The Impact of Teammates
The impact of Bobby Abreu on the Angels has drawn attention throughout the season. He is credited with increasing the propensity of Angels hitters to take walks and thus improve the teams on-base percentage. In particular he has changed the approach of Angels leadoff hitter Chone Figgins. Bringing in new teammates correlating with fundamental hitting changes is not a new thing. I would like to highlight the careers of Lou Gehrig and Joe Sewell to give a comparable case to that of Abreu and Figgins.
In 2008, Figgins walked 62 times in 520 plate appearances, a rate of once every 8.4 PA’s. In 2009, he walked a league-leading 101 times in 729 plate appearances, a rate of once every 7.2 PA’s. To compare, Abreu walked 94 times in 667 PA’s, or once every 7.1 PA’s. Though correlation does not prove causation, the most likely explanation of Figgins improved walk rate is the beneficial impact of Bobby Abreu.
A similar effect can be seen on the strikeout rate of Lou Gehrig in 1931. In 1930 Lou Gehrig struck out 63 times in 703 plate appearances, or once every 11.2 PA’s. In 1931, he struck out only 56 times in 738 PA’s, a rate once every 13.2 PA’s. This improves even more in 1932 as he struck out 38 times in 708 PA’s, a rate of 18.6 PA/K. Gehrig’s strikeout rate hovers in that range until illness overtakes him in 1938. What changed from 1930 to 1931? The Yankees acquired Joe Sewell to play third base.
Sewell was the hardest person to strike out in major league history. In 1930, he struck out 3 times in 414 plate appearances, or 138 PA/K. Moving from the Indians to the Yankees, Sewell became strike out prone, striking out a shocking 8 times in 571 PA’s, or 71.4 PA/K. In 1932, he increases his rate to a much more reasonable 167.7 PA/K (3 strikeouts in 576 plate appearances). Again, correlation does not prove that Sewell convinced Gehrig to strike out less, but it is suggestive.
When sabermetricians discuss true talent levels, they act as if it is something that can be discovered. Teammates, however, are a fundamental part of the game of baseball, and they can dramatically change the way an individual performs on the field. Which was Gehrig’s true talent level, the slightly more strikeout prone early version or the strikeout-phobic later version? Who knows? What we can say is that somehow Gehrig began to strike out dramatically less at the time he was paired with the hitter least likely to strikeout ever. Similarly, Figgins began walking substantially more upon the acquistion of Abreu. This combination of pairs of teammates deserves much more serious study by students of the game of baseball.