Jean Segura and Salvador Perez: The Quest to Never Walk

Today we’re on a quest of sorts. It’s not a holy grail-type of quest, but then again, in a way we are looking for a grail: it’s just the grail of never walking. That’s not the actual intention of these hitters, because walks are a good thing if you’re a batter, and at some point you simply have to walk — no matter how hard you try not to — because a pitcher is going to come along and throw you nothing but junk. The lack of walks for these guys are just a product of their approach, and hitters with this kind of approach either quickly lose their job or are really good at other aspects of the game.

Take, for instance, the hitters we’re going to discuss today: Jean Segura and Salvador Perez. You might not have visited their player pages recently, but take a look at a few select categories in their stat lines from this past season:

Segura/Perez 2015: Select Statistics
BB% K% wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Jean Segura 2.2% 15.9% 62 3.1 -22.6 6.7 0.3
Salvador Perez 2.4% 14.8% 87 -6.7 -14.9 12 1.6
SOURCE: FanGraphs

A few things jump out. Holy moly those walk rates. Below average (in one case, very below average) offensive numbers. And finally: solid defensive ratings. That last point is the main reason these two players garnered a combined 1137 plate appearances this past season despite their woeful offensive production: Segura is an above-average defensive shortstop (also providing speed on the base paths), and Perez is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Even though Segura’s playing time will be in question following his trade to the Diamondbacks, this goes to show you the kind of bat that can stick at these thin positions for most or all of a season.

The walk rates are the thing on which we really want to focus today, however, because they’ve rarely been paralleled in the past century. If we look at individual season walk rates going back to the start of the live-ball era (1920), we find Segura and Perez at the extreme end of the leaderboard among qualified hitters: in 2015, Segura tied for the 23rd-lowest walk rate since 1920 at just 2.2%, and Perez (with a walk rate of 2.4%) tied for the 40th-lowest mark. We could go into the hundredth decimal place to break some of those ties, but we won’t. We could even go further and factor in intentional walks, noting that Segura had two and Perez had four, but that seems unnecessary. We get the point: in relation to average full-time major league hitters, these two basically never walk.

The way both of them compensate for — as well as influence — their lack of walks is by contact ability: they both have below-average strikeout rates, driven by above-average contact rates both inside and outside of the zone. They also both swing more often than a league-average hitter — and often early in counts. That’s especially true for Perez. We usually like to use rate stats here, but in this particular case, there’s a pretty fun counting stat related to this topic. Take a look at the bottom-10 qualified hitters in terms of number of three-ball pitches seen (pitches thrown in counts with three balls) during 2015:

Three-Ball_Counts_2015

We have a number of free swingers here. Adam Jones, Marlon Byrd. Then there’s a chasm. Then there’s Sal Perez, on the other side, waving at everyone. Segura actually finds himself off the chart, all the way up at 118. If we use a rate stat — like the number of pitches seen with three balls out of all the pitches seen during the year – Perez still bottoms out the list. For comparison, Joey Votto (the leader in this category) saw 383 pitches during three-ball counts, or over four-and-a-half times more than Perez did. If we adjust that for plate appearances, Votto’s still at around three times more. Judged by intrinsic plate approach, Perez is the anti-Votto. Perez swings at pitches at about the same rate as the other guys on the bottom of this list, but he’s better at making contact with those pitches and putting them in play, so plate appearances end sooner. As a result, Perez is also in the top five for qualified hitters who put the highest rate of pitches they saw into play (24.7%).

Which brings us to a related and very interesting moment in the 2015 postseason. As I often do (because I have been tasked with a life of servitude writing about baseball), I was perusing Baseball Reference’s play index, this time for the highest-leverage moment of the playoffs. I was looking for the moment when pressure was at its apex: when the result of the plate appearance would potentially swing win probability the most. After a brief search, I came across it:

Perez_Walk_Clipping

A few savvy members of the readership might be able to remember the primary players involved; for everyone else, this was Josh Fields walking Salvador Perez on four pitches during Game 2 of the ALDS with the bases loaded, tying the game. How did Fields manage to walk Perez on four pitches, given all we have seen above? That’s a great question! Before we look, it’s important to note the circumstances under which Fields was summoned into the game: it was his first postseason appearance ever, and he came into a bases loaded, one-out, one-run game with the task of protecting the lead. “Thrown into the fire” is an apt saying that comes to mind, if in fact that fire is a white-hot conflagration of screaming Royals fans who want nothing but for you to fail. Go out and have some fun, Josh! Let’s get to it.

First pitch

Perez had hit a home run in his first plate appearance of the game (on a 1-0 count, if you were wondering), so you can’t blame Fields for going offspeed and away on the first pitch of the at-bat in case of an ambush. Perez was actually fairly disciplined on first-pitch offspeed/breaking pitches in this area of the zone during 2015 (he saw 63 in the same spot), taking a ball just under 70% of the time. So despite this being a safe approach by Fields, it was likely to be an ineffectual one.

Second pitch

Oh boy. This should remind us by how much pitchers miss their spots sometimes. This pitch was supposed to be a pellet on the outside corner, but it didn’t really end up there, and it was the first sign that Fields was a little amped-up. Still, if it had been just a little bit less inside, up-and-in is a good place to get Perez, as he had just three hits (and only one extra-base hit) on fastballs up-and-in off the plate — but the pitch always looked like it was going to buzz him, and it ran the count to 2-0.

Third pitch

If we were to judge one of these pitches a “good take,” this would be the one. It was obviously low, but not in the dirt, and it was a fastball in a fastball count. Perez swung at fastballs off the plate down almost 35% of the time, so while this wasn’t an out-of-character take, we can at least give him some credit for forcing a 3-0 count.

Fourth pitch

And… yeah. Couldn’t swing. Was never going to swing. Fields came even closer to hitting Perez on this 3-0 count than he did on the 1-0 count. Tie game. Even though Fields would settle down and strike out the next two batters to preserve a tie at the end of the inning, the Royals would go on to win the game 5-4, because it was the playoffs and that’s what the Royals do.

The outcome of this Fields-Perez encounter oughtn’t be entirely surprising: across the league, there’s an increased likelihood of a plate appearance ending in a walk as leverage increases. And it’s quite a jump from medium leverage to high leverage, as well: low leverage sees the lowest walk rate (7.4%), medium a little higher (7.6%), and then it spikes for high leverage (8.9%). There’s some method to the madness of the highest-leverage moment of the postseason being a walk to a guy who almost never walks, is the point. Still, it’s a quirk, and it’s a fun aberration of a single event when compared to what happened this past season. It also provides an answer to the question of how you walk Jean Segura or Salvador Perez, two men who had historic, almost impossibly low walk rates: you don’t give them much choice in the matter.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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NittanyBlueHen
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NittanyBlueHen

Players who never walk tend to be terrible offensively. Unless their name is Adam Jones. He’s really something when you look at his company. Of the thirty lowest walk rates among qualified players since 2000, only five have positive runs above replacement. And Jones has more than twice as much as the other four combined.

scotman144
Member
Member
scotman144

You beat me to it on Jones. He even took it to new levels this past season.

He trimmed his 2015 K rate by 2% from the previous year to a near career low.

Did he swing and miss substantially less?: Nope (13.3% swSTR vs career 13.6%)

Did he lay off more pitches out of the zone?: Hell no: 47.7% O-swing vs. 41.6% career.

What did he do differently? Upped his O,Z, and overall Swing rates by ~5% across the board.

Can’t K or BB if you don’t even get to strike 2/Ball 3 indeed….