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Don't Walk: A Troubling Trend of the Phillies Offense

The Phillies’ offensive hallmarks over the last few seasons have been raw power at the plate and prowess on the base paths. The last two seasons, they’ve led the NL in both home runs and base-stealing percentage while finishing near the top in stolen bases. This helps explain why a team that hasn’t had a .300 hitter since 2007 (when Chase Utley and Aaron Rowand both did it) nonetheless led the league in runs scored last year and tied for second in 2008. 

But a third factor in that scoring success was the team’s propensity to draw walks. Six of the eight regulars from last season—all but Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Felizwalked in at least 8.6 percent of their plate appearances, led by Jayson Werth’s 13.5 percent and Utley’s 12.8. As a team, the Phils walked in 9.3 percent of their plate appearances. This collective willingness to take what cautious or command-impaired pitchers gave meant more chances to steal bases at that great success rate—and, of course, more guys on the bags when someone slammed a homer. 

Through 18 games of the 2010 season, the team walk rate is actually higher, with Carlos Ruiz, Utley and Ibanez all walking at or above around 18 percent of their plate appearances. But three of the first four hitters in the lineup—Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, and Howard—have combined to draw one more walk than (of all people) Rollins, who’s missed the last two weeks.  Victorino, the replacement leadoff hitter, has four walks. Polanco has one.

This is bad, but not shocking: we’ve seen Victorino for long enough now to know that he stumbles into hacktastic stretches, then comes out of them. This one is ill-timed, but there’s no reason to suspect it will linger. As for Polanco, he’s the definition of a contact hitter; he doesn’t strike out either (four in 70 at-bats). Presumably he’ll find a bit more patience as he cools down from a scalding hot start, and finish with his usual 30-35 walks.

What’s really worrisome is that Ryan Howard has three walks on the season… two of which were intentional. Arguably the most feared slugger in the NL has drawn one free pass when a manager wasn’t holding up four fingers before he dug in. His pitches seen per plate appearance is down sharply as well—3.61 this year, compared to a career average of 4.06. (Todd Zolecki also wrote about this today, noting that Howard is 150th out of 190 players in this category, two slots behind Victorino. Polanco, averaging a blink-and-miss-it 3.36 pitches seen per PA, is 181st.) And while correlation is not causation, it’s nonetheless a fact that two of Howard’s walks (including the unintentional one), all three of his home runs, and ten of his 16 RBI came in the first five games of the season; from then through Saturday’s game, he put up a .192/.208/.231 line before singling twice in four at-bats in Sunday’s loss.

While Rollins can’t be expected to break his career-long trend and keep walking at such a high rate when he returns, a bit more patience from Victorino, Polanco and especially Howard will be needed if the Phils plan to continue scoring at a league-best pace.