Nick Markakis’ 2009 Drop In Walks (Part Five)

In part one of these posts, I took a look at what effects walk rate. Part two was Nick’s general swing rates and splits. Part three was some more detail of swing rates on the fastball in particular. In part four, we looked at how things went in three-ball counts. So far we’ve got that some of the following information:

  • Swinging at pitches out of the strike-zone makes it more difficult to walk.
  • Nick swung at pitches up in the zone more in 2009.
  • Swung at more fastballs outside the strike-zone and fewer fastballs inside the strike-zone in in 2009.
  • Chased pitches out of the zone more in counts where he was one ball away from a walk.
  • Was thrown more strikes in three-ball counts.
  • Not Markakis related, but we also know that I just move from point to point as ideas come to me*. Sorry about that. I realize that it probably decreases the coherence of the posts, but the search for an answer doesn’t always (or often) follow a straight path.

* This post, unfortunately, doesn’t break that pattern.

Looking at often Nick swung in all counts – still minus intentional walks – (with the horizontal axis having the total number of pitches; that is, a 1-1 count is 2 pitches, a 3-2 count is 5 pitches, etc.), here are the rates for 2008 (blue lines) and 2009 (red lines) for pitches in the zone (the top two lines) and out of the zone (the bottom two lines).

Focusing first on the in-zone rates. In 2008, Nick was more likely to act on a pitch to hit early in the count, but more willing to wait on pitches later in the count. For pitches out of the zone, he pretty much swung at least as often all the time, and much more often later in the count.

Just to make sure I’ve got everything out, here’s the swing rates (2008/2009) in each count for pitches in and out of the zone. I’ve color-coded it such that if the 2008 rate was higher by 5% or more then it’s blue, and if 2009 is higher then it’s red (otherwise, white):

I was going to say something about the jump in swing rate on 3-0 pitches, but the raw number went from 1 to 2 in a similarly small number of opportunities, so that’s really not a big deal.

As another example, look at the 1-0 pitches. In 2009, Nick took them at a higher rate when they were in the strike-zone and swung at them more when they were out of the strike-zone – perhaps because pitchers were throwing him fewer fastballs and more off-speed pitches. That’s not a good combination, and means he was going from 1-0 to 1-1 more often than 2-0 (in ’08 it was about 38% of the time to 1-1 and 47% to 2-0 (with the remainder of PA ending on that count), and in ’09 it was 49% and 38%).

I also find it interesting that the biggest difference occurred on pitches out of the zone with two strikes (which make up a substantial portion of his plate appearances). Despite swinging at balls much more frequently with two strikes, Nick’s overall strike-out rate fell from 19% to 15%. Maybe that’s because his contact rate on those two-strike pitches increased from 75% to 81%, as well as from 88% to 91% on pitches in the zone – possibly as a result of a much larger proportion of those pitches being fastballs . Also, pitchers were throwing him a much larger percentage of pitches in the zone with two strikes (43% to 48%), which somewhat blunted the effects of the big jump in swing rate on balls (since it was applied to fewer pitches). Perhaps pitchers figured he was going to be taking balls more after his high walk 2008 and decided to try to get him looking instead – and Nick responded by starting to swing more.

So he’s swinging at more pitches with two strikes; how well did that turn out when he put the ball in play? On pitches in the zone he hit .414 and slugged .634 in 2008 and .373/.523 in 2009, and on pitches out of the zone it was .545/.545 and .302/.372. I think that in an effort to cut down on his strike-outs, Nick started swinging more later in the count with an eye on putting the ball in play (which he did, but to worse results). His swinging K’s were pretty similar in both years, but he cut down on the called strike-threes in 2009. Also, just looking at the splits at Baseball Reference, we see that Nick still managed to walk 13% of the time when he got to two strikes in 2008, but only 7% of the time in 2009. (It was over 8% in 2006 and 2007). If you split the difference between the ’08 and ’09, then Nick might have walked an additional 10 times, getting his overall walk rate to 9.3%. That still would have been a little lower than expected, but seemingly more reasonable (to me, anyway) and more in-line with his overall swing rates.

That general issue might have something to do with his drop in line-drive rate as well (from a career high 21.1% to a low of 16.6%), as maybe he was just trying to get the bat on the ball, and not hitting it with as much authority. Another point in this area is the HR/FB rate, which fell to 8% after three years around 12%. Contact, but not good contact.

So, I think that’s as far as I’m going to go with this. Five posts and a whole bunch of graphs and charts later, what are the conclusions? It’s quite likely that a fair bit of Nick’s drop in walk rate is just normal variation. Things in 2008 worked out such that he walked in most circumstances in which it was a fairly likely outcome, and in 2009  just didn’t happen to work quite so well.

For the rest of it, my best guess is that Nick felt some pressure to be a run producer batting in the three and four spots in the line-up, but while also trying to cut down on his strike-outs. Those factors combined to drop his walk rate even further, and in 2010 I expect Markakis to get it back up to around ~10%. We’ll see what happens.