Carlos Santana walks

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Anger over Phillies' tendency to walk is misplaced

Tim Kelly
September 21, 2018 - 2:01 pm

In Monday evening's game against the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana paused after he worked a walk, asking the umpires to toss the ball over to the Phillies dugout so it could be authenticated and then presumably returned to his possession.

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Without context, it appeared to be a rather strange moment. Players will normally ask to keep balls after milestone hits or strikeouts in a pitcher’s case, but a walk? It's perhaps different than what we're used to, but it was a milestone walk for Santana, his 100th of the season. It was the third time in his career Santana reached the 100 walk mark, but the first since 2015. It also made him the first Phillies since Pat Burrell in 2008 to walk over 100 times. In a second half that's been frustrating for the Phillies, it was a small moment worth acknowledging.

Whether that moment was scoffed at or not, Santana’s walks in 2018 have been, which feels puzzling. On one hand, there appears to have been a group of people that were determined to all-but root against the success of Santana. While Santana may not be a square peg in a round hole, his signing forced Rhys Hoskins to left field, where Hoskins has graded out as the worst qualified fielder in left field.

Others say that he hasn't performed up to his $18.33 million salary in his first season with the Phillies, which according to FanGraphs salary tool is correct, as he's been worth $16.5 million. That argument appears to lack the context that the Phillies slightly overpaid Santana annually to avoid having to guarantee him a fourth or fifth season in free-agency. His signing won't affect the Phillies ability to be aggressive in free-agency this offseason because the Phillies are so financially flexible.

But all that considered (or not considered), critics of his contract have suggested that the Phillies didn't sign Santana “just to walk.” By the conclusion of the 2018 season, Santana will likely have hit at least 25 home runs and driven in over 90 runs. But it seems to ignore his history to suggest that his ability to draw walks wasn't one of the reasons that he piqued general manager Matt Klentak’s interest.

Prior to Santana’s arrival, second baseman Cesar Hernandez led the Phillies in walks three consecutive seasons. Hernandez will relinquish that crown in 2018, but it's not because he's stopped working walks. In fact, he's walked 91 times in 2018, which is 25 more than his previous career high. His .254 batting average is 40 points lower than the .294 mark that he posted in 2016 and 2017, though his .358 on-base percentage is still a pretty good place to be at in a relative down season.

Perhaps it's because Santana and Hernandez are viewed as blocking two of the Phillies potential core pieces - Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery - that there seems to be a desire from some to move on from Santana and Hernandez. And the Phillies may do that this off-season. Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported last week that the Phillies have internally considered moving Santana to allow Hoskins to return to first base. Hernandez can't be a free-agent until after 2020, but the Phillies have listened to offers for him the past two offseasons and figure to do so again this offseason. But make no mistake, their nearly 200 combined walks have been an important contribution to the 2018 Phillies that would need to be replaced in the lineup.

The aforementioned Hoskins has walked 82 times as well. He’s also homered 32 times in driven in 92 runs, so the walks don’t seemed to be viewed in a negative light in his case.

But it feels strange for walks to be viewed as a bad thing in the case of any hitter. When you walk, you get on base. You force the opposing starting pitcher to exhaust at least four pitches, often more. Players getting on-base forces the pitcher into more high-leverage situations. At the very least, that leads to them leaving the game earlier than they hoped. At most, the opposing pitcher will make a mistake trying to get out of the high-leverage jam, and the Phillies batter, who got a chance to see quite a few pitches when his teammate walked, will capitalize on that mistake and put runs on the board.

It’s true, the Phillies 653 runs in 2018 are 20th in baseball. Walking alone hasn’t guaranteed the Phillies score more runs. But if players like Santana and Hernandez are getting on base by walking, it then becomes the job of the hitters behind them to drive them in. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean walks are a bad thing, it’s indicative of the Phillies being a few offensive pieces away. They may get those offensive pieces this offseason when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado become free-agents. Internally, young offensive pieces like Jorge Alfaro and Scott Kingery may take steps forward in 2019.

There are certainly games where it makes sense to have an aggressive approach offensively. At the same time, one of the reasons the Phillies won both of the Aaron Nola-Max Scherzer battles was because the Phillies worked deeper counts, capitalized on the couple mistakes that Scherzer made and knocked him out of the game earlier than the Nationals were able to with Nola.

As the past two months have shown, the Phillies aren’t a finished product yet. Part of building a more finished offense this offseason may include moving Santana and/or Hernandez. But starting a war on their ability to draw walks is a weird hill to die on.