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For LA, this is key to 'championship baseball'

Plate discipline integral as Dodgers near postseason walk record
@kengurnick
October 23, 2020

The Dodgers hit two home runs in Game 1 of the World Series, but they also had seven walks and won, 8-3. They hit three home runs in Game 2, but with only four walks to 15 strikeouts, losing, 6-4.

The Dodgers hit two home runs in Game 1 of the World Series, but they also had seven walks and won, 8-3. They hit three home runs in Game 2, but with only four walks to 15 strikeouts, losing, 6-4.

Nobody ever won an MVP Award, landed a rich endorsement deal or triumphed at a salary arbitration hearing for taking walks. But the Dodgers have concluded that they can’t win a World Series without them.

Walks frustrate and fatigue pitchers, prolong innings, turn over lineups, run up pitch counts, lead to early exits of starters and get the game into the bullpen where hitters find, in theory, lesser quality pitchers who are vulnerable to making more mistakes.

Oh, and as you’ll recall from Little League, walks are as good as a hit -- in some innings, even better. The Dodgers were bounced in the 2019 National League Division Series by the Nationals, who executed a more patient approach while Los Angeles' hitters flailed, striking out 22 more times than Washington’s lineup and hitting .135 (5-for-37) with runners in scoring position.

In Game 2 of this year’s World Series, a fourth-inning walk to Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena after a disputed call on a 2-1 pitch was followed by a more obvious bungled double-play ball that led to two runs in a game decided by two runs.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 20 LAD 8, TB 3 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 21 TB 6, LAD 4 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 23 LAD 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 24 TB 8, LAD 7 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 25 LAD 4, TB 2 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 27 LAD 3, TB 1 Watch

It’s not just the walks that matter, but the approach leading up to them, as well as the ripple effect. After winning seven consecutive division titles without a World Series title to show for it, management sensed that had to be a missing piece of the puzzle for the best slugging team in the league. And the numbers backed that up.

The Dodgers began their current run of playoff appearances by posting a 6.3 percent postseason walk rate in 2013. They crossed the 10-percent threshold for the first time in ‘17 (11.2 percent), but then saw a decrease in each of the next two seasons.

7 key storylines for Game 3

Thus, a concerted effort was made to improve.

“All of our past playoff series for the players on this roster, it played a part,” said manager Dave Roberts. “They’ve all been through it, some with more success than others and an opportunity to learn from past experience.”

As a result, the Dodgers had the second-lowest chase rate in MLB on pitches out of the strike zone this year (23.3 percent) and went 24-6 when they had at least four walks in a game. Their postseason chase rate of 24.8 percent thus far is the team’s second-lowest mark since 2015.

They have 69 walks in the postseason, nine shy of the Marlins' 1997 record. An expanded postseason contributes to that total, but their 12.7 percent average of total plate appearances that end in a walk is tied for fifth all-time among teams to reach the World Series.

Home runs can be epic, but not so much for walks. However, if Mike Davis hadn’t walked with two outs 32 years ago, Kirk Gibson might have never left the dugout. Just like without Kiké Hernandez’s two-out walk in the fifth inning of Game 2 on Wednesday night, Chris Taylor doesn’t come to the plate to lift a homer.

Justin Turner’s two-out walk in an eight-pitch at-bat during the third inning of Sunday's Game 7 of the NL Championship Series set up Max Muncy’s double and Will Smith’s two-run single. On Friday, Muncy’s two-out walk prolonged the sixth inning of Game 5 so Smith could slug a three-run homer and stave off elimination. A walk by Cody Bellinger in Game 3 preceded Joc Pederson’s three-run blast, then walks by Taylor and Mookie Betts kept things going until Muncy’s grand slam in the record-breaking 11-run first inning.

And all of that is just in the past seven games.

Walks, though, are stodgy and boring, unless you’re a dog. They don’t go viral on TikTok. Still, Dodgers hitters, some reluctantly, have accepted the base on balls as an integral aspect of a winning formula.

Simply put, they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls. It’s just a lot harder to do than it sounds.

“Our players, our hitting coaches in the past, they’ve all talked about it,” said Roberts. “It’s not something that’s new, but when you’re in the moment, to still be able to take balls -- and not just try to slug, but take what they give you when you’re in the batter’s box -- you’re in control. So our players with experience are tempering a little bit, and that’s a credit to them.”

Roberts hesitated when asked how long it has taken for the message to sink in, calling that “a deeper question.” But it hasn’t been easy.

“I certainly understand getting the compensation is part of it across the industry as far as slugging,” he said. “Still, to control the strike zone, year in and year out, to swing at strikes and take balls, I believe it leads to championship baseball on the offensive side.”

And of course, nothing seems to have happened this year without Betts’ impact. Roberts said embracing the walk mentality is no exception.

“It’s been talked about for years,” Roberts said, “but I think that really understanding what we’ve been through and some of the failures, as far as the offense and the approach, [guys have adjusted] and that’s part of experience.

“Certainly, having Mookie here and his voice with the hitters, with what Corey [Seager] is doing, [Justin Turner] has always been, it’s just keeping the guys moving and [stressing points] to guys. I always felt when you’re doing that, it gives us the best chance to put up points. Mookie has driven it, and a new voice has certainly helped. But it’s never been the approach of just sitting back trying to hit home runs, I can promise you that.”

It's a hard balance to strike: Not chasing borderline breaking balls while being ready to pull the trigger on triple-digit sinkers with nasty movement.

“Typically, guys in the big leagues don’t hit spin and that’s one thing, because the use is up industry-wide,” Roberts said. “And also our guys are not chasing. But if there is something in our nitro zone, we’re going to slug it. Pitchers understand that. Our guys understand that. If they’re not going to pitch to us, the next guy will take the same thing into the at-bat.”

Muncy is the shining example for the Dodgers, with 17 walks in the playoffs, which ranks as fourth most all-time behind Barry Bonds (27), Gary Sheffield (20) and Chipper Jones (18) for a single postseason. Muncy’s explanation on how to embrace the approach is simple.

“Personal stats have no meaning in the playoffs,” Muncy said. “People can talk about stats all they want. All that matters is if your team won. Anything you can do to help your team win. I don’t matter, [my] team matters.”

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.