Even before Adam Eaton was traded for Mark Trumbo, we knew that on base percentage wasn’t the highest priority for the Diamondbacks. Trumbo’s .297 career OBP in the majors would be somewhat below average this season, and Adam Eaton’s career OBP in the minors was a mind-blowing .449. It would be foolish to think Eaton could match that in the majors, but only 9 qualified hitters are over .400 OBP this year. Stolen bases or no, Eaton has a chance of being the best leadoff man in the game in the near future. But I digress. The trade of Eaton is not the only sign that the D-backs front office or field staff has de-emphasized the value of walks; the best sign is that they haven’t had many of them.
This is surprising news, because last season, the D-backs were actually 3rd in the NL in walks, making being 15th right now a pretty large drop for a lineup that has stayed more or less the same. The Miami Marlins are currently the class of the league in terms of walks, with 164 (and the NL’s second-highest OBP, after the Rockies). The D-backs are at the back of the pack in the senior circuit with just 114 walks, well below the league average of 139.
25 walks under average may not seem like much, but consider this: the D-backs are leading the NL in games played (49) thanks in part to the Australia series, and trail only the Dodgers, their Australia opponents, in plate appearances. In the current run environment, a walk is worth about 0.34 runs; the gap between league average in walks and where the D-backs find themselves happens to be a difference of almost exactly one win. If you speculated that each of those 25 not-walks were outs, that total would mushroom to two wins — and less than a third of the season has been played.
Two weeks ago, Jeff Wiser broke down the D-backs position players and compared their performance to pre-season ZiPS projections. Other than Mark Trumbo and Cody Ross, each starting player had either come close to their projected OBP or exceeded it. So it’s not like the team’s staggeringly low walk total is a product of poor performance — it’s a product of design.
There’s more than one way to win a baseball game, but it does seem that the D-backs front office has prioritized those positive offensive traits (like batting average and home runs). Those qualities may have helped the team avoid having a high number of runners left on base — at 344, Arizona’s left on base total is just 5th-highest in the league, with at least three more games played than each of the next 4 teams on the list. But those qualities can also lead to fewer base runners overall. Fewer base runners hurts in two ways, because in addition to having fewer players to drive home, not getting on base means recording outs. Said differently, getting on base instead of recording an out means that at least one other player gets an extra plate appearance (ignoring the effect of double plays).
Oddly, despite trailing the league in walks, the D-backs have seen a number of pitches per plate appearance that is exactly league average (3.81 P/PA). It’s not like the D-backs are swinging and missing a lot, driving up P/PA that way — their swinging strike rate (8.1% of swings) is bested only by that of St. Louis (7.9%). When they swing, they don’t miss — hence a Contact% of 81.7%, which again trails only St. Louis.
So with a contact rate that high and a walk rate that low, how do the D-backs prop up that P/PA rate?
The answer is that despite not being “selective” in terms of drawing walks, the D-backs are very choosy about the pitches they swing at, much in the mold of Martin Prado. The team has a low Swing% of 45.3%, bested in the NL only by the Mets and Nationals. That’s really just a strange thing for a low-walk team; the Mets (152) and Nationals (140) have done quite well with their walk totals.
The template that emerges, then, is of a team that rarely swings early in the count, but that works like hell to make contact after a few pitches have been thrown. Some of that may be an “RBI pressure” phenomenon — hitters like Paul Goldschmidt may be expanding the strike zone to get runners home, perhaps making this a coaching issue.
It’s hard to blame them for waiting out pitchers, however; several D-backs have done well in two-strike counts this year, and the team was excellent in two-strike counts last year, as well. In 3-2 counts, the D-backs hit , as opposed to the .219 NL average. In fact, the D-backs did pretty well compared to the NL as a whole with at least 3 pitches already recorded:
Other than in 2-1 counts, the D-backs performed better than league average last season when deep in the count. So I suppose if it’s not broken, there’s nothing to fix.
Still, something is going on here. Last year, the lowest total in the NL was Milwaukee’s 407. This year, the D-backs are on a pace to finish with just 377 walks — far below their 519 total from last season. It doesn’t seem like we can blame only the struggles of Mark Trumbo and Cody Ross — and I’m shocked that the limited plate appearances of Tuffy Gosewisch, Tony Campana, Alfredo Marte and Ender Inciarte may be the main explanation.
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