Vladimir Guerrero and Quantifying Pitcher Fear

Whenever conventional wisdom and the numbers — or whatever conclusion I have drawn from the numbers — differ, I’m left wondering why such a difference exists. Many times there’s a good reason; other times, the reasons make less sense. One situation where my conclusions appear to differ from conventional wisdom comes in the form of Vladimir Guerrero and his case for the Hall of Fame. When recently considering Guerrero’s statistical credentials for the Hall, he seemed to fall short of the voting standards for most recent candidates who gained induction. At the same time, his name currently appears on 75% of this year’s ballots according to Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker. So what gives?

The easy answer is that voters — due to Guerrero’s brilliance and flair at the plate — are willing either to minimize or forgive entirely Guerrero’s defense and baserunning, as well as the fact that his last above-average season occurred at age-33. They aren’t necessarily wrong, as he certainly has a case by virtue of his peak and career WAR numbers. He also recorded a very good .318 career batting average and an MVP award. Plus, from 1997 to 2006, his 114 assists topped all outfielders, with his great arm obscuring his lack of range and errors, in which category (errors) he also topped MLB during that time. That’s probably the most reasonable explanation for why I concluded he was just below the cusp for the Hall of Fame — certainly worthy of consideration, but not a certain Hall of Famer like the voters appear close to making him.

From a stat-based perspective, the closest I could come to a reasonable explanation was the fear he inspired among opposing pitchers, which manifested itself in the form of intentional walks. During Jim Rice’s candidacy for the Hall, fear became simultaneously a case for and joke about Rice and the Hall. But while Jim Rice received just 77 intentional walks during his career, Vladimir Guerrero compiled 250, which ranks among the best all time since that metrics was first reliably tracked in 1955.

Intentional Walk Leaders: 1955-Present
Player IBB
Barry Bonds 688
Albert Pujols 302
Hank Aaron 293
Willie McCovey 260
Vladimir Guerrero 250
Ken Griffey Jr. 246
George Brett 228
Willie Stargell 227
Eddie Murray 222
Miguel Cabrera 220

Since 1955, 600 players have recorded at least 5,000 plate appearances, which is an impressive enough accomplishment in and of itself. A player with 100 intentional walks ranks among the top quarter of players, but Vladimir Guerrero has two and a half times that many, putting him in the top 1% since 1955. On a rate basis, Guerrero ranks a few notches higher.

Intentional Walk Rate Leaders: 1955-Present
Player IBB%
Barry Bonds 5.46%
Albert Pujols 2.86%
Vladimir Guerrero 2.76%
Willie McCovey 2.68%
Willie Stargell 2.51%
Miguel Cabrera 2.44%
Prince Fielder 2.39%
Ryan Howard 2.36%
Johnny Edwards 2.30%
Mo Vaughn 2.25%
Min. 5,000 PA

Barry Bonds was intentionally walked in more than 5% of his plate appearances, which is crazy, but Guerrero was given an intentional pass at a higher rate than everyone but Bonds and Albert Pujols. How’s this relevant to Guerrero? Because intentional walks are not included in wOBA*. So Guerrero could be seen as losing some of his offensive value if his intentional walks are skill related. There are very good and compelling reasons not to use intentional walks in wOBA.

*While intentional walks aren’t included in wOBA, they’re partially accounted for by WAR through weighted runs above average (wRAA), which goes into the OFF number you see on player pages and leaderboards. While the wOBA calculation removes IBB entirely, the formula for wRAA is as follows:

wRAA = ((wOBA – league wOBA) / wOBA scale) × PA

Intentional walks are included in plate appearances, which means a hitter gets credited for intentional walks as though they were the player’s average plate appearance. A good hitter will get slightly more credit for the intentional walk than a poor one would. For example, Mike Trout was intentionally walked 12 times last season. His wOBA was .418 last season, so if we plug that into the formula, Mike Trout’s intentional walks were worth 1 run above average last season, or .08 runs per intentional walk. The intentional walks add 0.1 WAR to his total. Conversely, Danny Espinosa drew 12 walks hitting in the eighth spot in front of the pitcher last year and his wOBA was .294. We plug the .294 into the formula and Espinosa’s intentional walks cost him (relative to average, not replacement player) 0.2 runs or .02 runs per intentional walk. For Espinosa, who was a pretty poor hitter overall, this makes no difference in his WAR, while for Trout, who was presumably intentionally walked related more to his skill, he gets a slight benefit.

Consider the case of Johnny Edwards, who appears in the leaderboard above. A catcher who was poor on offense (82 wRC+), Edwards received a large numbers of his intentional walks because he hit eighth, just ahead of the pitcher. Johnny Edwards’ walks weren’t a product of his skills in any way. He just happened to be hitting ahead of an even worse hitter. Intentional walks are often a product of strategy that has little to do with the hitter himself, but rather the situation in which that hitter has found himself. Moreover, they often occur under circumstances in which the value added by the walk is less than a traditional walk — i.e., you aren’t going to see many intentional walks to lead off an inning, push a runner from first to second, second to third or walk a runner in. Walks in those particularly contexts would create considerable value; as such, teams don’t give issue intentional walks in them. Because intentional walks often aren’t the product of batter skill and often have less of an impact on the game than typical walks, they’re excluded from wOBA.

What we’ll assume next for the purposes of this discussion is that Vladimir Guerrero’s intentional walks were drawn in situations more helpful to his club than the typical intentional walk. Let’s say his intentional walks should we worth the same fraction of a run as a regular walk, instead of the run value produced by Guerrero’s average plate appearance. Guerrero rarely, if ever, had the pitcher batting behind him, hitting mostly third and fourth during his career. Moreover, we could argue that Guerrero’s unique skills to hit and do damage to a ball no matter where it was pitched might have elicited a larger number of “unintentional intentional walks” — not technically intentional walks proper, but the genesis of the same outcome in practice–if not for his propensity to swing.

Consider this table, featuring career intentional-walk totals as a fraction of total career walks.

Highest Rate of Intentional Walks to Total Walks
Manny Sanguillen 1.8% 4.1% 43.0%
Garry Templeton 1.8% 4.6% 38.4%
Vladimir Guerrero 2.8% 8.1% 33.9%
Tony Oliva 1.9% 6.5% 29.2%
Ichiro Suzuki 1.7% 6.0% 28.8%
Ernie Banks 2.0% 7.4% 27.5%
Barry Bonds 5.5% 20.3% 26.9%
Roberto Clemente 1.6% 6.1% 26.9%
Orlando Cepeda 1.8% 6.8% 26.2%
Tommy Helms 1.1% 4.3% 26.0%
min. 5,000 PA

While Guerrero had a reputation for swinging at everything, he still recorded an unintentional walk rate above 5%, while the two players above him on this list produced figures below 3% — and only Ernie Banks and Barry Bonds earned rates over 5% (and their IBB/BB ratios was well behind Guerrero’s). So let’s say there was something special about Guerrero’s intentional walks and regarding all of intentional walks in this way. By so doing, we can calculate the additional runs he produced and arrive at an amended WAR total for the future Hall of Famer.

This is what Guerrero’s WAR looks like if we pretend all of his intentional walks were of the normal variety.

Vladimir Guerrero: Adding IBB to WAR
1996 Expos 0 0.0 0.0 -0.1 -0.1
1997 Expos 2 0.6 0.1 1.5 1.6
1998 Expos 13 3.4 0.3 6.7 7.0
1999 Expos 14 3.7 0.3 4.5 4.8
2000 Expos 23 5.7 0.5 6.2 6.7
2001 Expos 24 6.4 0.6 4.8 5.4
2002 Expos 32 7.5 0.8 7.1 7.9
2003 Expos 22 5.3 0.5 3 3.5
2004 Angels 14 3.5 0.3 5.9 6.2
2005 Angels 26 6.6 0.7 5.3 6.0
2006 Angels 25 6.9 0.7 3.5 4.2
2007 Angels 28 7.4 0.7 3.2 3.9
2008 Angels 16 4.4 0.4 1.9 2.3
2009 Angels 3 0.9 0.1 0.5 0.6
2010 Rangers 5 1.3 0.1 1 1.1
2011 Orioles 3 0.9 0.1 -0.6 -0.5
Total – – – 250 64.5 6.3 54.3 60.6

While Guerrero’s career mark of 54 WAR is quite good, the addition of six wins helps Guerrero’s case considerably. With this new calculation, Guerrero features two seasons at 7 WAR or better and another three at 6 WAR or above. Guerrero already had an impressive peak, but as a seemingly borderline candidate, this move up would help to firm his case. By my ratings, Guerrero has a HOF rating of 43.7*, close to players like Fred McGriff (who had 171 intentional walks of his own) and Jeff Kent. Treating intentional walks like walks increases his rating to 53.3, above the median for right fielders in the Hall of Fame, although still behind Larry Walker.

*An explanation of Hall of Fame Rating can be found here. Briefly put, however, the number represents an attempt (like Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system) to account simultaneously for a player’s peak and overall production.

Of course, the problem with adjusting Guerrero is that we aren’t adjusting other players who collected a large number of intentional walks, too — players like Gwynn, McGriff, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, and Manny Ramirez. Other adjustments in extreme cases might also be made, like this one for Tim Raines. Guerrero recorded a lot more walks than those players and perhaps stands to benefit more from such an adjustment than anyone else — unlike Bonds whose on-field case is ironclad — but adjustments could be made for others to, hurting his relative value. While discounting Guerrero’s quick decline as well as his troubles in the field and on the basepaths is still the most likely explanation for the difference between conventional opinion and the numbers, some slight lost WAR through fear via intentional walks might serve to boost his candidacy with more credit than I originally gave on initial analysis.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Turtle Hugs Panda
7 years ago

In Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season, perhaps the greatest pitching season ever, he had one IBB: Vladimir Guerrero.

7 years ago

Great find. It came in Pedro’s only “poor” (Game Score of 53, 6IP, 4 ER, 10 K) healthy start of the season (he got shelled after blowing out his arm in the All-Star Game). Guerrero came up with 2nd/3rd, one out in a 2-0 game, was intentionally walked, and the next batter singled home two runs and put Guerrero on third.

Whereupon Guerrero was caught stealing home.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul-SF

And Guillermo Mota, in his first MLB at bat and only at bat of 1999, hit a 3 run homer in the 8th off Mark Guthrie.

And FWIW, Pedro’s GS that day (52) was actually better than his GS on 5/23/1999 (51 – 6IP, 2ER, 6K).