It's sometimes amazing how quickly public perception can change. Ten years ago, walks were still an object of scorn in some baseball circles. Fans found them boring, while you could find plenty of managers, scouts, commentators, and even GMs referring to them with apathy and (in some instances) scorn. Why walk when you can hit? We certainly don't need those slow power hitters "clogging the bases"!
That perception has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, thanks in large part to "Moneyball" and the rise of basic sabermetric principles into the mainstream. While you could still find occasional articles dissing walks even five years ago, they have become all but impossible to find. It's become a new baseball truism: walks are essential.
So when Cleveland Indians prospect Lonnie Chisenhall went almost 60 at-bats without drawing a walk this season, it was a cause for concern. And when Chisenhall followed up that streak with this statement, well, it was enough to make Indians fans shake their heads and weep:
"I'm swinging it like the numbers say. I'm hit or miss, literally," said Chisenhall. "I've got to swing at better pitches. I think that's the only thing I've got to worry about."
Chisenhall is not concerned about his lack of walks.
"If I'm overly patient it turns from patient to passive," he said. "I know they're worried about the walks, but I'm not looking to walk right now. If a guy walks me, he walks me. But I'm looking for a good, hard swing." (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
After reading something like this, it's tempting to take a very pessimistic view on Chisenhall's prospects as a major league regular. He may have a boatload of power, but if he refuses to walk, it's going to depress his overall value and make him subject to the ebbs and flows of luck. If he happens to go through a stretch where none of his balls in play are falling in for hits, his on-base percentage will sink so low that he'll be making outs 80 to 90 percent of the time he comes to the plate. True, baseball is a game of failure, but major league clubs hope for a bit more than that from their starters.
While that's certainly all true, I think public perception has swung a little too far in the other extreme now. Players can succeed in the majors with a low walk rate and relatively poor plate discipline. Heck, there are a number of players that are getting away with being nearly as bad as Chisenhall; the trick is, many of them are middle infielders.
It's easier to get away with offensive failings at positions where defense is valued so highly, but what about at positions like first base or third base? Can players at those offense-first positions survive if they won't take a walk?
Consider: Mark Trumbo. Despite having tremendous power, he didn't receive much love as a prospect before reaching the majors, due in large part to his low walk rate coming up. When he started to have success as a rookie in 2011, the overall response was still tepid; no one could deny his power, but his four percent walk rate kept a lot of people from thinking he'd be more than a +2 win player going forward -- or in other words, an "average" player, around the same level as first basemen like James Loney and an aging Carlos Pena.
Oh, how wrong that was. Trumbo has started off this season on a wild hot streak, putting up the 11th-best slashline in the majors so far (.314/.365/.620), and his raw power rates among the best in the majors alongside Jose Bautista, Adam Dunn, and David Ortiz. And, miraculously, his walk rate has jumped up to nearly seven percent and he's on pace to walk 13 more times than he did last year. He's still striking out on pitches outside the zone and making some horrible swings, but his power is more than making up for it.
So Indians fans, don't despair. Players can succeed with a low walk rate; they just need to have a particular skill set: huge power, good contact skills, and a moderately low strikeout rate. Trumbo may never reach the level once attained by Vladimir Guerrero -- who was once the king of the swing-at-everything-and-mash-home-runs approach -- but he's currently following a career path very similar to Torii Hunter: hit for lots of power, and watch the walk rate slowly increase as pitchers get wary.
There are currently a number of young players in the majors that have the makings of this unique skill set: Lonnie Chisenhall, Dayan Viciedo, Ian Desmond, Chris Davis, and a handful of others. And as tempting as it can be to write them off as duds, they all have the potential to turn into above-average players -- the trick is, do they have enough power and can they keep their strike out rates down? Only time will tell, but for now, I'm not betting against any of them.