Is Eric Wedge Causing Fewer Walks?

It may not have appeared that way at the time, but the Mariners offense in April looks scorching now compared to what fans have had to witness since. Scoring an average of 3.9 runs per game, the team was on a 631-run scored pace. That's not magnificent, but is downright heavenly compared to last season and not altogether ugly given the league-wide offensive recession. Run scoring is down to 4.2 runs per game this year from 4.4 last year.

If the Mariners ended the season 46 runs below average on offense, we should be ecstatic. They are already well under that mark and the reason is because the offense cratered. From 3.9 runs a game in April to 3.25 since. The May and June 2011 Mariners have hit just about as well as the 2010 Mariners did. That's a scary thought and that the team is 25-23 over that span is a remarkable testament to the run prevention group.

Why has the offense nose-dived? There are many factors, and I intend to explore them in separate posts, but for now, I wanted to focus on walks because the downturn there has been getting notice lately. In part, that is because of Eric Wedge's comments about hitters being more aggressive. The team was certainly the opposite of aggressive in April and many of us were praising their disciplined approach at the plate and resulting side benefit of increased walk totals. I even updated my perennial post about the Mariners pitches per plate appearance.

They finished that month with a 10% walk rate, good for third in the American League. That walk rate dropped to 7% in May and stands at just 6% in June. That's the sort of damning numerical evidence that seems sufficient on the surface to decry the swing happy approach, but I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Namely, what concerned me is that comparing walk totals or runs scored totals across months ignores the changing nature of the Mariner roster. To investigate, I broke out not only the team totals by month, but also each Mariner hitter's totals and looked for trends. The sample sizes aren't fantastic of course, but I compensated by looking at their plate discipline samples such as O-Swing% rather than just walk totals. As it turns out, Adam Kennedy, Chone Figgins, Ichiro Suzuki and Jack Cust have maintained roughly consistent swing rates on pitches outside the strike zone. The other three regulars, Miguel Olivo, Brendan Ryan and Justin Smoak have all seen increases ranging from moderate (Ryan and Smoak) to extreme (Olivo), but the crux there is that those increases came in June for all three cases, not in May.*

*Miguel Olivo swung at ~35% of pitches outside the strike zone by my numbers in both April and May. He's over 50% in June. Say hello to why his walks dried up.

What has changed is the makeup of the rest of the roster. Ryan Langerhans is gone. Milton Bradley is gone. Michael Saunders is gone. Jack Cust has seen his playing time reduced. Those were probably the four most patient, cautious hitters on the Mariners roster in April and were occupying three lineup spots with regularity. Is it any wonder that the walk totals would go down when that quartet is replaced by Greg Halman, Carlos Peguero, Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Carp/interleague play?

Laying the blame on Eric Wedge because of this strikes me as putting oneself on shaky ground. I cannot speak to what level of influence Wedge had on Langerhans' demotion for instance and given the current crop of position players, he doesn't have a lot to choose from to work counts. It's not as if Carlos Peguero or Greg Halman were turned into aggressive hackers solely thanks to Wedge's doctrine. I don't think Wedge has helped by any means, but what I take out of my look at the monthly splits is that the team's offense has fallen off for reasons that are likely largely out of Wedge's control and that if the Mariners want to draw more walks then they should get more naturally patient hitters into the lineup.

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