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Walkin' The Tightrope

Caught up in a whirlwind can't catch my breath 
Knee deep in hot water broke out in a cold sweat 
Can't catch a turtle in this rat race 
Feels like I'm losin' time at a breakneck pace 

Afraid of my own shadow in the face of grace 
Heart full of darkness spotlight on my face 
There was love all around me but I was lookin' for revenge 
Thank God it never found me would have been the end 

We can make our guesses about what Stevie Ray had on his mind when he penned this classic, but I think we've all been in a situation where we felt that one slip up could bring our castle down around us. We can look at walks in a similar context as sometimes they're a good idea like when first base is open and a slugger is at the plate. Other times the number nine hitter might be up or perhaps a similarly weak batter is at the plate with other runners on. This means that not all walks are created equally so a pitcher has to be able to know when to be aggressive and when to nibble a bit more as a walk may not be as bad as catching too much of the zone trying to catch a corner.

We can see how this applies to the Rays thus far in the year:


Using the Play Index at B-Ref we can look at just the plate appearances that resulted in a walk for each of the Rays pitchers. What we're trying to isolate is which pitchers may be allowing good walks and which ones are allowing bad walks. The # of BBs column should be pretty straight forward, but allow me to explain the rest of what's going on here.

Handedness works off a dummy variable that uses 1 for opposite-handed hitters (righty v. lefty or switch, for example) and 0 for same-handed hitters (righty v. righty or lefty v. lefty). This is semi-important to me as I'd prefer my pitcher walking around an opposite handed batter as the batter most likely has the platoon advantage making them more likely to do damage than their season lines would reflect. As you have probably surmised, the closer to 100% that the number is, the more likely the pitcher was walking more opposite-handed hitters. (As an aside, I'd put a lot more credence in a larger sample here, but we'll take it for now and can always revisit later.) In this instance, David Price is walking mostly righties and switch hitters while James Shields is walking a disproportionate amount of righties. Hellickson is essentially even for all intents and purposes, but Wade Davis does show a little bit of a lean towards walking more righties.

The wOBA column refers to the average wOBA of the opposing walkers. The wOBA for each batter comes from the ZIPS updated full season lines as this does a nice job of regressing and forecasting for guys that are off to weird starts. We can see that Shields leads the pack as far as working around very good hitters as the average wOBA of all his free passes is at .350. Hellickson is nipping at his heels at a .348 average wOBA and David Price is right at the team average of .337. The first two mentioned appear to be demonstrating strong recognition and applying appropriate respect to batters that can really ruin their evening. I would consider these good walks as I'd rather put a guy on first than potentially give up an extra base hit. Wade Davis, on the other hand, seems to be showing that either a) he gives mutual respect to those that mash and to those that don't or b) he's lacking command and/or control and the walks are more a function of him not executing. The results show that he's walking the wrong guys and needs to get more aggressive in the zone against those that carry toothpicks to the plate.

Lastly, we have WPA/LI that I've calculated myself. If someone wants to check my work or if you just want to download the workbook: SP Walks.  Steve Slowinski has done a much better job of explaining the statistic at his Saber Library so do yourself a favor and check it out if you need to brush up or get plugged in for the first time. Basically, we're using the strengths of Win Probability Added and Leverage Index to see how much a pitcher has contributed to a team winning on the field taking into account what happened and how important the situation was. Keep in mind that a walk is always going to be a negative outcome for a pitcher compared to making an out, but as was stated prior some walks are less harmful than others and should perhaps even be encouraged. Again, we see that Hellickson has done a solid job of limiting the damage when he walks a guy accruing only -.385 wins added (lost) compared to Wade Davis and James Shields checking in slightly higher and David Price showing the least discretion in his walks costing the team over two-thirds of a win with his walks over the course of the season. 

Some may come down on Jeremy Hellickson for what seems like an inordinate amount of walks this year, but as we should all know by now you just have to trust this rookie, because he's very intelligent and knows when to gamble a bit and when to throttle back. Picking spots to attack and when to be less aggressive is not some Macho Man thing, but shows a bit of guile that I tend to appreciate more than some 98 MPH fastball that's mostly genetics. For Wade Davis, I'd love to see him get a bit more aggressive with weaker batters, but it appears that when, not if, he walks a guy it tends to be in a lower leverage spot. Shieldsy is doing a great job of not getting the horns when he has to mess with the bull. I don't mind him pitching around good hitters more than bad hitters even if he gives up the occasional tater to the Mark Teahen's of the world. I don't even mind that he's more likely to walk a righty if it brings up a lefty to play the Tom to his change-up's Jerry. David Price is one guy that I hope get's a little more aggressive with the guys that he's currently walking. It's mostly righties and a lot of that has to do with lineup construction against him. The guys he's walking are above-average hitters and the leverage appears to be a little bit higher than usual so perhaps he'd rather give up a walk, but he's also a much better than average pitcher that needs to find a way to bury those guys instead of putting them on. 

Lastly, the real reason you came here, enjoy:


Stevie Ray Vaughan - Tightrope.mpg (via dbsbc9798)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this as I think it does dig a little deeper than just looking at FIP and unquestioningly taking it's conclusions at face value.