The Michael Lewis best-seller "Moneyball" was about the art of exploiting market inefficiencies in baseball, but it also spawned a cult of worship around the previously unglamorous base on balls. Kevin Youkilis became known as "The Greek God of Walks" thanks to Moneyball (even though he's not Greek), and one of the book's most vivid images was that of Paul DePodesta, Oakland's Harvard-trained statistical wiz, staring at his laptop in the never-ending quest to find hitters with keen eyes and discipline at the dish.
Ten years after the book's release and an Oscar-nominated film by the same name, the Athletics are still plugging away working counts and grinding out at-bats. They led the majors with 586 walks this season, marking the third straight year they've finished in the top five among MLB teams in that category.
But if the statistical profiles of two teams that outlasted them are any indication, the art of taking a 3-2 pitch just off the corner isn't quite what it used to be.
The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, surprise American League pennant finalists, will make an obscure piece of history when they meet Friday in the AL Championship Series opener at Camden Yards. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first meeting in an LCS or World Series between two teams that finished in the bottom five in the majors in walks since divisional play began in 1969.
The Orioles led MLB with 211 home runs this season and the Royals were last with 95 long balls -- and the Royals were first with 153 stolen bases while the Orioles were last with 44 -- but the teams are similar in several respects. They both rely on unheralded starting rotations, lockdown bullpens and defenses that pass the eye test and are hailed by the game's new statistical metrics.
They're also not much for taking a casual stroll to first base. The Orioles ranked 26th in the majors with 401 walks, and the Royals were last with 380.
Understandably, no one in either team's clubhouse sees a need to apologize for this perceived shortcoming. During the Division Series with Detroit, outfielder Adam Jones acknowledged that the Orioles' approach at the plate is unorthodox and not always a thing of beauty. They've thrived, in part, because of their aggressive mindset and the willingness to pounce on fastballs when pitchers are looking to get ahead in the count.
"We tee high and let it fly," Jones said. "That's been our motto. Sometimes it's good and sometimes we look crazy for six or seven innings. But it's helped us get to this point, so we're not gonna change."
Against that backdrop, it was appropriate that Delmon Young contributed a memorable hit in Baltimore's ALDS sweep of Detroit. With the bases loaded in Game 2, Tigers reliever Joakim Soria began a pivotal eighth-inning confrontation with a slider because of Young's reputation as a notorious first-ball, fastball hitter. Young drove the pitch to left for a three-run double, then did his best Matt Stairs impersonation in a postgame interview.
"I try to hit a home run every time," Young told the New York Times. "I try to pull it every pitch."
Just being themselves
Kansas City has a young, maturing lineup that's prone to hack and put the ball in play. Alex Gordon led the Royals with 65 walks, tied for 31st among MLB regulars. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez are born free swingers who routinely offer at pitches outside the zone. Those three players combined to draw 69 walks and strike out 276 times this season.
For sake of perspective, base-on-ball numbers are down across the board. Elias notes that the MLB average of 5.77 walks per game was the lowest since 1968, when Bob Gibson and his fellow starters were so dominant baseball lowered the mound to give hitters a fair shake.
In 2007, Barry Bonds' final season, 11 big-league hitters surpassed 100 walks. This year Cleveland's Carlos Santana and Toronto's Jose Bautista were the only players to surpass that threshold. Over the past seven years, strikeouts have increased by 16 percent and walks have declined by almost 13 percent.
"In a perfect world, every hitting coach or manager would want the 2004 Boston Red Sox," said Kansas City hitting coach Dale Sveum. "Maybe when everybody is 30 years old and had nice careers, you can form a team like that. But for the most part, it's the hardest thing to do. It's even harder to walk now because the pitching is as good as I've ever seen. Guys are throwing 95-98 mph and they'll throw a slider at any time in the count. It's a very difficult time to hit, period."
Kansas City's team offensive profile says more about baseball economics and the demands of roster construction than a desire to reinvent the game. As general manager Dayton Moore routinely points out, Kauffman Stadium has the biggest outfield expanse in the majors. So Moore's focus since the start of his tenure in 2006 was collecting starters with fastball command, relievers with overpowering heat and athletic defenders who could cover lots of ground.
"Power is expensive and power comes later," Moore said in a recent interview, "and our ballpark just isn't conducive to home runs, anyway."
Big-market teams have more money to spend on sluggers, and sluggers draw more walks because of the inherent fear factor. Moore also theorizes that opposing staffs are more inclined to go at Kansas City's hitters because so many well-hit balls at Kauffman Stadium die at the warning track. That observation sounds great in theory, except that the Royals ranked 26th in the majors in walks on the road, and Oakland's walk total wasn't adversely affected by 81 games in spacious, pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum.
Baseball personnel people generally agree that it's futile to simply tell a free swinger that he needs to be more selective. The process takes time to develop. Jeff Francoeur knew he had to stop swinging at fastballs in his eyes and sliders in the dirt, but it wasn't in his DNA. Boston, Oakland and other teams that stress OBP and plate discipline have had to either trade for that type of hitter or acquire him through the draft.
"You can't change who you are," said Brady Anderson, Baltimore's vice president of baseball operations. "A lot of metrics now are about on-base percentage, and that's obviously one way to win. But you have to play with the type of players you have. A guy like Chris Davis is going to walk because he can hit home runs and teams will pitch him carefully. J.J. Hardy has really good hand-eye coordination, and if he swings, he usually puts it in play."
In any way possible
A low walk total isn't necessarily an indication that a player is unwilling or unable to work counts. Gordon was eighth in the majors with 4.13 pitches per plate appearance, and Mike Moustakas was a tick better at 4.14 despite hitting .212 for the season. Baltimore's Nick Markakis has a discerning strike zone and he's reluctant to expand it even when he steps to the plate with runners in scoring position.
Despite their meager walk totals, the Royals and Orioles generated enough offense to win games. Kansas City ranked 16th in the majors in on-base percentage at .314 and Baltimore was 17th at .311. That's because the Royals were fourth in batting average at .263 and Baltimore was ninth at .256. The Orioles prided themselves on their ability to hit home runs regardless of venue, and Kansas City's speed turned a lot of singles into doubles. The Royals amassed 158 infield hits this season -- second most in the game. They also were the only team in baseball to whiff fewer than 1,000 times.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter and his Kansas City counterpart, Ned Yost, have taken pains not to shoehorn their players into a one-size-fits-all approach. Jones, a four-time All-Star, has 871 career strikeouts and 195 walks and has been known to flail at some sliders in the dirt. But he's averaged 30 homers over the past four seasons, and Showalter loves him just the way he is.
"You can't make everybody a robot. They're human beings and they are who they are, you know? If Adam [Jones] walked 80 times next year, he might hit .260 with seven home runs. Are you going to rob from Peter to pay Paul?"Buck Showalter, Orioles manager
"You can't make everybody a robot," Showalter said. "They're human beings and they are who they are, you know? If Adam walked 80 times next year, he might hit .260 with seven home runs. Are you going to rob from Peter to pay Paul?"
The ultimate question is, are the Royals and Orioles onto something new or simply pitching-and-defense-oriented aberrations in a down offensive year? Of course they would prefer to walk more, because more baserunners enhance their chances of scoring runs. But over in the National League, St. Louis ranked 15th in the majors in walks and San Francisco was 21st this season and they're also competing for a spot in the World Series. If pitching staffs have adjusted to passivity by pumping first-pitch strikes, why not be aggressive for the surprise element?
"Yes, there was a time in baseball history where walks were undervalued and underrated," said Steve Hirdt of Elias. "But we've gone from that to overrating them. We should embrace teams that get on base by hitting the ball, because they're providing action and generating so many potentially exciting plays. So much of the game has been a copycat game -- take walks, drag out the pitch count and all that. When you see a team that plays a little bit of a different style, it's refreshing."
As any Royals fan with a Twitter account is quick to point out, Yost is doing his best to bring bunting back into vogue. Can the Royals and Orioles, baseball's no-walk wonders, make batting average fashionable again?
"It would probably take more than this," Hirdt said. "It might take another movie. And I don't know if Brad Pitt is available."