Some looked at the big spike in Nick Punto's walks last year and saw a mirage. Why would pitchers not throw strikes to a hitter with a .284 slugging percentage? Surely, one would think, that Punto's heightened walk rate -- he was issued a free pass in 13.8 percent of his plate appearances after compiling a 9 percent rate over the first eight seasons of his big-league career -- must be a fluke.
Others figured that perhaps the versatile middle infielder had developed a repeatable skill, crouching in the batter's box to shrink his strike zone and laying off nearly every pitch that didn't come through that zone. Punto was flustering pitchers who were by no means afraid to throw him strikes.
So far in this young season, it appears that the first camp was correct. Punto has drawn only four walks in 66 plate appearances this year, translating to a 6 percent walk rate which is well below his career average. The drop-off hasn't been all bad though, as Punto has raised his batting average to .276 while accumulating a somewhat respectable .362 slugging percentage. If Punto could start drawing walks at a rate somewhere close to where he was last year, he'd actually be a pretty valuable contributor at the bottom of the lineup, but right now his .308 on-base percentage is suppressing his offensive value. We'll see if the walk rate rises at all in the coming months.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's Justin Morneau. After drawing his league-leading 29th walk yesterday, Morneau holds an otherworldly 20.1 percent walk rate. That easily crushes his 12.2 percent rate from a year ago, which had at that time established a career high. Unlike with Punto last year, the rationale behind walking Morneau is easy to understand: he's been a monster. He's batting .357 and his 1.138 OPS leads the American League.
By laying off more pitches (58.3 percent) than ever before in his career, Morneau is taking advantage of other teams' fear of throwing him strikes and putting himself on base at a higher rate than any other player in baseball. This development in his game has boasted his overall productivity and has him in line for an MVP-caliber season. We'll see if he can keep it up.
And if he does, let's hope it's contagious. Because that's something Punto could stand to catch.