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2019 Phillies Preview: Turning walks into runs

The Phillies will once again make pitchers work. This year, though, they pack the punch to drive in more of the guys that get on.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing sexy about a walk. Nothing riveting or enthralling about it. At best, you get just a puff of catharsis, exhaled as your team’s guy doesn’t swing, for the fourth time, at a low-quality pitch in his plate appearance. The most exciting a walk gets is when it happens to force in the winning run as a literal walk-off, the fulfillment of a Shrimp Alert.

That’s not to say it’s totally useless to walk, despite being devoid of drama. There’s value in it. For one, it’s not an out, and not making an out is the existential point of batting. And unless you’re subsisting exclusively on solo home runs, it’s nice to have runners on the bases (however they got there) to drive in when the other types of hits do come. I know the memory of Carlos Santana can still spark a shouting match every now and then, but there’s a happy medium that exists somewhere in the gray area between utter passivity and hyperactive hacking. And I think the Phillies are far closer to inhabiting that space than they were last season.

There were only 16 players in all of Major League Baseball who walked 80-plus times in 2018. Three of them — Santana, Rhys Hoskins, and Cesar Hernandez — played for the Phillies. Santana is gone, but the Phils replaced him with another one of the 16: That Bryce Harper guy. Those are three guys who will hit in the top half of the lineup most days, so getting runners on base isn’t likely to be a huge problem in 2019, at least on paper.

What the Phillies of 2018 struggled with was driving those runners home during the lower half of the lineup’s turn. Non-pitchers batting in the seventh through ninth spots in the order hit a combined .244/.314/.399, good for a 110 OPS+ compared to the rest of the league, but the 161 RBI generated were only good enough for 21st. Why? The sixth spot.

It wasn’t all misery there — Maikel Franco hit .289/.327/.493 in the 162 PA he took in that spot — but Nick Williams and Scott Kingery took a decent bite out of things with .233/.315/.361 and .224/.268/.322 lines in their 149 and 153 PA hitting sixth, respectively. “But why,” you might be asking yourself, “does that matter now?” The answer, naturally, is depth. With the additions of players like Harper and J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura, the quality of hitter increases at every spot in the lineup. Where Kingery and Williams once had 300 PA batting sixth, they’re now likely to occupy spots further down.

But I digress.

The real point of all of this is to highlight the continuation of a trend from last season: Phillies hitters are going to see a lot of pitches, work a lot of walks and, ideally, put themselves in a lot of even or favorable counts. More so than last year, though, this lineup is better set up to do damage with runners on, rather than simply stretching out the passivity and passing the buck.

We saw the 2018 Phillies get their walk rate’s money’s worth: Their 9.5 percent walk rate was fourth in the Majors. But they only swung at 72.5 percent of their total strikes seen (22nd in MLB), and their 72.7 contact rate was second-worst, besting only the Chicago White Sox.

A quick look at three important numbers that help us define what a player’s “approach” plays out like are:

  1. BB%. Walk rate. The percentage of all a player’s plate appearances that end in a free pass.
  2. Percent of strikes swung at. Abbreviated on B-Ref as “AS/Str.” The percentage of all strikes a player saw that he swung at. This is zone-agnostic and only refers to how the pitch was called, not its point of crossing at home plate.
  3. Contact%. The number of pitches contacted (in play or foul) divided by all pitches swung at.

The 2018 team had a bit of a mixed bag.

2018 Discipline Profiles

Player BB% Pct. Strikes Swung At Contact %
Player BB% Pct. Strikes Swung At Contact %
Rhys Hoskins 13.2 66.9 78.2
Cesar Hernandez 13.4 64.0 79.7
Maikel Franco 6.2 79.5 78.8
Odubel Herrera 6.4 78.0 72.4
Nick Williams 7.1 75.0 73.0
Scott Kingery 5.0 72.6 71.0
Jorge Alfaro 4.8 84.2 57.7
Carlos Santana 16.2 70.9 80.6
2018 Lg. Avg. 8.7 73.5 74.8

Hoskins was very patient, but still made an above-average amount of contact. Kingery posted numbers below average in all three categories. Alfaro was hyper-aggressive with little payoff. These things jive with the eye test.

Now, let’s consider the Phillies’ four main new additions — Harper, Realmuto, McCutchen, Segura — and how disciplined they were in 2018, in contrast to the players they’re replacing. The “Chg.” columns reference the differences between Harper and Santana, Realmuto and Alfaro, McCutchen and Williams, and Segura and Kingery in the same stats.

2018 Discipline Profiles: New Additions

Player BB% Chg. Pct. Strikes Swung At Chg. Contact % Chg.
Player BB% Chg. Pct. Strikes Swung At Chg. Contact % Chg.
Bryce Harper 18.7 (+)2.5 79.4 (+)8.5 68.6 (-)12.0
J.T. Realmuto 7.2 (+)2.4 73.8 (-)10.4 77.5 (+)19.8
Andrew McCutchen 13.9 (+)6.8 67.1 (-)7.9 77.5 (+)4.5
Jean Segura 5.1 (+)0.1 73.0 (+)0.4 87.4 (+)16.4

Harper’s Contact% stands out for the wrong reasons, but his 2018 figure was an aberrant one when held to the light of his previous years, all of which were above 70 percent and averaged above 73 percent. Realmuto offers a clear upgrade in outcomes with the higher walk rate, in addition to the way more restrained swing numbers and far superior contact ability. It’s easy to see why he was considered such a big upgrade in this department. Cutch, too, offers a far more patient tack than the 2018 version of Nick Williams did. And Segura, though not a big walk-drawer, provides a similar profile to Kingery with an incredible increase in added contact.

These changes aren’t guarantees.

The 2018 versions of each of these players stands to be a bit different in 2019. Whether by improving or regressing, the amount of change we see between the newest Phils regulars and those whose playing time they’ve obtained is subject to, well, change. And further still, like we see with Harper’s Contact%, some of the numbers put up don’t perfectly align with career norms.

All that being said, it seems the ‘19 approach can best be summarized, simply, as this: An enhancement. There’s still plenty of patience, and a decent shot of catching the 1993 club for the franchise record of 665 walks. At least, they seem set for a fifth straight year of increasing that team total, with 582 being the number to beat. Now, with an improved batter profile surrounding that patience at multiple spots in the order, this team is better equipped to make those extra walks count for more.