The Jim Rice All Stars

After much discussion about Ichiro! this week, the conversation here at Getting Blanked HQ turned to all-time records. Joe Morgan was a player who fell short of 3000 hits but notched more than one thousand walks in his career. Wade Boggs is another player who drew enough walks that it somewhat “damaged” his career hit total, still considered the holy grail by many.

Wade Boggs was one of the best players of his generation whose relative lack of power overshadows his overarching greatness. Everybody remembers the 200 hit seasons but he put up 89 rWAR in his 18 seasons. Boggs’ opponents recognized the many ways the third basemen could hurt them and handled him carefully, issuing 180 intentional passes for his career. That ranks him 24th all-time, ahead of sluggers like Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

The intentional walk leaderboard is a strange, strange mix indeed. Some fans and writers hate it, some managers love it and see it as an essential strategic move. More than anything, it is a reputation move. Some hitters hold a reputation they perhaps don’t deserve.

Using the glorious Fangraphs leaderboards, I created a list of all hitters with 5000 plate appearances since the strike year of 1994. I wanted to see which hitters earned their intentional passes and which hitters skated on their “fear factor.” Below is a graph showing all qualified hitters with some outliers highlighted. Of course, Barry Bonds is excluded from this graph because his numbers warp/dwarf everything you see here. His walk rates are truly off the map.

Patient sluggers one and all, right? A little bit odd to realize such a large percentage of Albert Pujols’ walks were intentional. With a career mark of more than 25% intentional walks, he is part of an exclusive club. Of the 163 hitters who managed to accumulate 5000 plate appearances since the strike, Pujols ranks fourth with more than 25% of his walks coming intentionally.

Below you see the top 17 names on the list, all of whom sport an intentional walk rate more than one standard deviation above the average for this time (around 9%.) The Jim Rice All Stars!

  • Ichiro Suzuki 33.87%
  • Vladimir Guerrero 33.79%
  • Barry Bonds 29.21%
  • Albert Pujols 25.74%
  • A.J. Pierzynski 24.35%
  • Garret Anderson 24.24%
  • Miguel Cabrera 22.40%
  • Mike Piazza 19.75%
  • Mo Vaughn 19.55%
  • Geoff Jenkins 18.42%
  • Juan Gonzalez 17.61%
  • Sammy Sosa 17.08%
  • Carlos Delgado 16.79%
  • Ken Griffey Jr. 16.60%
  • Alex Gonzalez (active) 16.61%
  • Manny Ramirez 16.28%
  • Dmitri Young 16.22%

What a strange group of names. Why on earth would Dmitri Young draw so many intentional walks? Alex Gonzalez, the current shortstop of the Milwaukee Brewers? Some hitters, like Gonzalez, get extra free passes from hitting 8th in a National League lineup for years and years (84% of Gonzalez’s intentional passes came when hitting 8th, even though he has about equal time hitting 2nd and 7th for his career), but Geoff Jenkins? So weird.

We cannot ignore Ichiro’s place at the top of this list. This man has fewer than 100 career home runs yet he led the league in intentional walks three different times. Could this be out of sheer frustration, managers refusing to be nickle-and-dimed by the slap-hitting ways of a Japanese throwback? Nothing would give me more satisfaction…

At the other end of the scale are the poor men who earned every single walk. They fought and kicked and spoiled good pitches until they, too, could stand triumphantly on first base. These are the Rodney Dangerfield All Stars, with intentional walk rates more than one standard deviation below average.

  • Jeff Cirillo 3.20%
  • Shannon Stewart 3.17%
  • Alex Gonzalez (the other one) 3.06%
  • Kevin Millar 3.01%
  • Tony Womack 2.95%
  • Placido Polanco 2.84%
  • Omar Vizquel 2.71%
  • Mike Cameron 2.19%
  • Juan Pierre 1.87%
  • Eric Young 1.87%
  • Luis Castillo 1.63%
  • Chone Figgins 1.18%
  • Julio Lugo 0.91%
  • David Eckstein 0.80%

Poor Mike Cameron. It seems as though one of the most underrated players of his time was even more underrated yet! Cameron drew more than 800 walks and hit nearly 280 home runs in his career but still couldn’t get the respect of his opposing managers. Don’t worry, Mike. The Internet has your back. (This might be a post all on its own.)

What can we say about David Eckstein that hasn’t been snickered through gritted teeth before? The scrappy little devil played forever and only received three intentional walks in his career. Three. To which I say…that is three too many.

Intentional walks are, on a granular level, about situation. Walking a player when the game demands it. Over careers and more than 5000 plate appearances, patterns emerge. The great baseball groupthink takes over. Geoff Jenkins? Don’t let him beat you. Mike Cameron? Free swinger; let’s take our chances. Doesn’t make it true but it seems deeply ingrained in baseball culture.

The intentional walk isn’t going away, there were (nominally) more true free passes issued in 2011 than 1995, though fewer than the Bonds years in which nothing makes sense. Teams will continue to put some guys on base, even if they’re better off having the catcher set up in the opposing batters box and hoping for the best. Some people hate the IBB but face it: it serves as a great shield for lazy criticism. Which means it is here to stay.