Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Impatient Red Sox missing out
By Jeremy Lundblad
It's not easy to succeed if you don't take what's given to you.
In the case of the 2012 Boston Red Sox, a failure to draw walks has helped translate into mediocrity.
The Red Sox entered Monday averaging 2.84 walks per game. In the American League, only the lowly Kansas City Royals have walked less often.
In fact, you'd have to go back to the pre-World War II era to find the last time Boston walked so infrequently. The Red Sox have walked once every 13.52 plate appearances, the most plate appearances per walk (PA per BB) since 14.48 in 1931.
That 1931 squad finished 62-90 with only one above-average bat in the lineup (Earl Webb). The next 80 years -- from Ted Williams to "Moneyball" -- all saw a higher walk rate than the Red Sox have displayed in 2012.
Even with productive bats in the lineup, the low walk totals mean that Boston is on track for its lowest on-base percentage since 1992. To make matters worse, no Red Sox team has ever struck out more.
Just three seasons ago, walks were integral to Boston's offense. The Red Sox enjoyed the highest walk rate in the American League in 2009 with both Jason Bay and J.D. Drew finishing in the top 10 in total walks. Kevin Youkilis had the second highest on-base percentage in the league.
That's all changed. The same franchise that walked once every 9.6 plate appearances in 2009 needs 13.5 plate appearances to draw a walk in 2012. The Red Sox are on pace for 197 fewer walks in 2012 than they had in 2009.
So what's at the root of Boston's decreased walk totals? Did the Red Sox suddenly abandon "Moneyball" principles? Is it a case of underperforming players? Like many other aspects of their 2012 woes, it's a combination of several coinciding factors.
A decline in walks has been in part due to personnel decisions. Boston replaced three on-base stalwarts with free-swingers.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is Boston's least patient catcher in a generation. He's currently on track to be the fourth Red Sox player in the live ball era with back-to-back seasons of 300-plus plate appearances and an OBP below .290, joining Tony Pena, Denny Doyle and Shano Collins.
Boston opted to part ways with one of MLB's most patient shortstops in Marco Scutaro, a hitter almost incapable of swinging at the first pitch. In his place, Mike Aviles has the fourth-lowest walk rate in the majors with just 15 walks in more than 400 plate appearances. No Red Sox shortstop has walked less frequently since Everett Scott in 1920.
At third base, the Red Sox turned the page on Kevin Youkilis, who owns the11th-highest walk rate in franchise history. Will Middlebrooks, for all his promise and productivity, sorely lacks plate discipline at this stage of his career. His 26.8 plate appearances per walk would be the fourth most for a Red Sox rookie in the live ball era.
Injuries have also forced less-polished batters into the Red Sox lineup. The eight different players to patrol center field in Jacoby Ellsbury's absence combined for a total of 14 walks. Pedro Ciriaco has filled in capably at several positions, but his 79 plate appearances are tied for second most in the majors among those with one walk or fewer.
Yet, no player symbolizes Boston's walk decline more than Adrian Gonzalez. Boston thought it was getting one of the game's most patient hitters. In 2009, he led the majors in walks. This season, he's tied for 134th.
In his career, Gonzalez had never gone 20 games without drawing a walk. This season, he's had streaks of 24 and 29 games. Need more perspective on his 27 walks? Consider that Gonzalez had 35 intentional walks in 2010.
His 16.3 plate appearances per walk would be the most for a Red Sox first baseman since Bill Buckner in 1986.
So what changed? Gonzalez is swinging at 32 percent of first pitches, up from 28 percent in 2011. He's had 66 one-pitch plate appearances in 2012, tied with notorious free-swinger Ichiro Suzuki for eighth most in the AL. Those numbers point to a player pressing to break out of a season-long slump.
But the issues extend beyond the first pitch. When Gonzalez gets the count to three balls, he still isn't drawing walks. Only 34 percent of his three-ball counts result in walks. That's down from 48 percent last season and 53 percent in his final year in San Diego.
Gonzalez is inexplicably chasing pitches when he could be drawing a walk. With three balls, he's chasing 51 percent of pitches outside the zone. Three years ago, he chased less than a quarter of those pitches.
With injuries and pitching woes, plate discipline may come in a distant third in placing blame for 2012 mediocrity. Yet, it's no coincidence that consistency is the only thing Boston is chasing more than pitches.