Nationals Baseball: Zach Walters is not a blond Tom Cruise

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Zach Walters is not a blond Tom Cruise

A name in heavy rotation right now is one Mr. Zach Walters.  A MI by trade, he had a good season at the plate last year hitting nearly 30 homers in the minors, playing good defense, and looking ok in a very brief major league stint. Now he's a sleeper favorite to win a bench position, has been mentioned as a future replacement for Ian Desmond, and at the very least is being treated by fans as decent trade bait.  There is one problem though : 

134K 20BB

Let me repeat that

134K 20BB

"Big deal", you say.  We're not supposed to get hung up on the strikeouts.  That's true. But we are supposed to get hung up on the walks and a K/BB ration of almost 7 is not just telling, it's testifying under oath before a grand jury. Zach Walters couldn't identify the strike zone if it walked up to him and said "Hello, I'm the strike zone"

Why does that matter?  Let's test something. How many times in the history of baseball has someone had this kind of K ratio with 100 plus strikeouts and been successful?

1 maybe, 2 times. Benito Santiago hit .300 and played what I assume was great catcher defense in 1987, while striking out 112 time and walking 16. Wilin Rosario, another catcher, has the second best such season, hitting .292. John Buck has the third and by that time "successful" has passed onto "fair".

Side note : Miguel Olivo has the 5th. Ok this leads me to believe either (1) this isn't a trait that we care about for catchers for some reason, or (2) catcher WAR is completely unreliable.  I'm betting on #2. 

The only decent full-ish position player season was put up by Juan Encarnacion in 1999. . 255 / .287 / .450 in 113 games. Those seem like numbers Walters could put up. Of course offensively that is a BAD season. A .287 OBP hurts your offense much more than a .450 SLG helps. Juan had a decent year because he fielded well.  I suppose Zach could do that. And Juan was 23. I don't think Zach (25 in Sept) can do that.

If I give Walters a little benefit of the doubt and use a K/BB ratio of 4 and over things look a little better. But only a little, we still only see 90 such seasons in baseball history suggesting this type of player doesn't stick around long. 40% of these seasons feature negative WAR. 60% are under 1.0 which is like "anyone can do this" territory. Success is extremely rare.

And why are we giving Walters the benefit of the doubt? His 2012 ratio was over 5.  His 2011 ratio in A+ ball was over 4.  He's going to get better while facing tougher pitching? At 24 he is still young enough that you can hope he improves but he's not so young that you expect it.

"But Harper! These are minor league numbers! He was trying to hit his way out! And besides Danny did the same thing and you loved that guy before injury!"

Danny did strike out a lot. but prior to his first call up he walked too. His ratios were always under 3 in the minors as a whole, with one exception. The exception? Last year when he was terrible.

I did look through the past IL AAA seasons up through 2005 to find someone that struck out 100+ times and had a K/BB walk ratio of 4 or greater. I found a few. They all stunk as major leaguers, or never made it. Dallas McPherson,  Jorge Vazquez, Mithc Jones, Seth Bynum, Joel Guzman, Brad Eldred.  Even worse, it's hard to find guys that struck out 100+ times in the IL and were good at all, regardless of the ratio. Part of that is bias. If you are good enough to get up to plate enough times to strike out that much, you might get called up for another reason. So the good guys might be falling off the list and never reaching 100 K. I suppose.

But much like with Tyler Moore a week ago, the comparisons do not look good. There is a reason why he's not on the Nationals Top 10 prospect lists despite hitting nearly 30 homers last year at age 23. Right now he's a fringe prospect at best, whose lower average and terrible strike zone judgement should render him completely ineffective at the plate at the major league level. Can he work out? Anything is possible. Will he, even for bench purposes? Don't bet on it.


Anonymous said...

".255 / .287 / .450 in 113 games. Those seem like numbers Walters could put up. Of course offensively that is a BAD season."

In the run environment of 1999, it was a bad season. Now, it might be passable, even above average: Evan Gattis hit .253/.291/.480 last season, and that was good for a 110 wRC+. Not that you'd expect Walters to do that well in the majors, since Gattis had a much better K/BB ratio in the minors (43/31 across three levels in 2012).

Harper said...

Anon - good catch. It wouldn't be bad but you are talking a noticeable drop in SLG so poking around the leaderboards I estimate the wRC+ for the season I noted would be right around 100. So average.

Stupid steroid era.

blovy8 said...

So after Walters plays 2nd today, they play him at catcher tomorrow. Then this will make sense to you, Harper.

I still say "big deal". This kind of thing takes care of itself, might as well ride his hot bat for as long as it lasts. At least Walters has shown he's coachable after upping his HR total after Johnson made a few suggestions. Nobody gave a crap about him before, but all he needs to do is beat out Moore or Espinosa, that's not a big hurdle as time goes on this year. His glove might be holding him back more than his strikeouts, because he's certainly giving the impression that he might be a better hitter right now than either of those guys - certainly his swing looks a lot better. We'll have to see how many pitches out of the zone he's going to swing at once word gets around, and once pitchers start using their breaking balls this spring.

Chances are, you're right, but at least the guy has adjusted once already. I would give him the chance to fail before I wrote him off. He didn't strike me as a natural rusty gate up there the few times I saw him. His best case scenario would be to go the Desmond path, but yeah, he probably needs to walk at least 6 percent and have his K numbers come down closer to 20-22 percent to make it work well enough. But ZiPS and Oliver projections seem to like him, although I wonder about the defensive credit there.

Anonymous said...

I hate going off subject, but I like Harper and the comment section's opinions on more than Nats.

Do you like replay? Can they police pitchers or batters taking forever to proceed if they are hoping for a replay review or giving their team time to make the decision?

Harper said...

blovy8 - I got no qualms about giving him a chance. Hey, things happen. Maybe a light switches on, he takes a few more pitches, manages to eek out a .260 ave in the majors, and is a pretty productive SS. Just don't get excited or start touting him.

Personally I peg him right now as a full-season 0.5-1.0 kind of guy just on pop and decent D. Fill-in if nec.

Anon - I do like replay - no reason to get calls wrong if you don't have to. (strike zone is different because batters, pitchers and catchers have turned working it into a skill) However I don't like the challenge rule. Your concern is a reason why. I'd rather have an eye (actually 2-3 eyes) in the sky watching each game and can buzz the lead ump if a call is to be overturned. Else keep the game moving.

Section 222 said...

I agree with you on instant replay. The system they adopted seems unnecessarily prone to gamesmanship. Any idea why they chose the challenge route over the eye in the sky?

At least they'll get an idea in this first year what having a semi- eye in the sky approach would be because from the 7th inning on, no challenges are allowed and it's up to the umps to ask for a review. Hopefully the umps will do that alot to make sure the outcome of a game is not effected by a blown call. If the umpire requested reviews are handled quickly and painlessly, maybe the challenge system will be abandoned at some point.

It also seems stupid to not allow challenges to the neighborhood play, especially since the question of whether the throw pulled an infielder off the base is reviewable. I thought getting rid of the neighborhood play would be one of the most beneficial side effects of instant replay.

blovy8 said...

Harper, should I NOT be more excited about him right now than Espinosa or Moore? 1 WAR is not bad for a bench guy, I'd take that - I'm not asking the guy to be Ben Zobrist all over the field just yet.

My guess is the challenge play is the entry into doing this, because there's a sense the umps wouldn't be in a hurry to regularly overrule each other.

Sec. 222, the neighborhood play is there to help prevent injuries to the pivot guy, too much tied up in these guys to let that one go, especially given the climate in trying to protect catchers from collisions. I'd rather see possible obstruction plays get reviewed, lots of fielders stick their leg or foot in the way of the base before they get the ball.

I don't see any reason to let the strike zone be a matter of opinion just because some guys have been able to take advantage of it. They'll just have to learn how to use the new HoloGraphs stats on fangraphs.

Section 222 said...

blovy, I've heard people say that that the neighborhood play is used to prevent injuries and I just don't buy it. More accurately, it's seems to have developed to facilitate DPs being turned without risking injury. But why should that be? Teams don't have a right to a DP on any groundball with a man on first. If the play is close enough and the runner sliding is scary enough, then just take the forceout and get out of the way. Why should a guy be called out when a fielder's foot is off the bag because he wanted to turn a DP?

The rule actually says that the neighborhood play can't be challenged unless the throw pulled the fielder off the base. So there will be challenges and reviews, and the runner will be called out when the fielder's foot was clearly off the base, as long as the throw was on target. That makes no sense to me.

Chinatown Express said...

§222: Because DPs are thrilling, and the league is happy to facilitate more DPs? Or perhaps because generations of SSs and 2Bs have learned to turn them that way, and changing the practice would lead to a couple of seasons of ugly defense?

d28 said...

I heard he started hitting HRs after D Johnson told him to start swinging for the fences while he was on the farm. So it makes sense to me that would result in more strike outs.

Donald said...

@d28 -- it's a good theory but his K rates were just as high when he wasn't hitting home runs. I agree with blovy8, though that they should give him a chance to improve. Maybe he can figure it out. It's not like he's blocking some more promising prospect. We just don't want to fool ourselves into thinking he's going to solve all bench woes.

John C. said...

I've been spending a lot of time tamping down Walters bandwagoners. His K/BB was even worse when you remember that two of the walks were intentional. That means he only walked 18 times in 519 plate appearances when the other team actually pitched to him.

Anonymous said...

Disagree with you on this one, Harper. Short and overrated? Nails 'em both!


blovy8 said...

That kind of does make sense in that the interpretation would be that the 2B "could" put his foot on the bag, but didn't because of the sliding runner. If the throw puts him in a position where he couldn't do that then the runner would be safe.

blovy8 said...

It's similar to a batter crowding the plate and just letting the ball hit him instead of making a reasonable effort to avoid it. Was his weight already moving with his swing? Are his reactions poor? Was he expecting the pitch to curve? Was the ump watching the pitch and not noticing the reaction time of the batter closely? That takes away going off the plate inside to a lefty.

blovy8 said...

Also, the take-out slide into the base has that sort of caveat in that the runner needs to be able to touch the bag with a part of their body even as they're clearly trying to interfere with the fielder rather the usual admonition to avoid him.