Walk Her Every Time – Really?

Okay, so I understand the whole don’t let their best hitter beat us mentality. You don’t have to explain the concept to me.

But I will play devil’s advocate.

A quick history lesson for anyone who is younger than me: Somewhere near the end of the last century something really changed in the game of softball. Forever, we assumed that great pitchers should get great hitters out most of the time. It was clearly shown in the raw statistics where we would rave about someone hitting over .300 and approaching .400 was super human. Pitchers dominated the game at almost all levels and they expected to get hitters out, even the best hitters. They went after them with a fury that said they expected to dominate and they often did.

And then something changed. It started in the college game where you would see hitters like Veronica Nelson getting walked at bat after at bat. Now I mention Nelson because she was one of the first of the “so great we refuse to allow her to beat us” hitters in the game. Now, there were others, but Nelson was the first I can remember seeing getting walked in every at bat in a game.

So what is the point? Nelson, who was so feared that some teams chose to walk her every at bat, had a high water mark for her batting average of .359 one season. Which, if my math is good, means she made an out about 65% of the time.

Here is where this strategy always loses me. When we walk someone every time to be sure they don’t beat us, their on-base percentage is always 100%. They have a chance to impact the game in every at bat because of what we do by not pitching to them. Our fear of them makes them a threat to score every at bat where as, if we pitch to them we have probably at least a 50% chance to get them out. One style sounds like fear and the other sounds like confidence, at least to me.

Listening to the 7 Innings podcast the other day, I heard Jen Schroeder tell the story about how it still haunts her that their coaches at UCLA chose to walk Katie Cochran from Arizona State in the College World Series all 4 at bats, where she ended up scoring 3 runs, and leading to an ASU win over UCLA. And this is the same Katie Cochran who had one hit against UCLA to that point. Hearing how this strategy still bothers one of the voices of our game tells me that players don’t like it, period!

Now walking a hitter to set up a force out when the winning run is at third base is logical. Walking a great hitter to set up a double play is solid strategy. Trying to pitch to a great hitter’s weaknesses and her working for a walk is part of the game. And when you consider that the pitcher still has a huge advantage over the hitter, she knows what she is going to do while the hitter has to react to what the pitcher has done tells me that the pitcher always has the upper hand.

So walking a hitter every at bat to keep them from “beating you” sounds weak to me. When coaches choose to walk that hitter they are sending a very strong message, “Our pitchers are not good enough!”.

Is that the message you want to send?