Cardinals “walk year” results: fact or urban legend?

The term “walk year” is commonly defined as the final season of a player’s contract prior to when he becomes free agent eligible. The view is that the player can walk away from his current team and ostensibly join a new, higher-paying one – if the results are there.

Just prior to training camp and before the very first injury is reported is the time of the year when optimism is at its peak – and when “walk years” get tossed around as a potential reason for players to improve their performance.

Reporting on a recent discussion with St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan the other day, the Post-Dispatch’s Bernie Miklasz turned the phrase in question when referring to number five-by-a-thread starting pitcher Joel Pineiro (pictured).

“Duncan didn’t say this, but I will: remember, Pineiro is pitching for a new contract. He’s in his walk-year of a two year deal,” Miklasz offered.

After letting that sink in a bit, I went looking for some fact-or-fiction justification addressing walk years, sort of like I do whenever my brother-in-law emails me another idiotic urban legend that he thinks is real – you know, like the old yarn about earthworms in McDonalds hamburger meat.

I did find a 2003 study at ESPN, written by an author of Baseball Prospectus. Since it was a BP author after all, he couldn’t resist using their PECOTA predictions instead of actual results. To top it off, he compared players to other players instead of to themselves over a single year.

Other external factors like injury, role changes, schedule differences and Father Time are acknowledged as variables that cannot be properly accounted for, a valid point for any method used, in my opinion.

The headline of that story: ‘Hitters love the ‘walk year’. It’s conclusion:

“… this quick statistical glance does indicate that there might well be something to the motivational effect of the walk year, at least for hitters.”

Hardly conclusive, but I was amused by the most-valid point made that at its essence, hopes of walk year success is fueled by a basic belief that if only the player tried harder, he would perform better. Sort of like the old Janis Joplin tune, “Try Just a Little Bit Harder”, which ironically popped up on my satellite radio receiver just as I was typing this.

Instead of hope, I’d like to grab onto something more meaty, or should I say, substantial.

What I am going to do here is compare the stats of former Cardinals players for the duration of their Cardinals career prior to their walk year with their walk year itself. I strongly believe that for relevance, a player needs to be compared to himself, not to a body of other players as in the ESPN study.

My ground rules are simple: The player had to have been a Cardinal for at least three seasons, had a multi-year contract and departed via free agency, as opposed to trade, release or retirement. The idea behind three years is to have at least two years of results prior to the walk year. A multi-year deal is required to ensure not every comparison year was a walk year, too.

The Cardinals saw 12 such walk year players depart the organization in the last six years.

For pitcher stats, I selected ERA+ as the measurement, which takes into account performance relative to the league each season. For the hitters, I used OPS+ for the same reason.

I am showing each player’s St. Louis high- and low-water marks but am using the average ERA+ or OPS+ to compare against each player’s walk season. The bar isn’t that high, in my opinion. All the player has to do is post an above-average year. Either the walk season is higher than his previous average with the club or it isn’t.

walk year walk ERA+/OPS+ average previous year StL high StL low
Jason Isringhausen 2008 75 164 177 198 75
Braden Looper 2008 102 107 89 125 94
Mark Mulder 2008 39 71 36 116 36
David Eckstein 2007 93 90 81 99 81
Jason Marquis 2006 74 109 102 115 74
Jeff Suppan 2006 108 111 119 119 103
Matt Morris 2005 103 126 90 167 90
Mike Matheny 2004 65 67 79 79 51
Edgar Renteria 2004 88 99 130 139 77
Woody Williams 2004 102 151 106 189 102
Steve Kline 2004 239 155 108 240 108
Fernando Vina 2003 82 92 79 100 79

The story is pretty compelling.

The results of ten of the 12 players or 83% DECLINED in their walk year over their previous years’ Cardinals average. Only two players, David Eckstein in 2007 and Steve Kline in 2004, improved in their final season.

Lowering the criteria to simply improving in one year – in the walk year compared to the previous single season – delivers slightly better results. In that case, six of the 12 or 50% showed improvement in their final season over their second-to-last with St. Louis.

The six improvers are Braden Looper (2008), Mark Mulder (2008), Eckstein (2007), Matt Morris (2005), Kline (2004) and Fernando Vina (2003).

However, Mulder’s numbers were so bad in both years (39 vs. 36 ERA+) that calling his 2008 season a step up over his 2007 would be a cruel joke. Putting him aside would drop the walk year-to-previous year success rate to 5-of-11 or 45%.

Further, three of the 12 walk year performances represented the player’s absolutely WORST year as a Cardinal. They include Jason Isringhausen (2008), Jason Marquis (2006) and Woody Williams (2004).

On the other hand, not a single one of the dozen players had their BEST year in St. Louis during their final season there.

You can pick your favorite reason as to why, but the data has spoken. Considering the most recent six years at least, expecting walk year improvement for impending St. Louis Cardinals free agents, whether pitchers or hitters, is a low odds proposition at best.

Sorry, Joel, but it looks like there is a very good reason Duncan didn’t say it.

After publishing, I recalled that Jim Edmonds was in his walk year in 2006, just before then-GM Walt Jocketty surprised both the player and the Cardinal Nation by ill-advisedly offering Jimmy two more years. As we know, the Cards ate $2 million just to get out of year two.

walk year walk ERA+/OPS+ average previous year StL high StL low
Jim Edmonds 2006 110 153 137 170 110

Anyway, Edmonds just reinforces the conclusion already made, as his 2006 “walk year” was his worst as a Cardinal up to that point. (He posted an OPS+ of 88 in his final St. Louis season, 2007.)

There may have been other mid-Cardinals career walk years that I missed here, but I think the point has been adequately made.