Whatever Happened to Controlling the Strike Zone?

Baseball revolves around control of the strike zone.

– Bill James, Baseball Abstract 1988, p. 72

On pages 179-181 of the Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual, we examined how the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins parlayed their dominance of the strike zone into wins. The A’s excelled at getting on base, while Minnesota specialized in keeping runners off base. Both achieved a fair measure of success with this approach — perhaps not directly because of it, but certainly during the same time frame.

Acknowledging that many other factors dictate a team’s fate, it’s worth noting that the Padres have done an excellent job of controlling the strike zone since moving to Petco Park. This has coincided with the fact that — the first half of 2008 notwithstanding — they’ve done an excellent job of winning baseball games since then:

Padres, Walks Drawn and Allowed: 2000-2008
Year Drawn Allowed Diff W-L Pct
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and are through games of July 15, 2008.
2000 602 649 -47 .469
2001 678 476 +202 .488
2002 547 582 -35 .407
2003 565 611 -46 .395
2004 566 422 +144 .537
2005 600 503 +97 .506
2006 564 468 +96 .543
2007 557 474 +83 .546
2008 301 302 -1 .389

The numbers from 2001 are freakish, which means they probably deserve further attention. On looking a little more closely, we find that Padres hurlers surrendered 219 home runs that year. Only the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, and Colorado Rockies allowed more in all of MLB, so there may not have been much incentive to take walks. Such is the legacy of a rotation featuring Kevin Jarvis, Bobby Jones, Woody Williams, Brian Tollberg, and Adam Eaton. In every other year this decade, there has been a correlation between controlling the strike zone and winning games.

Notice that since moving downtown, the Padres have outwalked the opposition in every full season. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve played winning baseball in each of those seasons. Whether the walk totals lead to winning or are a result of it, we cannot say. We would need to study the issue more rigorously to reach any meaningful conclusions. Right now we’re just looking at some data that I find interesting. (This seems obvious, but people screw it up all the time, so I have to make it explicit.)

Let’s look at the walks again, this time expressed as the number drawn and allowed per game. It’s always helpful to consider league context, so we’ll throw that in as well:

Padres, Walks Drawn and Allowed per Game: 2000-2008
Year Drawn Allowed MLB Avg
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and are through games of July 15, 2008.
2000 3.72 4.01 3.75
2001 4.19 2.94 3.25
2002 3.38 3.59 3.35
2003 3.49 3.77 3.27
2004 3.49 2.60 3.34
2005 3.70 3.10 3.13
2006 3.48 2.89 3.26
2007 3.42 2.91 3.31
2008 3.17 3.18 3.41

The pitching numbers this year seem reasonable, but check out the hitters: 3.17 walks per game. That’s easily the lowest number of the decade. In fact, you have to go back to 1995 to find something lower (3.10). In other words, this is the worst the Padres have been at drawing walks during Kevin Towers’ tenure as general manager.

Help May Be on the Way

How about the minor leagues? Is this concept of controlling the strike zone being taught (and learned) at lower levels? Let’s take a look:

Padres Minor League System, Walks Drawn and Allowed: 2008
Team League Drawn Allowed Lg Avg
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and MiLB, and are through games of July 15, 2008.
SD MLB 3.17 3.18 3.41
Por PCL 4.43 3.71 3.52
SA Tex 4.16 3.21 3.43
LkE Cal 4.37 2.95 3.35
FtW MWL 4.36 2.44 3.15
Eug NWL 4.86 3.93 3.97
AZL AZL 5.83 2.83 3.66
DSL DSL 5.05 3.76 4.36

With the exception of the Dominican Summer League (and of course, the big club), every team in the Padres organization leads its league in walks drawn per game. This hardly strikes me as an accident. One or two, maybe, but six out of eight? (Most of these teams — with the exception of Portland — do a pretty good job of keeping opponents off base as well.)

Granted, not everyone in the minors is a prospect. In fact, the vast majority of players aren’t. That said, an organizational philosophy seems to have taken hold here. How well it ends up translating into big-league success remains an open question.

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31 Responses »

  1. What a soul crushing weekend of baseball.

  2. Looks like the Pads are putting all of thier cards out on the table…

    According to Rosenthal these are the players on the block:

    Maddux: who will only accept a trade to LA

    Wolf: Teams that are interested in him are not on the list of teams that he can block a trade to.

    Cla: is drawing the most trade interest

    Kouz: The Pads are looking for a young OF in return.

    Bard: will go on the trade block as soon as he is re-activated


  3. I think the Pads will get very little in return for all of these guys but I’m kind of glad that the pads are cleaning house and seeing who from their system can make it at the major league level and who can’t.

  4. Geoff’s post:
    I agree that control of the strike zone is something that the Padres are actually trying to teach at the lower levels and that it may not have filtered it’s way up to the big leagues yet. In fact, one of the reasons that DePo mentioned keeping Giles instead of trading him was the example that he set for other players on the ballclub.

    Is the jury still out on whether strike zone judgment can be taught? I ask because maybe the Padres control of the strike zone in the minors is partly due to some of the non-prospect/marginal prospect types that the Padres have on their minor league clubs as examples to the others. I’m thinking of guys like Craig Cooper and his ilk who came to the organization knowing the strike zone.

    I guess that I’m wondering if a high school draftee like Anthony Hewitt or Aaron Hicks has a better chance of learning the strike zone with the Padres than with another organization.

  5. OT (just for a sec): So, we know that catchers been an issue this year. Our catchers have combined for a .188/.266/.260 line this year which is one of the worst lines for a MLB position. But how thankful are you that we’re not Mariner’s fans? Their DH line for the season is .188/.247/.278. Man, that’s got to be frustrating.

  6. Re #2: I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Bard ends up a Red this week; they need a catcher who can coddle and bring along a young pitching staff, not to mention someone who can handle the majority of catching duties. Maybe for a pitcher or perhaps for Ryan Freel who we could use as a proper uber-utility guy.

    Cla getting so much interest is surprising but if they can get something good for him, then by all means do it and bring up the one representative portland had in their all star game.

  7. I am a big proponent of “controlling the stike zone” … I understand it’s value … getting the opposing pitcher to throw more pitches is a good thing … getting into a “hitter’s count” is a good thing …

    At some point, however, there’s a limit … it’s not good to take the first pitch if it’s a down-the-middle fastball … especially if doing so predisposes you to chase the next pitch even if it’s s slider in the dirt …

    I have a vision for being able to go thru the MLB pitchfx data and look to see how often the first pitch is a taken down-the-middle fastball … I’d like to think the Padres already do something like this … perhaps I’ll go to this during the winter … unless any of you know anyone else who’s already doing it?

  8. #4@Paul R: “Is the jury still out on whether strike zone judgment can be taught?”

    If hitting major league pitching is a talent, not a skill, is control of the strike zone a large portion of that talent?

    Is the ability to control the strike zone, directly related to length of swing? If Gerald Clark is up there starting his swing, while the pitcher is in his wind up. I am not sure what you can teach him.

  9. It will be interesting to see what goes down in the next week to 10 days but it doesn’t sound like much will be happening. Towers said on 1090 this morning that there was a 50-50 chance Maddux is traded and a little better chance that Wolf would be traded.

    However, he said Kouz and Greene would remain Padres and hinted that Bard’s veteran presence would be helpful to Nick Hundley. Since Carlin is 0-for-20 w/ RISP and almost single-handedly cost the team the game yesterday, I really don’t think they trade Bard, despite this turning into a lost season. Bard is still capable of being a good hitting catcher next season who calls a good game.

    In regards to today’s post, you can’t help but notice what the team’s philosophy is if you’re following the minor league teams. The Padres are drafting guys that can ‘control the strike zone’. Guys like Huffman, Blanks, Hunter, Kulbacki, Canham, Sogard. Even their top Dominican prospect, 17 year-old Jonathan Galvez, has more BB’s than K’s.

    So, what does that say about the future of guys like Khalil and Kouz, who have very little control of the strike zone? I understand why they would keep Khalil because strong defense up the middle is so important, but Kouz’ BB-K numbers are just as bad and he’s not here because of his defense. While I still think he could end up with some decent overall power numbers by the end of the season, he doesn’t seem like the kind of hitter that fits into their philosophy.

  10. #7@LynchMob: I agree with this, and I think that it meshes with the Padres’ strategy as well. DePodesta (or some other member of the front office) has mentioned that the Padres try to teach a patient aggression, where success is measured not by walks, but by swinging at good pitches. Brian Giles is probably the perfect example of this. He’s never afraid to swing at the first pitch, or on 3-0 or 3-1, and yet he’s still drawing tons of walks because he’s not swinging at bad pitches (in general).

    I think Headley has done a pretty solid job of this, which could be why he’s drawn so few walks but has hit for so much power. I would guess that now he’s shown he does have power, pitchers will start being more careful with him, and he’ll start walking more. Hey, his OBP is up over .300 now! (.271/.310/.495 – 117 OPS+)

  11. #10@Ben B.: I didn’t notice that Chase got 2 walks yesterday … that’s 5 in his last 6 games! Ah, 1 was intentional … so 4 UWs in 6 games … that’s still infinitly better than 0 in his previous 22 ;-)

    Agree that I’ve understood the Padres’ “organizational philosophy” to be “patience with power” (http://itmightbedangerous.blogspot.com/2008/07/brian-giles.html) …

    It’s not clear that you can teach “power” either …

  12. Is there any way the Pads would be able to get Alcides Escobar from the brewers for Kouz? I know his D is nothing to shout about but he would atleast give the Pads another option at SS.

  13. #12
    No, the Brewers have basically said he’s untouchable.

  14. #12@Steve C:


    Escobar was named by Doug Melvin as “Untouchable”. That is a pretty high label to put on a guy when they had guys like LaPorta and still have Gamel laying around.

    I would love to explore a deal with Seattle about Michael Saunders. If they get rid out Beltre and his contract they may like Kouz and reliever for Saunders. It’s probably a long shot though. All of our trading chips have really played their way out of being trading chips.

  15. #10@Ben B.: Some pitch data on Brian Giles and Chase Headley from baseball-reference:

    For his career Giles only sees 3.76 P/PA (avg is 3.8), despite having a ridiculous walk rate. Some of this is because he doesn’t swing and miss all that often (7% versus league average of 14%). Despite his reputation, he swings at the first pitch and on 2-0 about an average number of times, and actually swings on 3-0 more frequently than average. He does take more often on 3-1 though. And he also sees fewer strikes than the average hitter (55% of pitches strikes instead of 62%), so you would expect him to swing less often on all counts.

    Headley has seen an above average number of strikes – 65% of pitches have been strikes. He’s been very aggressive, swinging at 1 of his 5 3-0 pitches (avg is 6%) and half of his 2-0 and 3-1 pitches, but he’s only swung at 19% of first pitches (league average is 28%). So it does look like pitchers are challenging him, and he’s responded by swinging a lot, which has lead to some good power numbers but only a few walks.

  16. #13@Loren: #14@KRS1: Bummer I was hoping with their latest trading push and Hardy blocking him they might be willing to move him.

  17. #16@Steve C:

    They are rumored to be shopping Hardy this offseason if they think Escobar is ready by the end of this year.

  18. OT … Baseball Prospectus is free this week (July 21-27) … this gives you a chance to check out Will Carroll’s “Under The Knife” article, for example, …


  19. #6@Loren: Freel is about to have surgery on his knee not to mention that he is 32 and seems to be wearing out with all of that reckless play over the years.

  20. The Padres signed their 8th round pick, Beamer Weems, over the weekend. That leaves the following top 10 round picks unsigned: Dykstra (23rd overall), Darnell (2nd rd), Kipnis (4th), Figueroa (6th), Zornes (7th), Thebeau (9th).

    Kipnis and Figueroa will probably go down to the August 15th deadline if they sign at all. I’m not sure what the hang-up is on Darnell as pretty much everyone around him has signed for about the same money, around $600,000. Same with Zornes and Thebeau, especially Zornes as he’s a catcher (I can understand why you’d sign a college pitcher late to give his arm some rest). Personally, I don’t think they are going to sign Dykstra but if he is willing to take a below slot deal I guess it will happen around the deadline as well.

    It would be nice if we could get some updates on the signings but I guess that’s information the front office doesn’t want to release for whatever reasons.

  21. AGON is finally wearing down after carrying this offense for the first three months of the season. Since June 25th, he’s batting .197 with 1 HR and 8 RBI’s. The same thing happened last season (.159, 1 HR, 6 RBI’s from June 25th thru July 21st). He was finally rejuvenated when Milton Bradley joined the lineup.

    Without the good AGON or a strong bullpen, this team is easily on its way to 100+ losses and the right to pick Strasburg in the ’09 draft.

  22. #21@JMAR: Black’s failure to rest him twice a month is sort of silly.

  23. #21@JMAR: It was good to see Myrow start for Adrian yesterday …

    Portland Beavers playing a day game …


    … Ramos on the mound …

  24. From what I can see, Jaff Decker can and does “control the strike zone” …


    … 0-for-1 today with 3 walks … and the video that’s out there of him in an HR derby makes it look like he’s got some power … but with only 1 HR in 64 ABs, that looks to have some developing to do …

  25. #24@LynchMob: From what I’ve read, their first three picks (Forsythe, Decker, Dykstra) all control the zone very well, as well as a bunch of their other draft picks (Codiroli, Tekotte, Robertson).

    Re: Decker’s power – I haven’t noticed too many kids right out of high school hitting a ton of HR’s in rookie ball. Can you think of anybody? They’re adjusting to wooden bats so that might have something to do with it. Either way, nobody’s gonna complain when the guy has an OBP of nearly .600.

  26. AGon should be out of today’s line up as well, just give him another day off or so and let him rest up.

    Giles should be thrilled he’s returning to the place he hit so many home runs last year in.

    #24 & #25
    The issue isn’t so much controlling the strike zone but, as i’ve said before, controlling the strike zone must be accompanied by another talent (speed or power primarily). The padres prove that if you load up a team with guys who can solely get on base and nothing else then your going to lose playing station to station. Dykstra, Decker and Forsythe have power with their strike zone control, Tekotte has blazing speed.

  27. #26@Loren: “The padres prove that if you load up a team with guys who can solely get on base and nothing else then your going to lose playing station to station.”

    Disagree. I think GY’s data above shows something quite different. For example, as shown, this is the first year since moving into Petco that we are walking less than the league average and it’s also our first losing season since moving into Petco. Based on what I quoted above, it seems you are thinking that this year’s team is still one which is getting on base well, but it is not.

    Still, I agree with your overall point that it is better, perhaps even necessary, to have more than just an on base skill. Power, speed, high BA should all be enhanced by good OBP/command of the K zone/ability to draw a walk, whatever you want to call it. If you’re a slow singles hitter with a .250 BA, even if you add 100 points to it to come up with a .350 OBP, you’re probably not much of an asset at the plate.

  28. #26@Loren: They are last in the league in on-base percentage:


    So I think the problem is they haven’t loaded up on guys who can get on base.

  29. #27@Pat: Oops, thought I was responding to LM. That last paragraph is what I believe his larger point is; not sure if it’s Loren’s larger point or not. :-)

  30. Hits vs hits allowed is a hugely greater predictor of the Padres variance from .500 in the years 2000 through 2008 than BB.
    year hits hits allowed delta win^ frm500 hit ^ BB^from500
    2000 1413 1443 -30 -31 1 16
    2001 1379 1519 -140 -12 128 214
    2002 1393 1522 -129 -83 46 48
    2003 1442 1458 -16 -105 89 59
    2004 1521 1460 +61 +37 24 107
    2005 1416 1452 -36 +6 42 91
    2006 1465 1385 +80 +43 37 53
    2007 1408 1406 +2 +46 44 37
    2008×2 1692 1806 -114 -111 3 109

  31. Part of the vast difference is the frequency of hits v. BB. The total BB are 43% of hits. Adjusting the average annual delta by this % results in a 49 point variance annual variance from winning % for BB vs 12.44 for hits. Does anyone there see what I’m attempting to show? The columns headings need to be aliegned in the order of the #’s.