When a Walk is Better Than a Run

When a Walk is Better Than a Run


You all know the saying, yelled on Little League fields across the country, “A walk’s as good as a hit!” What if I were to say that in some situations, a walk is not only as good as a hit, but it is actually better than a run?

Winning by Not Getting Out

Currently, the Chicago Cubs are 11-4, good for first place in the National League Central, which is exactly where most people expect them to be at the end of the season. They have an astounding +44 run differential already, a full 13 runs higher than the 2nd place Nationals (all stats through April 20th). A high run differential demonstrates two things: (1) you score a lot of runs; and (2) you don’t give up a lot of runs. I want to look at the Cubs’ run-scoring for a moment

Patience, boys, patience

Patience, boys, patience

The Cubbies are currently 2nd in the majors in runs, at 81. However, what is interesting is that they are 20th in the majors in batting average, and 17th in slugging percentage. How can a team that is below average in both batting average and slugging percentage score so many runs? Simply put, they are doing a great job not making outs. The Cubs are 4th in the majors in on base percentage, and lead the majors in walks. Manager Joe Maddon has preached patience to his players, and it has paid off:

Imagine standing out in 43-degree weather for 30 minutes. Imagine waiting for some action on the field as three batters walk and another is hit by a pitch. Now imagine it’s the first inning when all this goes on.

It’s what the Cincinnati Reds dealt with behind their starter, Alfredo Simon, as he threw 49 pitches in the opening inning against the Chicago Cubs in the latter team’s eventual 9-2 win Wednesday night. Forty-nine pitches and he didn’t even last long enough to record three outs. The Cubs have established themselves as a relentless offensive team, and it took all of 10 days to establish that identity.

“What can I say, man?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon asked rhetorically after the win. “We’ve been talking about it the whole beginning of the season. Talked about it a lot in spring training. And they’re doing it. I really believe that we’re capable of maintaining that kind of an approach.”

The Importance of Not Getting Out

When batters get on base – in any way, shape, or form – they are always helping their team to win. There is no situation in which getting on base hurts the team’s chances of winning. And getting on base is also always better than so-called “productive outs,” even when those outs produce a run (not including end-of-game scenarios like a walk-off sac fly). Consider the following situation and two possible outcomes:

Situation: Top of the first inning, runners at 1st and 3rd, nobody out, score 0-0. At this point, the team at bat has a 57.87% chance of winning the game, according to Win Expectancy.

Outcome 1: The batter lofts a sacrifice fly to score the runner at 3rd, and the runner at 1st has to stay put. So now you have 1 out, runner at 1st, and the score 1-0.

Outcome 2: The batter walks. Now you have bases loaded, no outs, but the score remains 0-0.

Win Expectancy Tool

It’s looking good for the visiting team…

In which outcome does the batting team best improve its chances to win the game? Most would intuitively think the first scenario, as the team scored a run. But according to Win Expectancy, in Outcome 1, the batting team now has a 56.06% chance to win the game; by making an out, even though it scored a run, the team’s chances of victory actually decreased. In Outcome 2, the batting team improved to a 63.82% chance of winning! So by not making an out, even though it didn’t bring in a run, the team increased its chances of winning by almost 6%.

A quick note about Win Expectancy. I ran these numbers using the cool Win Expectancy Finder tool. It finds all the times the exact “game states” happened from 1957-2014 and sees how often the team in question actually won the game in that game state. Of course such a statistic isn’t perfect: it doesn’t take into effect all the details of the specific situation: who the next batter is (it might be Bryce Harper or it might be Brad Miller), who is pitching, etc. But with the the depth of games included (over 115,000), it aggregates almost every situation you can imagine.

Unlimited Runs, Limited Outs

So why is not getting out even more important at times than scoring a run? In baseball, there is no clock – a game can last, theoretically, forever. A team could just keep scoring, and scoring, and scoring. There is only one thing that limits the length of the game – outs. Each team has a finite number of outs (27) they can make, and once they have made 27, they can no longer score. As long as batters avoid getting out, a team has an opportunity to score an unlimited number of runs.

Joey Votto

I don’t get no stinkin’ outs!

As a Cincinnati Reds fan, of course I’m aware of the poster boy for the importance of not getting out: Joseph Daniel Votto. The Reds 1st baseman has made it his mission to not get out when he is at the plate, no matter the situation. He is perfectly fine with taking a walk, even if there is a runner at 3rd base in a close game. He refuses to sacrifice an out in order to score a run. For many old-school fans, this comes across as selfish. In fact, it is the very opposite. By not getting out, he may not get to increase his RBI total, but he is helping his team win. For this he has been mercilessly criticized by many fans (led by Marty and Thom Brennaman), but if I’m his manager, I would thank him each and every day for putting the team first.

In the game of baseball, the team which scores the most runs wins. However, the team that is hardest to get out is almost always the team that scores the most runs. Thus, if you want to win, your hitters’ first priority should be: don’t get out!