A few cultural musings on the walk

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.

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9 Responses to A few cultural musings on the walk

  1. Millsy says:

    I don’t know if I totally agree with you, Pizza Cutter. During the games, the coaches and players are constantly saying ‘A walk is as good as a hit’. This starts pretty young, from my memory. While there is something to encouraging young kids to have fun and compete with their athletic ability, this stops pretty quickly once your turn 10 or 11. The thing that’s always been true of baseball is that it has such a mental component to it, above what many other sports require.
    I remember back to the days of 11-12 year old travel league, where not a single one of our players would swing at the first pitch. I remember specifically our coaches discouraging it, as we were to take advantage of the 11 year old kid that couldn’t throw us anything near the plate. We were good and I think this was one of the reasons. We were a patient team. Oh, and with 70 bases with leading and stealing allowed, we also stole second EVERY time we got on first base. So a walk is as good as a double.
    I don’t think there was any real shameful view of the walk. Guys loved the walk. I think the resistance came from the feeling that it was being shoved down the throats of those with a more traditional view of the game. It’s hard to think one thing your entire life, then be told, “Well, BABIP is the same for everyone, so unless you walk or hit a home run, you don’t actually have any skill”. But I don’t think it was discouraged to the point that you imply here.

  2. Millsy says:

    Funny I would come by this today…but I was reading through the book Sports Economics (Fort, 2005) and came across a neat little table related to this post.
    1880-Walk REDUCED to 8 balls
    1881-Mound moved to 50 feet
    1882-Walk reduced to 7 balls
    1884-Walk reduced to 6 balls
    1886-Walk increased to 7 balls
    1887-Strikeout changed to 4 strikes
    1888-Strikeout reduced to 3 strikes
    1889-Walk reduced to 4 balls
    1893-Mound moved to 60’6″
    1920-Lively Ball introduced

  3. Dan Novick says:

    I always find it odd that it’s seen as a HUGE problem when a pitcher walks too many guys, but seems to be only a minor plus for a batter when he walks.
    Daniel Cabrera used to get criticized by all types of baseball fans for his absurd walk rates. But how often did you see someone like Todd Helton getting praised for the same thing? When Helton stopped hitting home runs, there wasn’t much talk of him still being a valuable player due to his elite walk rate.
    On another note… I think Moneyball may have lead people to overvalue the walk. In trying to show how valuable walks are, I think sabermetricians may have gone too far and insinuated that they are just as valuable as singles (look at the original version of RC, for example). The average baseball fan (rightfully so) saw that this wasn’t true, as walks don’t advance runners as far as singles. But they also took it too far in saying that walks don’t matter, clog the bases, etc. Maybe we’ll reach a happy medium some day.
    Wow, that was almost a post by itself.

  4. Peter Jensen says:

    I always find it odd that it’s seen as a HUGE problem when a pitcher walks too many guys, but seems to be only a minor plus for a batter when he walks.
    Maybe that’s because a pitcher is much more in control than the batter (or should be) of who walks and who doesn’t. A pitcher has to throw the ball out of the strike zone four times during a plate appearance for the batter to even have an opportunity to walk. The average fan sees the pitcher’s job as throwing strikes so it is a big failure when he doesn’t do that. Conversely, the average fan sees the batters job as hitting the ball. A walk seems to be something that happens to a batter rather than something the batter is trying to accomplish.

  5. Michael Peak says:

    I think a lot of it has to do with the fan’s/manager’s expectations on the side of the hitter and the pitcher. When Dunn comes to the plate his fans hope/expect to see him hit a home run so a walk is a disappointment. On the other side the pitcher’s fans expect to see him strikeout so a walk is a disappointment.

  6. Pizza Cutter says:

    Adam Dunn reference! Everyone take a shot.

  7. Colin Wyers says:

    The original version of RC underrates the walk.

  8. Dan Novick says:

    I realize that, Colin, but that’s not what I really meant. A lot of people read Moneyball and said “OMG WALKS ARE AMAZING” which is clearly an overstatement.
    The part about walks=singles in the parenthesis is wrong. I’m not sure why I wrote that, considering your THT article from like two weeks ago.

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