Who is Responsible for the Red Sox' Poor Walk Rate?

Dustin Pedroia has been one of of several Red Sox players with an unusually low walk rate, but who is responsible for that? (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

As you may have seen in Matt Collins' excellent Daily Links yesterday morning, Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal wrote a great piece about a subject I have been watching carefully this season: the Red Sox' lack of walks. To summarize, the Red Sox have their lowest walk rate (7.4%) since before Jimmie Foxx joined the club and as a result are posting their worst on base percentage since 1992. It is a troubling trend and with just three everyday players posting better than league average walk rates (David Ortiz, Daniel Nava, Cody Ross), it isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

MacPherson’s article has some really intriguing quotes that raise an important question. Who is responsible for the lack of walks? The most seeming definitive answer to that question comes from Bobby Valentine. He is quoted as saying "they’re not walking us." That would seem to indicate that Valentine believes opposing pitchers are responsible for the lack of walks. Hitting coach Dave Magadan might not agree with that assessment, however. Later in the article, when asked about his hitters having the proper plate approach, he is quoted as saying:

"It’s a constant bone of contention. I don’t mind a one- or two-pitch at-bat if you’re hitting a rocket somewhere and you swing at a strike and you swing at your pitch. But when you’re predetermining to swing and rolling over on a pitch that’s down and away and it’s not really a pitch you can do anything with, it’s not what we’re looking for."

Magadan is more vague, but there is definitely some implication that a poor plate approach by Red Sox hitters has caused the drop in walks and OBP. It may not be surprising that Valentine and his hitting coach do not see eye to eye on this issue. Back when the "toxic clubhouse" reports were circulating, Ken Rosenthal suggested that there was a rift between the coaches who worked under former manager Terry Francona (like Dave Magadan) and Bobby Valentine and the coaches that came with him. Regardless of possible internal issues, the difference in the two perspectives is important to the Red Sox future offensive success. If Valentine is correct and pitchers are no longer walking Red Sox hitters, the team will need to adapt to that difficult new reality, if Magadan’s implication that Red Sox hitters are not taking a careful, patient approach it true, major changes will need to be made in the hitters’ preperations and possibly even in the roster to change this course.

On the surface, Bobby Valentine’s claim appears to be exactly the type of thoughtless, old-school assumption that his critics (of which I am certainly one) fear he gives far too much weight. The idea that a walk is nothing more than a mistake a pitcher makes is fairly baseless. Hitters’ walk rates tend to be among the more stable statistics available to us and that strongly indicates that, as Magadan implies, hitters’ approach is responsible for walks as much as pitchers’ error. Yet, Bobby Valentine has more than forty years experience in the game and is often referred to as being among the smartest minds in the game. Dismissing his take without giving some deference to his experience is simply wrong, especially since we do have some ways of examining who is really responsible for this trend. It is completely possible that pitcher’s are simply not walking Red Sox hitters, but is that the case?

To start with, let’s look at the team’s overall plate discipline numbers (care of Fangraphs Pitch F/X database. The Red Sox are seeing almost exactly the average number of pitches in the strike zone. So, at the most basic level, pitchers are not doing anything different against the Red Sox with respect to throwing more strikes. That seems to be direct contrast to Valentine’s theory, but it doesn’t necessary mean he is wrong. Right now, American League hitters are swinging at 44.8% of all pitches, and Red Sox hitters are swing at 44.5%, just a hair less than average. Red Sox hitters are chasing slightly fewer pitches out-of-the-zone than the league at 27.9% (AL average is 28.4%) as well, but they are also making more contact on those pitches at 68.6% (AL average 65%). The difference in the team’s 7.4% walk rate and a league average rate of 8.2% is 30-31 extra walks, so unless almost every bit of that extra contact came at the expense of a walk, the extra contact alone doesn’t entirely explain this drop off in walks.

Contrasting these numbers with the 2011 team, which walked 9% of the time, almost one percent better than the league average of 8.1%, only complicates things more. Last years team was less likely to swing at pitches out of the zone by a full percent (26.9% O-swing%), but that is offset by the fact that they were a full percentage point more likely to swing at pitches in the zone and they saw one percent more of those, resulting in- you guessed it- an overall contact rate that was one percent higher. Simply looking at how much the team swings and makes contact can’t answer this question. The Red Sox have been generally less selective with their swings, but that alone can’t explain the 1.6% drop in walks.

Part of the issue is that Red Sox hitters are striking out more. In fact, it almost seems that they have traded walks for strikeouts. After striking out 17.3% of the time last year, they are now striking out 19.2% a change of 1.9% that is not far from the 1.5% of walks they have given up. That could well be the answer to where the walks have gone, but it doesn’t answer the question of who is responsible, Red Sox hitter or opposing pitchers.

Looking at the Red Sox hitters by count tells an interesting story. Currently the Red Sox are putting a lower percentage of first pitches and second pitches into play (1-0 and 0-1 combined) into play by a slight (basically negligible) margin. They are a hair below the AL average for both as well. It is at least fair to say that the Red Sox are not swinging at too many pitches early in the count. However, this year’s team is not hitting as well in those counts. Their .813 OPS on first pitches is significantly down from their .861 last season and their .806 OPS on second pitches is even more dramatically down at from .972. Both are below league average. These are small samples, of course, but Magadan’s concern is not unfounded- this year’s team is not picking the best pitches to swing at early in counts (at least relative to last year’s squad). However, this alone is no reason for the team to draw substantially fewer walks, since they are simply hitting worse in fewer early count swings, not swinging more frequently.

Where this really gets interesting, though, is late in the count. The 2012 team is seeing almost exactly as many two strike counts as last year’s team (50% of at bats), but a getting into 2% fewer three ball counts. The reason is simple, pitchers are getting ahead of Red Sox hitters more. They are also now seeing 0-1, 0-2 and 1-2 counts .02% above league average and 1.5% more than least year. Though the team may be swing at more pitches out-of-the-zone than they did previously, the implication here is that they are seeing more strikes early in the count. Since the Red Sox are swinging less than league average overall and make more contact when they do, it follows that many of these counts come from called strikes. Selective hitters need to take tough pitch strikes early in the count to get a chance a better pitch later, but hitting behind in the count also comes with disadvantages, mainly that you often have to go out of the zone with two strikes if the pitch is close. So while the Red Sox have been less selective with their swings, it also seems that pitchers have been more aggressive early on and those two things may not be unrelated.

It is no secret that I don’t have much faith in Bobby Valentine’s leadership, but he could be on to something in this case. For hitters like Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, who are posting unusually low walk rates, this may be a sign that they are not taking an extremely different plate approach, but just adapting to the more aggressive pitching environment. This is by no means the definitive study of the Red Sox hitting approach, but the idea that opposing pitchers are responsible for the Red Sox lack of walks is not a ridiculous as it may sound. If this is the case, the Red Sox will still need to be more selective, but they may also need to improve their early count hitting, since that may be when they see the best pitches.

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