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Walk This Way, Or Don’t

Max Bishop, on some levels the walkingest player ever to take ball four.

Max Bishop, on some levels the walkingest player ever to take ball four.

A reader, Geoff, asked recently what player had the greatest difference between his career batting average and his career on base percentage. Naturally, he was asking about players with relatively long careers. So I decided to compile a list of every player with at least 5,000 plate appearances – everyone from Pete Rose with 15,876 trips to the plate to our 943rd ranked player, Lee Lacy with 5,004 PAs – and sort them by differences in BA and OBP.

I thought this work had been done in the past, and once I saw the list below I was sure of it. I would gladly link to anyone who’s already written about this. Just point it out in the comments section below if you wrote it or if you remember where you’ve seen it.

Whether you’ve seen this stuff in the past or you just have a keen sense of baseball’s walking men, you won’t be at all surprised by the results. Here are the top-20 players whose OBP eclipses their BA.

   Player             AVG    OBP   Difference
1  Max Bishop        .271   .423    .152
2  Gene Tenace       .241   .388    .147    
3  Barry Bonds       .298   .444    .146
4  Eddie Stanky      .268   .410    .142
5  Eddie Yost        .254   .394    .140
6  Ted Williams      .344   .482    .138 
7  Babe Ruth         .342   .474    .132
8  Mark McGwire      .241   .369    .131
9  Adam Dunn         .238   .366    .128
   Mickey Tettleton  .241   .369    .128
11 Jim Thome         .276   .402    .126
12 Mickey Mantle     .298   .421    .123
   Roy Thomas        .290   .413    .123
14 Rickey Henderson  .279   .401    .122
   Jason Giambi      .278   .400    .122
   Eddie Joost       .239   .361    .122
17 Joe Morgan        .271   .392    .121
18 Harmon Killebrew  .256   .376    .120
   Earl Torgeson     .265   .385    .120
20 Ralph Kiner       .279   .398    .119

On this list we see some of the best hitters in the game’s history like Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth. We also see some all-or-nothing power guys like Mark McGwire, Harmon Killebrew, and Ralph Kiner. And we see some lesser-known walking men like Max Bishop, Roy Thomas, and the Eddies – Stanky, Yost, and Joost.

I’m most interested in the third group. The first group is just great. The second is as least scary, so pitchers might want to stay away from them. But it’s Max, Roy, and the Eddies that have me perplexed. That’s because they all slugged between .333 for Roy Thomas and the massive .371 for Eddie Yost. Only Yost is within 50 points of anyone else on the list. They’re perplexing, basically, pitchers did a poor job against these five when they didn’t need to. They generally weren’t great enough threats that pitchers shouldn’t have just challenged them with their best heat, even if that heat was mediocre. Even if they got hits, they weren’t likely to be much more valuable than the walks that often would follow.

Our bottom-20 is nearly as interesting as our top-20, maybe more so.

   Player             AVG    OBP   Difference
 1 Ezra Sutton       .294   .316     .022
   Jack Burdock      .250   .272     .022
 3 Ozzie Guillen     .264   .287     .023
 4 Hobe Ferris       .239   .265     .026
 5 Shawon Dunston    .269   .296     .027
   George Stovall    .265   .292     .027
   Jerry Denny       .260   .287     .027
 8 Hal Chase         .291   .319     .028
 9 Charlie Comiskey  .264   .293     .029
10 Manny Sanguillen  .296   .326     .030
   Neifi Perez       .267   .297     .030
   Ken Reitz         .260   .290     .030
13 Garrett Anderson  .293   .324     .031
   Vic Power         .284   .315     .031
   Enos Cabell       .277   .308     .031
   Tommy Helms       .269   .300     .031
   Hy Myers          .281   .312     .031
18 Bill Buckner      .289   .321     .032  
   Everett Scott     .249   .281     .032
   Mickey Rivers     .295   .327     .032
   Willie Davis      .279   .311     .032
   Tim Foli          .251   .283     .032

What a list! Starting from the bottom, we have Bill Buckner, infamous for more than not drawing walks. Everett Scott is there, he of baseball’s longest consecutive game streak other than Ripken and Gehrig. We see Manny Sanguillen, the guy who, coincidentally, took over for Gene Tenace (on the first list) in Oakland in 1977 after Tenace signed as a free agent in San Diego. There’s noted game-thrower, Hal Chase. We have Shawon Dunston, he of the rocket arm and nose for the ball. And then there’s Ezra Sutton at the very top, a player who we just removed from intellectual consideration for the HoME last election.

Ezra Sutton was a third baseman and occasional shortstop whose career spanned from the National Association’s first game in 1871 through the 1888 season. In his time in the NA, 1871-1875, he walked a total of five times in 1079 trips to the plate. Of course, he only struck out on eight occasions, so he was putting his bat on the ball. For the Philadelphia A’s in 1874, he put up what might be the worst three true outcomes season ever, and certainly one of the worst. In 243 plate appearances, he struck out twice, and he failed to either homer or walk. Wow!

Tied with Sutton on our list is Jack Burdock, a second baseman of the same era. “Black Jack” broke in with the 1872 Brooklyn Atlantics, walking just once in 175 trips that season. His career continued through 1888, with a few games in 1891 for good measure, but he never did begin to draw walks. His high was 18 for the 1887 Boston Beaneaters.

I enjoy looking at these bottom guys more than those at the top. So let’s change our parameters some. Just 78 players have come to the plate at least 10,000 times in their careers. Looking at the list from the bottom, let’s see if these players have anything in common.

Billy Buck, one of the swingingest players the game has seen.

Billy Buck, one of the swingingest players the game has seen.

   Player             AVG    OBP   Difference
 1 Bill Buckner      .289    .312     .032
 2 Ivan Rodriguez    .296    .334     .038
 3 Vada Pinson       .286    .327     .041
 5 Nap Lajoie        .338    .380     .042
   Roberto Clemente  .317    .359     .042
 6 Andre Dawson      .279    .323     .044
 8 Dave Parker       .290    .339     .049
   Luis Aparicio     .262    .311     .049
10 Lou Brock         .293    .343     .050
   Tony Gwynn        .338    .388     .050

A couple of things jump out, I guess. First, Lajoie is the only player whose career began prior to 1955. And Lajoie and Buckner are the only Caucasians on the list. There is a Dominican baseball adage that applies to many Latinos, “You don’t walk your way off the island.” But there’s no such thought, as least none with which I’m familiar, about African American players. In any case, it’s an interesting list. Maybe we shouldn’t try to generalize about the players on it. To do so fairly would take more analysis.

Still, we can look at how over-rated some of the above are. Lou Brock, largely because of the massive stolen base total, is clearly better thought of than his overall record suggests he should be. Luis Aparicio, like Brock, is in the Hall but likely doesn’t belong there. Bill Buckner’s career, perhaps, lasted longer than it should have – I know Red Sox fans would agree. Then again, the list does contain some pretty great players like Clemente, Gwynn, and I-Rod. I guess the message here is that stinky players don’t last long enough to come to the plate 10,000 times. And you can be pretty great even if you don’t draw walks.




4 thoughts on “Walk This Way, Or Don’t

  1. As usual, Miller wields the thinking man’s scalpel masterfully. But look what comes jumping out of the patient! I find this list by turns unsurprising and utterly baffling. Tony Gwynn? This is one of the guys, along with Wade Boggs and Paul Moliter, whom I understood to be the batting progeny of Ted Williams, that is to say, a true student of hitting. What gives? Is the tiny differential a function of Gwynn’s ability to put the ball into play? Did this ability cost the team in double plays and less base runners? You boys give me a head-ache…

    Posted by Geoff Shields | March 7, 2014, 11:07 am
    • The Gwynn ranking is pretty simple. First, there are only 78 guys on the entire list, so it’s not shocking that a surprise or two would pop up pretty high on the list. Of course, second, Gwynn isn’t so surprising. He walked in just 7.7% of his plate appearances. Compare that to 9.0% for Molitor, 13.1% for Boggs, and 20.6% for Williams, and you can pretty easily see how Gwynn doesn’t match up in the OBP department.

      Posted by Miller | March 23, 2014, 7:19 am
  2. Very enjoyable post. On the Gwynn front, my recollection is that you just couldn’t walk the guy with an outside pitch between the knees and the head – he just stuck his bat out and hit it to the left side. In looking at his BBREF page I see that despite managing just one year in the top 10 in walks (he was 10th in 1987), he was in the top 5 in OBP 6 times and the top 10 in OBP 10 times.

    I was surprised not to see Alphonso Soriano. So I pulled up his page and was not surprised to see he had an OBP-BA difference of 0.049 but was surprised he amassed just over 8,000 plate appearances. I think of Soriano having had a long career in the majors and generally being injury free. It made me better appreciate the challenge in getting to 10,000 plate appearances.

    Posted by mike teller | March 7, 2014, 11:33 am
  3. You’re right about Gwynn and drawing a walk, Mike. On the PA front, the likes of Mantle, Williams, Gehrig, and Hornsby all failed to reach 10K. We’re talking about some pretty rarefied air at that level.

    Posted by Miller | March 23, 2014, 7:23 am

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