More Walks Than Strikeouts: A Disappearing Skillset
Some skills held by ballplayers of yesteryear have deteriorated as the game has evolved. One such skill, the ability for a hitter to walk more than he strikes out, may not be extinct yet, but it is certainly endangered. As of July 22nd there were only six qualified players who had a walk to strikeout ratio of at least 1.0. In 2002, 22 qualified players ended the season with such a rate. Go back to 1992, and 34 players were able to say that they walked more then they struck out. The further you go back, the more players that fit the criteria.
The fact that hitters with this ability are becoming increasingly rare seems to be related to the increase in home runs. However, last year only two players hit more than 40 home runs, while in 2002 eight players knocked at least 40 balls over the fence. Home runs as a whole have been trending down in recent years and yet less players walk more than they strikeout. The biggest culprit for higher strike out rates and lower walk rates is the pitching. Pitching staffs are becoming more specialized, and this makes it easier for both starters and relievers to strike hitters out instead of simply pitching to contact. Joe DiMaggio had seven seasons in which he had more home runs than strikeouts, a feat that is very impressive given that he had 361 home runs in his career. The difference between DiMaggio’s time and the present is that Joltin’ Joe generally faced one pitcher a game, and that pitcher had to conserve his energy to throw nine innings. Today a hitter might face four pitchers in a single game who each throw 95 mph with at least one good off-speed pitch. It’s simply becoming more difficult for hitters because the list of pitchers with good stuff seems to be growing each season.
The aforementioned six players who currently have a BB/K of at least 1.0 consist of Carlos Lee, David Ortiz, Ben Zobrist, David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Joey Votto. Some of these players, such as Lee and Reyes, do not have overly impressive walk rates, but they make up for it by making contact at an excellent rate. Others, such as Joey Votto and Ben Zobrist, strike out more often but also draw a ton of walks. Of these six players, Reyes’s wRC+ of 98 is the lowest, and Wright, Votto, and Ortiz have been among the best hitters in the league. Obviously walking more than striking out is going to be directly correlated to overall success at the plate. Assuming the current trend continues, it is reasonable to suggest that the skillset will eventually disappear entirely, but for now, the players who possess it are going to draw attention from front offices across the league.