Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reality Check: Jim Bowden

Former Cincinnati Reds general manager (1992-2003) Jim Bowden hosts a show on the MLB Home Plate station on Sirius XM Radio. Recently, he was discussing Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin in the context of current Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Votto gets criticized in some quarters for taking too many walks and not driving in enough runs. Votto's said that his approach at the plate doesn't change when there are runners on base. Some of his critics think he should "expand the zone"--swing at more pitches, basically--when there are runners on base in order to drive them in. Votto swung at 20% of pitches outside the strike zone last year, the lowest percentage in the majors among batters who qualified for the batting title, so there is surely room for expansion. Whether he should or not isn't my point here.

Rather, Bowden said that that's what Barry Larkin did in his career. When he was a leadoff hitter, according to Bowden, Larkin took more walks. When he batted further down the order, he swung at more pitches. But did he really?

It's easy to check this using Baseball Reference, which provides splits for every player, including batting order position. 
  • Larkin batted leadoff in 406 games. In those games, he walked in 8.7% of his plate appearances.
  • He batted second in 675 games, walking in 9.7% of his plate appearances.
  • He batted third in 757 games, walking in 11.6% of his plate appearances.
  • He batted in other spots in the order in 342 games, walking in 11.2% of his plate appearances.
So Bowden appears to have it wrong. Larkin walked a lot less frequently at the top of the order than he did elsewhere.

And no, it's not because weak Reds middle-of-the-order hitters resulted in Larkin receiving a lot of intentional walks; the relationship holds up if I exclude intentional passes (8.3% batting first, 9.5% second, 10.6% third, 9.3% elsewhere).

And it's not because he led off a lot as a youngster before he learned the strike zone. In 1988 he batted first in 104 games, the most in his career. He was 24 that year. He walked in 5.4% of his plate appearances batting first, 9.4% batting second, 7.1% batting third. He batted leadoff the second most in his career in 2002, when he was 38. He walked in 8.2% of plate appearances in 58 games batting first, 5.8% in 35 games batting second, but 8.8% in 52 games batting elsewhere. In between, his 1995 MVP season: Walked in 12.8% of plate appearances batting first, 8.0% batting second, 13.4% batting third. 

I really can't find any evidence that Barry Larkin was more selective batting leadoff or more free-swinging further down the order. 

(To be clear, this isn't a knock on Bowden. He's entertaining on the radio, he's dealt closely with hundreds and hundreds of ballplayers, and memory's a tricky thing.)

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