Soft refusal and then surrender
I have not yet seen “Blinded by the Light,” the new Bruce Springsteen-inspired movie. I have not seen anything because I’ve spent the last month in my self-imposed two-homer prison … I hope now that I am free to see it this weekend. If I do, I’ll tell you all about it.
Bruce fans will appreciate the title. But this one isn’t about the Boss.
Before I get into what this is about (spoiler alert: it’s about walks!), I need to say that the two-homer streak restarted on Thursday because Gleyber Torres* hit two home runs again. That is the eighth time this year and the 10th time in his career that Torres has hit two homers in a game.
*The Yankees got him in a trade with the Chicago Cubs for closer Aroldis Chapman and then two months later the Yankees just signed Chapman back because the Yankees are the worst.
Torres has a shot at the all-time record of 11 two-homer games in a season co-held by Sammy Sosa and Hank Greensberg. You might say: “Come on, he’d have to have four more two-homer games in six weeks to break that record! Absurd!”
It would indeed be absurd … except Torres has four two-homer games THIS MONTH.*
*Just a reminder that the Yankees got him in a trade with the Chicago Cubs for closer Aroldis Chapman and then two months later the Yankees just signed Chapman back because the Yankees are the worst
Anyway, no, this is not a pickup of the two-homer experience — even I’m not dumb enough to do THAT to myself. Well, I’m not QUITE dumb enough to pick it up from Game 1. On the PosCast, I did vow to Mike Schur that if this streak gets back up to 19 games — halfway to the record — I will pick it up there. And, as a bonus, I will make Mike will co-write the first one with me.
As you might have figured out, my super surprise had the streak gotten to 40 games was that Mike Schur would have written the daily update.
But back to our regularly scheduled refusal and surrender post.
My pal — the brilliant designer of new ways to look at baseball, Tom Tango — has come up with a super-cool new baseball stat, one I sort of, kind of, helped inspire it. This is a stat about refusing walks.
There are already some amazing stats on batters who swing at pitches out of the strike zone. But this is a little bit different, a little bit more direct. Tango, you probably know, spends his days thinking up cool new ways to use the almost unlimited data he gets from Statcast. One of my favorite things he has done is divide up the pitching areas into four zones:
— The heart of the zone
— The shadow zone
— The chase zone
— The waste zone
I helped Tango name these (again, sort of) and you can probably guess where each of these zones is located. But, even cooler, you can see it visually here:
Pretty cool, right? Now there’s a lot that you can do with this information — a lot Tango IS doing with this information — but for our purposes you will want to know how often each type of pitch is called a strike.
— Pitches in the heart of the zone, as you might expect, are almost always called a strike. Sure, we would prefer that there wasn’t an an “almost” there, that they were ALWAYS called strikes, but umpires are still calling them strikes between 98 and 99 percent of the time.
— Pitches in the shadow zone are called strikes about 50% of the time but do you see the dotted line that runs between the numbers 11 through 19? That line is important: That’s the semi-official strike zone line. Pitches inside that line (inner shadow zone) are called strikes called strikes between 75-80% of the time. Pitches outside that line (outer shadow zone) are only called strikes about 22 or 23% of the time.
— OK, so now we look at the last two zones — pitches in the chase zone (named that because it tends to be where pitchers throw sliders and cutters and such in an effort to get batters to chase) are almost never called a strike. It’s less than 1 percent now.
— Pitches in the waste zone are NEVER called strikes.
So, this is good information: We are talking walks and so for this particular stat we concentrate on pitches in the chase and waste zones, pitches that will be called balls by the umpire just about every time.
I said that I sort of inspired this study. Well, if you have read here regularly, you know that one of my pet ideas for baseball is to allow hitters to decline walks. It’s not actually my idea — Bill James is the first person I ever heard talk about it, but I know others have as well — but I have jumped on it because of how much I loathe the intentional walk.
I so LOATHE the intentional walk.
I loathe them this much:
So, specific to the intentional walk, I wanted to give hitters the option to decline it. What happens if they do? I’ve offered suggestions; the one that seems to resonate most is that they step back into the box and if the pitcher walks them again they get two bases instead of one. Anyway, we’re not here to talk rule changes.
No, Tango decided to see how often hitters actually decline walks today by swinging at one of those pitches in the chase/waste zones.
He can (and hopefully will) look at every player in baseball but for the purposes of this study he looked at the 12 players who received the most pitches in the chase/waste zones with three balls. Hitters had three options in such situations:
Take the walk.
Swing and luck into a hit.
Swing and make an out.
There is a fourth option of fouling off the pitch, but Tango didn’t concern himself with those. He was only interested in what he calls walkaway pitches, the ones that led to action.
Even only looking at 12 players, Tango found a sizable difference between them.
Let’s begin by saying that Houston’s Alex Bregman is a genius at taking the walk. He has been offered 72 sure walks in 2019 … and he’s accepted 66 of them or roughly 92%. That is the best percentage among the 12 players.
Another way to look at this is to count the negative side — Walks Refused:
Percentage of walks refused:
Ronald Acuña Jr., 35.6%
Daniel Vogelbach, 32.8%
Rhys Hoskins, 31.5%
Max Muncy, 23.3%
Bryce Harper, 21.2%
Mike Trout, 16.4%
Justin Smoak, 16.1%
Juan Soto, 15.0%
Yasmani Grandal, 14.8%
Carlos Santana, 12.9%
Alex Bregman. 8.4%
There is real value in not refusing walks — Grandal and Vogelbach have each been given 61 sure walk opportunities. Grandal has accepted 11 more walks. That’s almost eight runs in real value.
One final part to mention: Hitters very, very rarely get hits on pitches in the chase and waste zone. The most applicable example is Philadelphia’s slugger and Ellen Adair baseball crush Rhys Hoskins. Pitchers KNOW Hoskins will chase. He has gotten 89 pitches in those dead zones with three balls, by far the highest number in baseball.
He has refused TWENTY EIGHT of those walks swinging, also the highest number in baseball.
And he hasn’t gotten a hit even once.
That’s generally how it goes: Hitters almost never get a hit when swinging at pitches in the chase/waste zones. I will say that Acuña Jr. is a bit of a sorcerer when it comes to this; he has gotten three hits in his 17 walk refusals — he’s the only one of the 12 to have managed multiple hits (Tango calls this “walks luckily rejected”).
Anyway, I love this stat so much — I want more of it. I know that some people cringe over some of the Statcast data, it’s too much information, it’s too math driven, etc. But this walks refused stats has the power of simplicity. All of us have watched hitters with three balls swing at pitches WAY out of the strike zone and grumbled to ourselves.
I want to know who refuses the most walks and who refuses the least. I would have loved to know this historically — how many walks do you think Vlad Guerrero or Roberto Clemente or Yogi Berra refused and how many times do you think they got a hit on those pitches. Did Ted Williams EVER refuse a walk? How many more walks did Tony Gwynn refuse than Wade Boggs?
Of course, we can’t know that stuff because we don’t have Statcast data for those guys. But we do have it now. Now that I know this statistic exists, I want it injected into my bloodstream.