Perhaps the tortoise had something on the hare –- he knew how to walk. A select group of players this year are taking the tortoise’s path to success by increasing their walk rates significantly. In particular, improved plate selectivity is working well for Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau and Franklin Gutierrez, and is the reason why their fast starts should be believed.
Morneau’s big season is similar to another player who recently rode an increase in walks into a huge season. Between 2008 and 2009, Adrian Gonzalez saw his walk rate increase 6.9 percent, which compares favorably with Morneau’s 6.7 percent increase in the same category this year. Gonzalez's corresponding career-best OPS was not all driven by the walks alone -– Gonzalez also put up a career-best slugging percentage last year, just as Morneau is doing this season.
Biggest Increase in Walk Rate, from 2009 to 2010
An increased walk rate doesn't always mean success at the plate, though.
A quick glance at the table above shows that improving your walk alone is not the magic key to success. For every Morneau on this list, there is a struggling Jason Kubel to serve as anecdotal evidence in that regard, although even he has shown signs of coming around lately.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice the success stories. As measured by ISO (isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average), Colby Rasmus, Willingham, Morneau, Aaron Hill and Kevin Youkilis are all enjoying years more powerful than their career rates. In fact, the average 2010 ISOs of the 10 men on this list are 6.2 percent better than their career ISOs.
The theory is pretty simple: By being more patient, these guys are getting into good hitters' counts and getting better pitches to swing at. When they don't get the pitch they're looking for, they simply wander on down to first base, helping their team by avoiding outs. Increasing walk rate isn't the only way to improve, but as we're seeing from these notable spikes in patience, it is certainly one way to make yourself a better player.
Eno Sarris is a writer for FanGraphs.