How Close Jeff Keppinger Has Come by Jeff Sullivan May 13, 2013 Give this to Jeff Keppinger: he’s a long way from history. Keppinger, to date, has started 29 games for the White Sox, and he’s still searching for his first base on balls. That’s a long streak to start a season, but it’s far from the longest streak. Two years ago, Brent Morel of the same White Sox didn’t draw his first walk until start 33. In 2009, John McDonald went 35 consecutive starts without a walk. In 2003, it was 39 consecutive starts for Jose Molina. In 1995, Mariano Duncan didn’t walk until start 46. And blowing everybody else out of the water, there’s Rob Picciolo circa 1980. That year, Picciolo walked on October 2 and October 5. Through October 1, Picciolo had zero walks, 77 starts, 92 games, and 267 plate appearances. Picciolo’s streak isn’t out of Keppinger’s reach, since Keppinger’s streak is still active, but it’s not unlike thinking about a perfect game in the top of the fifth. Give this to Jeff Keppinger: he isn’t the only player in baseball this year without a walk drawn. There’s also Jarrod Dyson, and Joe Mahoney, and Brent Lillibridge, and dozens and dozens of others. All the players without a walk have totaled 1,275 plate appearances. But 125 of those belong to Keppinger, and no one else without a walk has more than 31. Among the walkless, Jeff Keppinger has more than four times as many plate appearances as the runner-up. Give this to Jeff Keppinger: walks aren’t supposed to be a big part of his game. Keppinger is all about balls in play, about swinging and making contact and ripping line drives. For his career, 85% of Keppinger’s plate appearances have resulted in a ball in play. This year, that’s up to 90%, the highest mark in baseball among regulars and semi-regulars. The whole idea behind Jeff Keppinger is kind of like the whole idea behind Marco Scutaro. Keppinger will live and die based on his BABIP and any shreds of power. Problem: Keppinger’s OBP is lower than his average. His isolated slugging percentage ranks fourth-worst in the league. His BABIP ranks 19th-worst in the league, out of 322. Keppinger hasn’t walked or hit the ball hard, and he isn’t renowned for his defense. We’ve been damning with the faintest of praise. Give this to Jeff Keppinger: having an on-base percentage lower than one’s batting average isn’t unprecedented. In 1963, Ernie Bowman finished at .181 and .184, respectively. In 1984, Picciolo finished at .200 and .202. In 1986, Fernando Valenzuela finished at .218 and .220, although he was a pitcher. Looking for Keppinger comparisons yields an awful lot of pitchers. This is because pitchers suck at hitting. Give this to Jeff Keppinger: he hasn’t been literally the least productive hitter in baseball. Keppinger’s sitting at a -8 wRC+, and generally a hitter doesn’t want a negative sign in a stat that has a plus sign right in its name. Yet we find Ryan Hanigan at -20. Worse, we find Luis Cruz at -56. There’s company, even if Keppinger has the league’s lowest WAR at -1.4. The league’s second-lowest WAR belongs to Keppinger teammate Adam Dunn. Things have been bad for the White Sox. Keppinger hasn’t hit, the team hasn’t hit, and Keppinger has spent almost all season batting second. Not long ago, Robin Ventura gave him a vote of confidence, and it’s not like Keppinger’s track record suggests this’ll keep up. The White Sox, after all, determined that Keppinger is worth a three-year contract. But the White Sox have the American League’s worst offense, by a lot. They have the league’s lowest walk rate. Keppinger’s still looking for walk No. 1. It feels somewhat symbolic, making this statistic of interest both in isolation and in context. I thought I’d take a look at how close Keppinger has come to drawing a walk so far. The first step was to identify and analyze all of Keppinger’s plate appearances that reached a three-ball count. Somewhat incredibly, Keppinger has had just eight of these. More incredibly, he’s had just one since April 23. Over Keppinger’s last 50 plate appearances, he has zero walks and one three-ball count. All that’s left is to see how the plate appearances ended up. Did Keppinger go after ball four, or did he keep himself in the zone? We’ll walk through all eight plate appearances, pretty quickly. Three-ball count No. 1 Date: April 3 Count at conclusion: 3-2 Pitcher: Luke Hochevar This is a full-count fastball over the plate, at the belt. It’s a good pitch to hit, and Keppinger hit it hard, lining out to Jeff Francoeur. There was not a walk to be drawn. Verdict: pitch was a strike; Keppinger right to swing Three-ball count No. 2 Date: April 4 Count at conclusion: 3-2 Pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie This is a full-count fastball down and away. It’s in a good spot, in that it’s a strike, but it’s not an easy strike to punish. Keppinger pulled a ground ball, and was thrown out. There was not a walk to be drawn. Verdict: pitch was a strike; Keppinger right to swing Three-ball count No. 3 Date: April 9 Count at conclusion: 3-2 Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez This is a full-count fastball up and in. It’s a borderline pitch, and you can see in the little graphic that the TV broadcast has the pitch being out of the strike zone. This is where it gets tricky. This is not an easy pitch to hit hard someplace. Yet hitters will be inclined to protect the plate with two strikes, and the pitch location is such that it could reasonably be called either a ball or a strike. There might’ve been a walk to be drawn. Keppinger swung, and singled over Ryan Zimmerman’s head. Verdict: pitch was borderline; Keppinger might or might not have been right to swing Three-ball count No. 4 Date: April 9 Count at conclusion: 3-1 Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez This is a 3-and-1 fastball up and in, but slightly less in than the 3-and-2 fastball shown above. Without question, the pitch is in the zone. But in a 3-and-1 count, there’s the question of whether the pitch should’ve been swung at or taken. Given the location, Keppinger was likely to be jammed, and sure enough he was jammed, ultimately popping out. There might’ve been a walk to be drawn on the next pitch. Or a strike. We don’t know and can’t know. Verdict: pitch was a strike; Keppinger probably wrong to swing Three-ball count No. 5 Date: April 21 Count at conclusion: 3-1 Pitcher: Scott Diamond This is a 3-and-1 fastball out and over the plate, belt-high. This is the pitch a hitter wants in a 3-and-1 count, and Keppinger made hard contact, although he still managed to line out. There might’ve been a walk to be drawn on the next pitch, but there was a pitch to be hit on this pitch, and discipline isn’t about drawing walks. It’s about swinging at the right pitches, which Keppinger did, here. Verdict: pitch was a strike; Keppinger right to swing Three-ball count No. 6 Date: April 21 Count at conclusion: 3-2 Pitcher: Scott Diamond This is a full-count fastball down and away. It’s a borderline pitch, and it’s another tough one to put in play solidly. Based on the screenshot, it was likely to be called a ball if taken, but that was hardly a guarantee. Gameday agrees with the visual above. Umpires usually aren’t so good about calling the lower border of the strike zone. The second pitch of the at bat was equally low, and called a ball, but that was a changeup in a different count. There might’ve been a walk to be drawn. Keppinger grounded out, but drove in a run in the process. Verdict: pitch was borderline; Keppinger might or might not have been right to swing Three-ball count No. 7 Date: April 22 Count at conclusion: 3-1 Pitcher: Justin Masterson This is a 3-and-1 fastball over the middle of the plate, but also over the belt. A hitter likes when a sinker-baller like Masterson leaves the ball elevated, especially in hitter-friendly counts, but there’s a difference between elevated and too elevated, and at a certain height a hitter is likely to pop the ball up or miss it completely. This pitch, if taken, might’ve been called ball four. Keppinger swung and hit the ball up the middle. It was fielded in the hole by Jason Kipnis, but he made a bad throw to first and Keppinger reached. Verdict: pitch was borderline; Keppinger probably wrong to swing Three-ball count No. 8 Date: May 6 Count at conclusion: 3-2 Pitcher: Greg Holland This is a full-count fastball up and away. Almost certainly, it would’ve been called ball four, if taken. So there was probably a walk to be drawn. But Keppinger swung, and he knocked a line-drive single to the opposite field. With nobody on base, a walk and a single are the same thing. The odds of drawing a walk on this pitch would’ve been greater than the odds of hitting this pitch for a single. Verdict: pitch was a ball; Keppinger wrong to swing Keppinger gets thrown a lot of fastballs, and a lot of pitches in the strike zone. Here we’ve looked at his eight three-ball counts in 2013, to figure out how close he’s come to drawing a walk. He doesn’t get into many deep counts because he gets a lot of strikes and he makes a way above-average amount of contact. One time, he’s been thrown a three-ball pitch that almost certainly would’ve been ball four, but he swung and singled. Three times, he’s been thrown a three-ball pitch that might’ve been ball four, but he singled twice and once grounded out to drive in a run. Twice, he’s been thrown a full-count strike. Once, he’s been thrown a 3-and-1 strike that warranted a swing. Once, he’s been thrown a 3-and-1 strike that might not have warranted a swing. Jeff Keppinger hasn’t yet drawn a walk, and he hasn’t often come particularly close. The four times he’s come the closest, he’s swung and generated four positive results anyway. Which means that Jeff Keppinger has generated at least four positive results. To White Sox fans, it probably doesn’t feel like it.