April 29, 2009 9 Comments
Last night, I was washing the dishes and musing on baseball, specifically about the walk. Much has been written on the hidden beauty of the base on balls among Sabermetric types, but the poor walk can’t seem to get its due. It doesn’t even count as an at-bat. Originally, it was considered that, as the batter, you were a mere passive by-stander in the walk, and so you should not be credited for it… or even have that 2 minutes of your life acknowledged in the official stats. Then came Moneyball. If there is one critique of Moneyball that I heard over and over again, it was a semi-derisive, “Why are you guys so obsessed with walks?” How did the walk go from the red-headed step-child of batting outcomes to an outcome over which people had philosophical discussions?
Oddly enough, I don’t think that fans are responding to specific walks. Go to a game where your team needs a base runner. If the leadoff guy draws a walk, those in attendance will cheer, because… well, he just did something good. There’s no denying that a walk is a positive outcome for the batter. Why the hate for those who are particularly good at drawing them?
It occurred to me that we are actually bred from our earliest baseball days to eschew the walk. At first, you probably played backyard baseball where no one kept the count. You might have had rules about striking out, but no one ever walked. The point was to smack the ball, run around, and pretend that you were one of the local heroes. Then in Little League or rec center ball or whatever, there was finally an umpire to keep the count, but you also only had the field for an hour or so before the next group of 9-year-olds and their parents came by. Your coach told you to swing, partly because the idea was to teach you hand-eye coordination, but also because swinging moved the game along. A walk takes at least four pitches (usually more). Chances are that on one of your three swings, you’d at least do something useful. Actually aiming for a walk was something that was kinda selfish and probably subtly, if not openly discouraged. You’re taking away valuable game time.
Then there’s the mandatory male training in American culture that it’s not OK to wait for something to come to you. Swinging and missing is a bummer, but there’s a certain honor to having tried. At least you went out and did something. Think for a moment though. Rec league pitchers, if you really called the strike zone, aren’t all that accurate. There are probably some pitchers against whom a team could probably pile up runs by simply standing there and waiting for ball four. It would probably work, but after a few innings, the ridicule from the stands for using this unorthodox strategy would be unbearable. Sports are supposed to be won with brute force, not brain cells.
So, is it any wonder that by the time a baseball fan comes of age, he’s pre-disposed against the walk? Maybe that’s why it’s still considered something of a shameful outcome. We’ve been told our whole baseball lives to have a “good eye”, but in the actual playing of the game, it is played in ways that either de-emphasize the walk or subtly dispairage it.