Commentary

Do older players draw more walks?

A sudden rise in walk rates of players in their 30s is rare

Updated: May 6, 2009, 12:21 AM ET
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Last week in reference to Marco Scutaro, I wrote: "I will submit that no player in the history of the majors has, at 33, essentially tripled his walk rate."

Since then I've checked, and I was right. Before I checked, though, Rany Jazayerli sent me this missive:

    Maybe not, but I can think of two players who came pretty close.

    Eddie Joost went from walking 60-70 times a year to walking 110-130 times a year in 1947, at age 31. Granted, he completely remade his approach while in the minors.

    And we forget this, but Tony Phillips wasn't a remarkably patient hitter until his 30s. His walk totals, year by year, starting at age 30: 58, 99, 79, 114, 132, 95 (in 114 games in the strike year), 113, 125, 102.

    I don't think Scutaro is going to suddenly walk 120 times, but the similarities between him and Phillips are interesting. Consider this: In 2004, Scutaro's first full year in the majors, he drew 16 walks in 137 games. He's drawn 22 walks in just 24 games this year.

Scutaro
Scutaro
What Scutaro has done this year is phenomenal. No question about it. I do think that first full year was a bit of a fluke, though. The A's got him because he'd drawn some walks in the minors. In significant Triple-A action, Scutaro had drawn a walk in exactly 10 percent of his plate appearances. So it was just a little bit shocking when, upon getting his shot with the A's in 2004, he walked in just 3 percent of his plate appearances. In fact, just the year before with the Mets, Scutaro had drawn 13 walks in 91 plate appearances. Further, Scutaro has now walked 9 percent of the time as a major leaguer, which is admirable for a middle infielder without a great deal of power.

Scutaro will have a ways to go to match Tony Phillips. In his 20s, Phillips walked 11 percent of the time. Then in his 30s (and early 40s) he went nuts, walking 16 percent of the time and twice leading the American League in walks.

Joost is an interesting case. During World War II, he was a great shortstop but didn't hit much, though in 1943 he did walk 14 percent of the time (which was a lot). He spent 1944 working in a meat-packing plant, missed most of '45 with a wrist injury, then spent '46 -- when the majors were flooded with returning servicemen -- in the minors, where he made the adjustment that Rany mentions. When Joost got back to the majors in 1947, he did draw 114 walks -- 17 percent of his plate appearances -- but he also struck out 110 times and hit 13 home runs (which was a lot, for him).

Joost's career really took off in 1948 when he (1) turned 32 and (2) started wearing glasses to correct for the astigmatism that he'd coped with for years. His walk rate went even higher, his power numbers went up and his strikeouts dropped. There was a good explanation, though. As Joost later said of the correction, "The first time I came up to the plate at Shibe Park, the pitcher looked 10 feet away. I couldn't believe my eyes had been that bad."

These days, a serious vision problem wouldn't take nearly so long to be detected and corrected.

Other examples of players in their 30s with huge boosts in their walk percentage?

Sure. But usually there's an obvious explanation:

In 1955, former batting champion Ferris Fain's walk percentage jumped from 14 percent to 26 percent. But it's the 14 percent that was somewhat anomalous; in the five previous seasons, Fain had walked 23 percent of the time. There are many examples of that: A player's walk rate skyrockets from one season to the next, but the "new" rate isn't all that different from something he'd done in the past.

In 2004, Barry Bonds' walk rate jumped from 27 percent to 38 percent … but (1) Bonds had always walked a lot, and (2) a large bit of that increase was due to his drawing 121 intentional walks in 2004.

Among obvious explanations, though, the most common is the most obvious: It was probably a fluke, or a player was trying something that just didn't work all that well.

Old players will sometimes become significantly more patient -- and consequently draw more walks -- simply because they don't have the reflexes to do much else. This can work for a time (Toby Harrah walked 22 percent of the time in 1985) but it's hard to play without good reflexes (Harrah's walk rate dropped to 13 percent and he batted .218 the next season, his last).

In his first six seasons, Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn walked 9 percent of the time. But Ashburn's walk rate doubled in his seventh season, and he walked 16 percent of the time over the rest of his career. It didn't happen in his 30s; the jump happened when he was 27. Players do sometimes remake their game. But it's not easy, and so it's exceptionally rare.

Teams can stress plate discipline to their players, and reward their minor leaguers for taking pitches and drawing walks. But it's instructive to look at the Oakland A's, who last season ranked fourth in the American League in walks, but 13th in on-base percentage.

As Tom Oates reports, the Brewers are drawing more walks this season; roughly one more per game. Is it making them better, though? Their on-base percentage is 12 points higher this season, but their slugging percentage is down seven points. That's a tradeoff worth making, but (1) the overall impact is not great, and (2) it's probably not statistically significant, either. Not after just one month.

Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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