This morning, Mike Petriello put out the following quiz on Twitter.
Here’s a list of every hitter in baseball w/ 40 PA, sorted by BB%. Dare you to guess who is #1 without clicking. fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?p…
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) May 2, 2013
Assuming you read the headline to this post, I’ve already spoiled the answer, but I’m not sure that knowing that Juan Uribe is the current leader in BB% makes it any less shocking. Juan Uribe! This Juan Uribe.
Uribe is 34-years-old. Uribe has been in the big leagues since 2001, and he’s been hacking his way through almost every at-bat since. Juan Uribe is Yuniesky Betancourt’s hero*. What is happening here?
*I don’t know if that’s true, but it would make sense if it were true.
Well, the obvious thing that is happening here is small sample size. Juan Uribe has come to the plate just 46 times this year. That’s basically nothing, and two of the walks weren’t even his choice, as they were intentional walks to bring up the pitcher. What we’re seeing is probably just a statistical blip, the kind of thing that shows up when season totals still account for just a few weeks worth of playing time.
Except, you know, this isn’t just a one month thing. I pulled Uribe’s monthly splits from our player pages, and plotted his unintentional walk rate for each of the 66 different months in which he’s batted at least 10 times. Here is a plot of those 66 months, in chronological order.
From the beginning of his career through last June, Uribe has posted a double-digit unintentional walk rate just three times in 63 months; in April of 2007 (8 BB, 83 PA), July of 2008 (3 BB, 27 PA), and August of 2009 (7 BB, 62 PA). The first of those three months required you to round up in order to get his BB% up to 10%, and the others were just barely over 10%. Now, here are his walk rates for the three months he’s played since last July: 16% (5 BB, 32 PA), 19% (3 BB, 16 PA), 21% (9 BB, 41 PA).
Uribe’s three highest BB% months are his three most recent months, and it’s not even close. Of course, the last two months of 2012 are even smaller samples than the first month of 2013, and all told, we’re dealing with a grand total of 17 unintentional walks in 89 plate appearances. But Uribe is a guy who has taken fewer walks than that in an entire season.
Back in 2007, he walked 13 times in 495 trips to the plate, and one of those was forced upon him. His career high for walks in season is 45, with six of those being intentional. His career BB% is 5.8%. Uribe has over a decade of walk avoidance, and then, out of the blue, the guy just started taking a free base last summer. He’s no longer good enough to play regularly to accumulate a large sample, but it’s hard to argue that Uribe isn’t doing something differently now than he used to.
The thing that he’s changed appears to be his swing rate. After a career of swinging at more than half of the pitches he’s been thrown, Uribe has chased just 42.5% of the pitches he’s been thrown this year. Again, we’re dealing with crazy small samples, but swing rate is the kind of thing that stabilizes very quickly, kind of like pitcher velocity. The batter doesn’t have complete control over his swing rate — the quality of pitches he’s seeing have an impact too — but it’s mostly just a personal decision, with the outside variables becoming minimally important even in small samples. Juan Uribe, for whatever reason, decided to start taking pitches last summer, and he’s still taking pitches this spring.
I probably wouldn’t bet on him keeping this up, because after all, he’s had a 10+ year career as a free-swinging hack. The guy who made those decisions is still in there, and while you might be able to teach an old dog new tricks, I don’t know that you can unteach old ones. But, for now, just enjoy the fact that Juan Uribe has a higher walk rate than Joey Votto. Juan Uribe has a higher walk rate than anyone.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.