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Walk rates are near historic low

Eric Young Jr. of the Mets strikes out

Eric Young Jr. of the Mets strikes out to end the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

For major-league hitters, getting on base via a walk hasn't been this difficult since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

Pitchers have been issuing bases on balls this year at the game's lowest rate since the summer of 1968, which is commonly known around baseball as "The Year of the Pitcher.''

Pitchers were so dominant that summer -- Denny McLain won 31 games and Bob Gibson recorded the best ERA (1.12) in modern history -- that baseball lowered the mound the next year to make it easier on hitters.

Although pitchers are not nearly as dominant this summer, they're almost as precise with their control. Through Thursday's games, pitchers had issued walks in only 7.8 percent of plate appearances, the lowest walk rate since it was 7.6 percent in 1968.

And this is no one-year anomaly. Walks have been on a downward trend for four straight years.So why is this happening?

Baseball people believe it's a confluence of several factors, beginning with the statistical revolution gaining greater acceptance within front offices.

"The growth of the analytical departments I think has led teams to tell pitchers to pound the strike zone rather than try to get them to swing and miss,'' said Yankees minor-league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, who has been around the game since 1975.

Although Patterson was quick to say pitching coaches have been preaching "pound the zone'' for as long as the game has been around, it's easier for pitchers to follow through when they're not as concerned about the ramifications of doing so.

Home runs peaked in 1999 and 2000, the same two years that the leaguewide walk rate reached its highest point in nearly 50 years.

The relationship between home runs and walks is an easy case to make. An increase in home runs leads to pitchers preferring to nibble around the plate, which leads to more walks. But that's all in the past now.

The average hitter in 2000 had a slash line of .270/.345/ .437. This season a player with those numbers would fit in nicely somewhere in the middle of the batting order for most teams. The typical hitter this year has a slash line of .251/.314/.387.

Pitch counts also are a factor, SNY analyst and former Mets pitcher Ron Darling said.

"Pitchers have realized that 100 pitches is their limit,'' Darling said. "That 100 number is the magic number for coaches, trainers and everyone else . . . I've heard it said many times, guys will say, 'By the fourth pitch, I want him struck out or the ball is in play.' I think more pitchers are doing that.''

Strikeouts also have been on the rise, but baseball folks believe that has as much to do with the hitters' approach as the pitchers' strategy.

Darling noted that the Yankees and Red Sox of a decade ago popularized the strategy of getting a starter's pitch count up to knock him out early. But pitchers have since made an adjustment, throwing more strikes and taking advantage of hitters' patience.

Also, maybe pitchers are just better than a decade ago.

That's what Twins manager Ron Gardenhire believes. Just based on the pitchers he's seen throughout the league, he believes that across the board, they're better than any other year he's been in this game.

There's no question that pitchers are throwing harder. The average fastball this year is 91.7 mph, up from 89.9 in 2002.

Could it be as simple as pitchers understanding that walks do them no good whatsoever?

As Patterson said: "You want to go deeper in the game? Don't walk people. Pound the strike zone.''

And that's what's happening.

Consider that Tuesday, the Tigers beat the Yankees, 4-3, in 12 innings. There were 91 plate appearances, 22 strikeouts . . . and no walks.

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