The Psychology of Walks and Singles

A walk is as good as a hit … right? (via Keith Allison)

With all the current debate surrounding the shift, increased strikeout rates, and the overall aesthetic direction of baseball, one question, while underlying many of these discussions, has rarely been faced head-on: Why is it that walks are good, but singles are bad?

Of course, you’ve probably never heard anyone say that singles are bad in such simple and direct terms. But you will certainly have heard players praised for their ability to draw walks, while singles hitters are not held in nearly such regard. The psychological sentiment behind this phenomenon is real, and in looking at this issue, it is clear that the mindset surrounding walks and singles could use an adjustment. By changing the underlying assumptions about the relative merits of walks and singles, baseball might be able to address some of the aesthetic concerns that have been driving the debates that are currently engulfing the sport.

Listen to commentators, read analyses, or hear from managers and agents, and you will find evidence of a narrative wherein walks are praised and glorified. Being able to get on base via a walk is certainly a valuable skill, and it is not to be diminished by any means. However, it’s worth wondering whether the act of taking a base on balls warrants the heightened language with which we so often describe it. A hitter “draws” or “coaxes” or “works” a walk from a pitcher. He earns an RBI for an offensive feat if he walks with the bases loaded. On the defensive side, walks are “dreaded,” a rally-starting, inning-ruining menace.

Meanwhile, singles seem old-timey and from a bygone era of inefficient and ineffective baseball – like wool uniforms. Players are bemoaned for being “just” singles hitters. Singles are not described with the same positive metaphorical language as walks are – they “sneak” or “squeeze” through, or “find a hole,” or “fall in,” none of which suggests a great deal of skill on the part of the batter. Baseball has evolved into the game of Three True Outcomes and today’s hitters will bluntly tell you about the uselessness of the single. If the walk is seemingly so celebrated, then why is the single so reviled?

From a statistical point of view, singles are better than walks (hope you were sitting down for that revelation). Looking at wOBA or linear weights and run expectancies, you can quickly see that singles become more and more valuable compared to walks as you add runners to the base paths, and only when there are no runners on base are walks as good as singles.

Singles are also more probable. Singles are the most probable positive offensive event in baseball. When you combine their value with their actual chance of happening during a plate appearance, singles are by far the most valuable offensive event in baseball – creating more expected value in 2018 than any two other events combined.

A brief charting of cumulative 2018 season stats and wOBA weights (wBB, w1B, w2B, etc.) shows this efficiently:

Event Chance of Happening Value of Event Total Expected Value
Walk 8.5% 0.69 0.059
Single 14.2% 0.88 0.125
Double 4.5% 1.25 0.056
Triple 0.5% 1.58 0.008
Home run 3.0% 2.03 0.061

With all this information easily accessible, how can the mindset of the glorified walk and the denigrated single take hold? Why is something that is factually more valuable held in lower regard than something less valuable?

One reason might be the never-ending search for well-defined, easily attributable data. Walks are just simpler than singles. You do not have to engage as many messy variables and what-ifs with walks. Like strikeouts, walks are more easily attributed to a single player than singles and other hit events. Things like shifted defenses, weather, and myriad other factors can influence whether a batted ball becomes a single or not. A quality hard-hit ball can be an out, whereas a squibbing bunt or weak blooper can turn into a single. A single can be even be determined post hoc by a charitable official scorer. In sum: Walks are easier to identify, quantify, and individually attribute than singles. People can easily attribute a walk to the skill of the hitter (or lack thereof on the part of the pitcher).

Attribution is important for baseball players, coaches, executives, staffers, and even fans of the game. In fact, attribution is extremely important for everyone. We humans really like to make attributions. We like things to have simple and clear causes and effects. We like to know both why things happen and the role we play in causing those events. Psychologists have studied attribution formally for almost 100 years, with the first attribution research starting with Heider in the 1920s, leading to his first theory of attribution in 1958. Attribution theory has evolved through a couple of generations since Heider, with the most meaningful advancements coming from Kelley and, most recently, Weiner.

In Weiner’s three-dimensional model of attribution, the causes of any event are broken into dimensions of locus, stability, and controllability. The locus dimension refers to whether causes are internal or external, with internal causes including a person’s own skill level, abilities, and decisions. External causes include luck or the skills and abilities of others. This strikes at the heart of the single/walk issue in relation to sabermetrics. Walks are much more easily attributed to internal causes for hitters compared to singles and are therefore easier to assign to a specific player’s skill base. This does not mean that walks are simply a function of a player’s skill and singles have nothing to do with a player’s skill or abilities. But given the factors mentioned before – weather, defensive placement and ability, the vagaries of baseball scoring – it’s just easier to quantify a player’s role in getting a walk compared to getting a single.

This shouldn’t keep sabermetricians from delving into how much a player’s skill and abilities influence their offensive outcomes, of course. This is obviously an ongoing topic of interest, with the recent development and refinement of DRC+ and other offensive metrics. The ease of making internal attributions for walks may play a role in how easily and frequently a hitter’s ability to “draw” or “coax” walks dominates offensive narratives and leads to feelings or expressions of pride in that accomplishment.

Conversely, although a single is factually more valuable than a walk, it is also more difficult to attribute to a hitter’s skill. The potential for and sometimes correct use of external attributions in relation to singles does not lead to the same feelings of pride or self-esteem in the hitter’s accomplishment. Rather, external attributions are associated with feelings of gratefulness or thankfulness when outcomes are successful –and indeed, singles are sometimes described as “gifted” to batters.

Along with the locus of attributions, the other dimensions of attribution theory speak to this walk/single distinction as well. The stability dimension refers to causes of events that are stable or unstable over time. Stable attributions can include things like skills or physical limitations if the person does not believe those things can change over time. Unstable attributions include things like injury, illness, bad weather, or other factors that change more rapidly. Walk rates stabilize much more quickly across time than singles. Accordingly, people feel that they have a stronger and more stable foundation in making attributions about walks compared to singles. This stability is associated with feelings that outcomes are more easily predictable in the future. Meanwhile, unstable attributions lead to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness because of the unpredictability and erratic nature of the outcomes.

The final attribution dimension, controllability, refers to whether the outcome is under the control of the performer. For example, a person’s effort, attention, and actions are controllable whereas external or environmental factors are not. In baseball, it is much easier for a hitter to control whether he walks than whether he singles. He cannot control the umpire’s decision on a pitch call, but his decision to not swing the bat controls whether a walk is a possible outcome. With singles, though, all of the external and environmental factors play a much larger role in the outcome of the plate appearance, and the hitter’s decision to swing the bat does not have the same level of controllability in creating singles.

Like internal attributions, when things work out well for controllable attributions, the hitter feels pride in controlling the positive outcome. When things do not work out well, the dimension of controllability can be associated with guilt for these more controllable outcomes. For instance, in earning a walk, a hitter would feel pride. In failing to walk, a hitter would feel guilt for swinging at a bad pitch. For uncontrollable attributions and outcomes, like singles, a hitter might feel thankful or grateful for hitting a single, and could feel anger or hostility when a single is taken away by factors not under his control – like a defensive shift or an exceptional play.

Along with attribution theory, a different way to understand the mindset that values walks and devalues singles may be through counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking refers to thinking about “what might have been,” and how things may have turned out differently than what actually (factually) happened. Of course, the full array of psychological factors behind this single/walk phenomenon is a bit more complex, but counterfactual thinking may help to explain the illogical mindset behind the narrative that values walks over singles.

Counterfactual thinking can involve both upward and downward counterfactuals. Upward counterfactuals involve thinking about how things could have been better. This thinking typically follows negative events (“If I had set an alarm, I wouldn’t have been late”), and can make a person feel even worse about a bad situation. Upward counterfactual thinking can also motivate a person to prevent that negative event from happening again. Downward counterfactuals, meanwhile, involve thinking about how things could have been worse. This typically follows situations when a negative event was avoided (“If I had been standing a couple of feet to the right, that tree limb would have fallen on me”), and can lead to feelings of relief.

In baseball, the single lends itself to an upward counterfactual thought process. The natural comparison for a single is to look at the other hit events (doubles, triples, home runs). Since that is the least of all hits, the hitter might have a thought process similar to: “If I’d only hit it harder/higher/etc., I could have gotten a double/triple/etc.” This would not only lead to feelings of regret but would motivate hitters to avoid that negative situation– in this case, hitting a lowly single – in the future, because better alternatives exist.

Conversely, a walk lends itself to downward counterfactuals because a walk is not compared to hit events, but with other non-swinging events – strikeouts. When it comes to non-swinging offensive events, a walk is the most successful offensive outcome (except a hit-by-pitch, which can have negative consequences for the hitter). The thought process in this situation, then, might be something like this: “If the umpire had called that borderline pitch a strike, then I would have struck out.” This would lead to positive feelings of relief and maintenance of the status quo. There is no motivation to change behavior, as the actual outcome (a walk) was better than the perceived alternative (a strikeout).

Examples of counterfactual thinking affecting athletes have been seen in studies examining Olympic medalists. Research has shown that bronze medalists experience more positive feelings than silver medalists, even though silver medalists obviously performed better, because the most compelling comparison for bronze medalists is a fourth-place finish and not medaling at all – a downward counterfactual. Meanwhile, the most relevant comparison for silver medalists is winning the gold, leading to feelings of failure –an upward counterfactual. This might sound odd, but it is a real phenomenon.

When it comes to baseball, the counterfactual mindset that seems to diminish the value of a single can lead people in and around the game to think that singles are something that may need to be fixed or improved. Anecdotally, this has been present for years in baseball – teams try to tinker with a player’s swing or approach at the plate for the purpose of extracting more power and changing singles to extra-base hits. One cautionary aspect of upward counterfactuals is that they imply a clean cause and effect that may not always exist. Doing whatever you can to “fix” singles hitters or create more extra-base hits – moving to more of an uppercut swing to increase your launch angle, swinging harder, etc. – may not cause a hitter to become a slugging machine. And the attribution problem, too, exists for all types of hits. All of the messy variables that influence whether a batted ball is a single or not also influence the likelihood of extra-base hits – along with those pesky pitchers and defenses.

The effects of the psychological devaluation of singles could create new problems for offensive players. Hitting is not one-size-fits-all, as many players are finding out when facing shifting defenses and advanced pitching strategies. Pitchers and defenses are getting more creative and using more tools in the pursuit of run prevention. Offenses need to follow suit and advance techniques to create runs – expanding their offensive choices, not shrinking them by viewing a factually more positive event as less useful than a less valuable event. Selling out for extra bases or walks may not be the best approach for every hitter in every situation.

Faulty psychological comparisons and messy attributions that undermine the usefulness of singles in the eyes of players and organizations may be diminishing the means through which teams can create runs. While the psychology behind attribution theory and counterfactual thinking may be working to help offenses embrace walks as a weapon, diminishing the positive view and usefulness of the single in today’s game may have offenses playing right into the hands of pitchers, defenses, and run prevention strategists.

References & Resources

Miller, Jeff. “Walks continue to pile up for Angels’ Mike Trout.Los Angeles Times , July 25, 2018.

Kerr, Byron. “Scott Boras on why it has been a tough season so far for Bryce Harper.” MASN Sports, July 4, 2018.

Shusterman, Jordan. “Tim Anderson drew a walk, and he wants you to know it’s a big deal.” Cut4, April 6, 2018.

Greenstein, Teddy. “Anthony Rizzo’s 13-pitch at-bat flips the script in Cubs’ 3-2 victory over Nationals.” Chicago Tribune, August 10, 2018.

Boeck, Scott. “In launch-angle era, Dee Gordon lonely at the singles party: ‘One of the last guys left.'” USA Today, March 22, 2018.

Crasnick, Jerry. “MLB hitters explain why they can’t just beat the shift.” ESPN, July 10, 2018.

“Major League Baseball Batting Year-by-Year Averages.” Baseball Reference.

“wOBA and FIP Constants.” FanGraphs. Judge, Jonathan. “Why DRC+.” Baseball Prospectus, December 3, 2018.

Heider, Fritz. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1958.

Kelley, H. H. “Attribution theory in social psychology.” Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 15: 192-238, 1967.

Weiner, B. “An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion.” Psychological Review 92(4): 548-573, 1985.

Carleton, Russell. “Baseball Therapy: It’s a Small Sample Size After All.” Baseball Prospectus, July 16, 2012.

Epstude, Kai, and Roese, Neal J. “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking.” Personality and Social Psychological Review 12(2): 168–192.

Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. “When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(4): 603-610, 1995.

Thurrott, Stephanie. “Want to be happier? Think like a bronze medalist.” NBC News, February 15, 2018.

Jason Themanson is a professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is an active research in the areas of sport, social, and cognitive psychology and neuroscience. You can reach him on twitter at @jason_themanson. The views, opinions, and analyses expressed here are his own.
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Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

You forgot about the “scratch” and “cheap” single. And better yet, the “seeing eye” single where a lousily hit ball makes it out of the infield like a thread passing through a needle. I never heard those words applied to walks. In high school, a walk was followed by “good eye ________,” as if the result were solely the function of the batter’s mental and visual acuity. Since the author specializes in “cognitive psychology, ” ask yourselves this one: in high school, was the singles hitter more likely to be that nerdy kid who always got A’s in physics and algebra or the all around athlete who dated the hottest looking girl in the school? You get the drift. Hitting singles just ain’t cool.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I would rather be the guy who specializes in singles than the guy who specializes in walks.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago

In the linked article, guys like Daniel Murphy and Matt Carpenter say things like, “if a guy like David Ortiz bunts against the shift for a single, he is doing the other team a favor by going to first base instead of hitting a homer.” Well, yeah, I would rather Ortiz singled off me than homered, but I would rather he grounded out. David Ortiz hitting a bunt single is not a favor to the other team.

The author here goes deep into the psychological rewards and regrets of various baseball outcomes, which I found interesting.

But perhaps we should consider the psychological rewards and regrets of bunting against the shift. If Ortiz gets a bunt single against the shift, he will probably get a lot of cheers from the home crowd, or the away crowd will be jeering the defense. He will also probably be thinking, “How do you like that? That’s what you get! Keep shifting on me and there’s a lot more where that came from!”

Conversely, the pitcher and defense now have regret because they look foolish. How does that affect their play going forward? Recently, I saw a video on Deadspin of Dodger pitcher Rich Hill furiously cursing after giving up an easy bunt hit because nobody was covering third base. On Monday, Matt Carpenter, who is quoted in the linked article as not wanting to bunt against the shift, actually did bunt against the shift and got a double! He probably felt pretty good, and vindicated. While the defense and pitcher feel foolish. They would have the same feelings if it was a single and not a double.

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

The low valuation of singles against the shift is the place that’s most remarkable and possibly leading to irrational play. The stated valuation is clearly too low, but whether the play is suboptimal depends on how well singles could be achieved, which is less clear.

4 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

It’s one thing for a David Ortiz not to try to beat the shift with a bunt, it’s another thing entirely when it’s Daniel Murphy (possible exceptions for 2016/17). And context always matters.

4 years ago

I think you are arguing two points here. First, the value of a player is diminished if all he hits are singles over walks. I feel this a bit of a shortsighted statement ignoring the overall impact of a given player. Second, the general perception of the walk is valued over the single. I feel this is not my experience.

First, let’s talk about ‘singles hitters.’ Your example of Dee Gordon is an example of a decent singles hitter. Juan Pierre, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro are guys that come to mind as well and at least the latter two are going to the HoF. They all walked less than 7% (well Tony was at 7.7%) and hit for low power (ISOs around .100).

If we consider Dee Gordon, an easy exercise to evaluate the value of singles vs. walks would be to replace all his singles with walks. He’d be batting less than .100, but with BB% of 20-30%. That’s not a player that would get on his HS team. We must consider this impossible, but it’s also not desirable from any standpoint. If walks were really valued more than singles then how is that possible?

The value of walks as described here come with the assumption that you hit at reasonable rate and for power. A player like Brandon Nimmo (before his injury) early in this season was considered struggling despite a walk rate comparable to league leaders (16%). This is because when he wasn’t walking he wasn’t hitting either (.200/.344/.323). He still had the same OBP as a player like Javier Baez (walk rate: 5%) who no one considers to be really struggling since he is slashing .282/.319/.537.

So, from a perspective of overall player evaluation I never think the single has ever been undervalued. If we delve back to hypothetical situations: if Mike Trout walked 0% of the time and hit singles instead and batted like .450…he would be worth EVEN more from a statistical standpoint as you pointed out and getting even more praise from fans, players and managers. People may lament that his OBP could be .550 if he walked 10% of the time, but I doubt anyone would care even though his OPS would be precisely the same.

These hypothetical situations are impossible, but I do think they illustrate my overall point: hits (even singles) are valued more than walks. It’s when you start to consider other factors that you begin to understand why a singles hitter is less valued. It’s not simply singles vs walks. But, singles vs XBHs + walks.

Secondly, you mention the connotation and perception of a walk vs. a single. A player dumps a single vs. working a walk. But, fans love bunt singles and when a player beats out an infield single. Further, you mention the positive descriptions of ‘working’ or ‘irking’ our a walk. I’ve heard the same thing to describe any positive outcome after a long AB. It’s simply that a walk is usually the result of a long AB (at least 4 pitches) and a single can be the outcome of a short OR long AB. The reason the walk is ‘dreaded’ is because it essentially means that the hitter didn’t have to put the ball in play, which statistically 70-80% of the time is an out.

Finally, speaking from my own experience and feeling I have rarely seen a player disappointed with a single. A fan never wants a walk when runners are on, we want hits. I hate the baseloaded walk. I’d much rather a single.

Hopefully, this doesn’t come across as too critical. I enjoyed reading through the point about medalists and counterfactuals although I don’t think it applies here.

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago

Trying to raise the valuation of the single won’t bring you more of them, because of the mechanics of how singles are made. Batters don’t make singles, batters make balls in play and balls in play make singles.

On 3-2 seeing a pitch out of the zone, your decision is to take, and your aim is to get the walk. Seeing a meatball, your decision is to swing, and your aim is to put it into play hard. A single is a probable positive outcome, but you’re not specifically envisioning a single.

Unless you’re Ichiro. And notice how people celebrated his singles, more than if they were walks.

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

Bottom line, would you say batters’ game theory is poor because they’re trying to walk too much? I think that’s what you imply though I’m not sure it’s explicit.

I think it’s still the other direction, batters err towards hit-seeking if anything.

4 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

More often than not, balls in play make outs rather than singles and therein lies the fallacy of the author’s reasoning. When a batter is thrown a pitch his only decision is to swing or not to swing. He doesn’t get to choose a single or a walk.

4 years ago

Textbook case of over correction. For decades the perception of the walk was that it possessed little relative value when evaluating a hitter. Batting average and contact skill were king. The pendulum has swung in the other direction now.

David Ducksworth
4 years ago

“When it comes to non-swinging offensive events, a walk is the most successful offensive outcome (except a hit-by-pitch, which can have negative consequences for the hitter).”

I have always wondered about this-why is it that a hit-by-pitch is more valuable than a walk? You can see it in the wOBA calculation, but I have never been able to figure out how that kind of free base ends up being worth more than the other.

Da Bear
4 years ago

HBPs have a higher likelihood of the pitcher getting ejected on the play, thereby getting you deeper into the bullpen than they might have liked to be by this point in the game.

4 years ago
Reply to  Da Bear

No. Walks are partly random in their occurrence, but partly due to the pitcher’s decision to not give anything good to hit. So you “pitch around”, a batter in certain dangerous situations, and thus a hitter is more likely to be walked when the pitcher (or manager), decides it is less costly. This is true even after eliminating all IBBs from the analysis.

Very few HBP are intentional. The pitcher may intend to move him away from the plate, or intend to intimidate him, but very rarely intends to hit him. Therefore almost all HBP’s are random in the timing of their occurrence and, compared to the walk, more likely to occur in a more important situation.

4 years ago

A HBP in isolation suggests less pitcher control than a BB in isolation. If there is any extra “rattling of the pitcher” effect that folds in to it as well.

Pwn Shop
4 years ago

It stems from this; many walks are issued by pitchers ‘pitching around’ a hitter like Mike Trout. HBP’s, however, are more randomly (not completely randomly, just more randomly) distributed, and are more likely to have let a lesser batter reach first for free, and/or to have let them reach base when the count was not in their favor. It isn’t really the new baserunner state that is different, but really the opportunity cost of the hitter not getting to bat that is different in the two scenarios.

Ben Clemensmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Pwn Shop

100% this. The reason HBP are more valuable is because they occur more or less randomly distributed across all base/out states. Walks occur a lot more often in lower value spots, like with first base open and two outs, because pitchers can control how much they go after batters, but not so much whether they hit them.

4 years ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

Ben – There is ample evidence that HBP are not random but are sought by many batters when they are in a disadvantageous count and/or an advantageous base out situation.

4 years ago

I see all your baseball-related references are quite recent. It wasn’t too long ago that walks were not seen as being very valuable and they were never noteworthy. It’s only with the rise of sabermetrics that walks have seen their perceived value increase. OBP was never a stat that was mentioned. BA was everything.

And walks have always been spoken about as an achievement by the batter, even when they weren’t valued very much. Hitters have “worked the pitcher” and “put up a great at bat” since I started following baseball in the 60s.