athletes are some of the most competitive people in the world. It’s very hard to get paid to play a game if you aren’t all kinds of driven.

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        • NS says:

          There seems to be some significant variance in conditioning every year in spring training, which suggests at the very least significant variance in the kind of commitment you described earlier.

          You’re still of course right that there is nothing magical about motivation that *by itself* can make a player perform better. But you might be underestimating the room for improvement extra motivation can capitalize on.

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        • tz says:

          To follow up to my tongue in cheek comment above, I don’t necessarily disagree with possibility of incentives driving some portion of performance. It’s just that there are as many counter-examples of the walk-year phenomenon as there are examples. Perhaps some guys try a bit too hard during their walk years and stress out, causing their performance to actually worsen. This may actually explain some part of Hughes’ 2013 results.

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  3. vivalajeter says:

    It seems obvious to me that he’d greatly benefit by staying in NY, but switching leagues. If someone’s willing to give him a 4-year deal, then he should go for it. But if he wants to take a pillow contract and cash in next year, why not move to Queens? They have a great ballpark for fly-ball pitchers, they could potentially have a great defensive outfield (assuming they don’t sign Cruz – in which case, they’d have 2/3 of a great defensive outfield), and he’d get to face opposing pitchers. He’s also unlikely to receive a qualifying offer next off-season, unless he has a truly great year.

    If he can put together a sub-4.00 era next season and hit free agency without a qualifying offer, he should be able to cash in.

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  4. Karen W. says:

    If Phil Hughes can’t get his act together this season / develop a decent 3rd pitch someone should really just turn him into a late reliever or closer.

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  5. Mike Emeigh says:

    Pittsburgh. He wouldn’t be the first ex-Yankee pitcher to find success there after being up-and-down in the Bronx.

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  6. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Hughes seems like the kind of guy who would do quite well at a pitcher’s park. FanGraphs seems to think he has been pretty valuable WAR-wise and his HR problems would be vastly helped.

    If the Royals or Padres are serious about contending, getting him as a middle/late starter would be a good start. Teams like the Mets could also use him, even if just as trade fodder. Dude was born in California and is cheap, maybe the Angels would go after him since he is an upgrade they might be able to afford, or the Dodgers as a guy who would be a good reliever who can spot start or fill in for injuries?

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  7. Sports Enthusiast says:

    Hughes would be incredible at the Coliseum in front of their outfield. I mean, Bartolo Colon. Nuff said.

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  8. Shankbone says:

    Thanks for the read, and pointing out that it doesn’t always work out. Giants fans seem convinced Pablo Sandoval is going to play like it was 2011 next year, and I just don’t know where that confidence comes from. He is an extremely inconsistent performer, flashing huge talent and then going away for a some Panda breaks.

    Dan Haren and Josh Johnson didn’t burn it up either. They get to try again on the West Coast.

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  9. Scoops Haagen-Dazs says:

    Is Shelby Miller gonna become the next Phill Hughes? :(

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  10. Purple Jesus says:

    But if Phil Hughes played for the ’68 Dodgers last year he would’ve had a 3.61 ERA 1.197 WHIP.

    Of course if Clayton Kershaw played for the ’68 Dodgers he would’ve had a 1.40 ERA and a 0.803 WHIP over 238 innings..

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  11. pft says:

    So I wonder who gets the better contract, Hughes who had an awful “contract year” or Jiminez who had a very good one.

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  12. Ehsan Kassim says:

    Great article, Jason. I think he is someone the Marlins need to add, for multiple reasons. He would really benefit from pitching in Marlins Parkhttp://marlinmaniac.com/2013/11/25/phil-hughes-nice-buy-low-option-miami-marlins/

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  13. bpdelia says:

    There is legitimate concern about Hughes’s personality and work ethic. He seems like a really good guy and is an interluding intelligent fellow but he is an example of someone who perhaps doesn’t have enough confidence or at least a strong enough personality.

    The Yankees failed miserably by twice changing his mechanics and thrice changing his third pitch.

    And of course he was rushed to the majors.

    It’s hard to ask a20 year old kid with two real good pitches to learn a third one on the fly in a media intense environment.

    He was under tremendous pressure and because he isn’t a jerk or megalomaniac he continually took advice and never settled on a pitch. He went from slider to change up to cutter to slider to cutter and back to slider over four years.

    If he lands somewhere with a great pitching coach and a big outfield I’m confident he can become a solid mid rotation pitcher.

    Anecdotally this year just looked like the classic nightmare year. Things went bad and you could see the frustration and scrambling creeping anxiety on his face.

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  14. LillieSmith0 says:

    my step-mom just bought a nice 6 month old Lexus GS 350 Sedan just by working from a home pc. read more Cloud40com

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