Bill James Loves a Base on Balls, but a Single Is Often Better

Harold FriendChief Writer IJuly 15, 2011

Luis Sojo
Luis SojoVincent Laforet/Getty Images

A single is better than a walk.

A walk is as valuable as a single only when a batter leads off an inning or walks with the bases loaded, but even then, a single with the bases loaded might score two runs. 

A lead off batter is certain to lead off only in the first inning.

A single may allow runners to advance two bases, which can occur with a walk only if ball four is a wild pitch or passed ball. With a runner on third, a walk will not drive in a run.

With a runner on second, a runner on third, or runners on second and third, a walk will not advance the runner(s).

Walks are valuable because they avoid giving up outs, but singles score more runs.

One of the most important jobs of a lead off hitter is to reach base, even when he is not the first batter in a inning. Bill James relates a great story about the Detroit Tigers Donie Bush, who batted ahead of Ty Cobb.

Bush was only 5'6" and weighed about 140 pounds. He had a 3-1 count and swung viciously at the next pitch. There was little chance that Bush would do any better than a single. Tigers manager Hughie Jennings laced into Bush, telling him his job was not to hit but to reach base for Cobb.

Now, if Cobb were the batter with the bases empty, it didn't matter much how he reached base because whether he singled or walked, he could put himself into scoring position by stealing second. But if Bush walked, a Cobb walk would be less valuable than a single that moved Bush to third (with less than two outs).

Walks are emphasized—some believe over-emphasized—today, but there have always been managers who realized their value in certain situations.

Birdie Tebbetts, a fine catcher who became an outstanding manager with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1950s, had a lead off hitter named Johnny Temple. Tebbetts told Temple that he was not allowed to swing until he had two strikes, which reveals Temple's ability to make contact.

Tebbetts was replaced by Jimmie Dykes in 1958. Dykes rescinded Tebbetts' rule and told Temple that he didn't have to wait until he had two strikes to swing.

The Reds were playing the San Francisco Giants. Temple was facing left-hander Johnny Antonelli, who knew that Temple wouldn't swing until he had two strikes. At least, that was what Antonellli believed when he threw Temple a fast ball down the middle.

Temple hit a home run.

Antonelli was livid and screamed at Temple, who was rounding third. "You #%$&#^# son of a b*tch; you're not supposed to swing at that!"

Statistics reveal that if a team draws one or no walks a game, it is expected to win about 33 percent of its games. Walking two or three times increases the chances of winning to 45 percent, while teams that walk four or five times a game should win 57 percent of their games. Teams that walk six or more times play .646 ball.

Before on base average advocates jump all over those numbers, they must put them in context.

Do teams that don't walk have weak hitters that allow pitchers to be aggressive?

During his final seasons, Mickey Mantle played on some bad New York Yankees teams. In 1968, the Yankees batted .214 (that's not a typographical error) and scored only 3.27 runs a game, but Mantle walked 106 times because he was the only power threat on the team.

Are teams that don't walk too aggressive and swing at bad pitches? Do they have poor pitching staffs that lose the games for them?

Do teams that draw a lot of walks have some great power hitters that pitchers tend to pitch around? Do teams that draw a lot of walks have a great pitching staff that would allow them to win even if the offense walked less?

A great example of the importance of a walk involves Carlos Beltran when he was with the Kansas City Royals in 2003.

Matt Mantei, who could throw very hard, was on the mound for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Realizing that he was overmatched, Beltran decided to try to reach base on a walk since he didn't think he could hit Mantei.

Beltran fouled off one pitch after another until he finally drew his walk. Then he went to work, stealing second, stealing third and scoring on a short fly ball to the outfield.

What if Billy Martin had walked in the bottom of the ninth inning of the sixth game of the 1953 World Series instead of singling home Hank Bauer from second base with the Series winning run?

What if Luis Sojo had walked in the top of the ninth inning instead of singling home Jorge Posada from second with the Series winning hit? 

Yes, walks are great, but singles are better.