To continue my streak of Andy LaRoche related posts, I decided to tackle one of the main issues surrounding him. LaRoche's supporters have pointed to his amazing walk rate this year as a reason why he should have been given far more of a chance during his first stint with the bigs. His detractors claim that these walks don't count as much as they would for other hitters, since it's far easier to draw a walk in the eight spot than it is elsewhere in the lineup? This seems like a claim that can be resolved with some research, so let's have at it.
The first way to look at this problem is simple; do number eight hitters walk more than other hitters in the lineup? Thanks to Baseball Reference, I can lookup the 2006 and 2007 combined performance of NL hitters at every spot in the lineup.
This left here is seemingly telling. Walk rate seems to move on a bell curve ascending from one to four, then dropping from five to seven, and taking a sudden leap up at eight. I'm sure that if so many teams didn't waste their two hole slots on the likes of Jack Wilson and Juan Pierre, the distribution would be near perfect. Just looking at this, the answer seems simple, yes, hitting eighth does increase your walk rate.
However, what this chart doesn't show is that only cleanup hitters draw four wide ones more often that eight hole hitters. Cleanup hitters received 359 free passes the last two years, while guys in the eight spot received 347. This far exceeds the number picked up by the next group, three hitters, who got 250. Once you only look at unintentional walk rate, the bell curve shape becomes a whole lot more clear.
Once you take free passes out of the equation, players hitting eighth walk less than any other position in the lineup. While this does show that the effects of hitting eighth on your walk rate are overblown, it doesn't necessarily prove intentional walks are the only effect. After all, these guys could be even worse if they weren't hitting eighth.
To account for this phenomenon, I looked at every NL player for the last four years that had at least 200 plate appearances batting eighth, and 200 plate appearances elsewhere in the lineup. With this sample size, if there is an effect in hitting eighth, it will show up here.
|Jack Wilson ('05)||3.846%||3.987%|
|Michael Barrett ('04)||5.473%||5.902%|
Sadly, only 11 players qualified under my criterion, but the ones that do qualify show a trend. Eight of the qualifying players were unintentionally walked less in the eight hole than they were in other parts of the lineup. Is this absolute, concrete proof that the eight hole doesn't help your unintentional walk rate? No, the sample of 11 players is much too small. However, when you combine this data with the fact that eight hole hitters walk unintentionally less than any other type of hitter, you can safely say that there's no data that supports the assertion that Andy LaRoche's walks this year don't count. Sure, you could safely cut away hit free passes, but the other walks he earned in the eight spot count just as much as the ones he would earn anywhere else in the lineup.