Knowing the strike zone

Rickey Henderson was able to make contact with almost any pitch that passed over the plate. That’s why he finished his career with 3,055 hits.

But Henderson was equally able to lay off anything just a touch too high or a couple of inches outside. That’s why he was such an effective leadoff hitter for more than two decades.

Superior discipline and a keen batting eye enabled Henderson to draw more than 100 walks in seven seasons, leading the American League in that category four times. His mantra was simple. “Learn the strike zone,” he told anybody who asked. “What is your strike zone? Stay inside your strike zone.”

It came more naturally to Henderson than anybody else.

Barry Bonds is the only batter in baseball history to be credited with a greater number of bases on balls than Henderson, but that’s only if intentional walks are included. Here are the lifetime totals for unintentional walks only: Henderson 2,129, Bonds 1,870.

Henderson’s career could best be described as peripatetic. He played for nine different franchises, including four stretches in Oakland alone. If an average player had followed this nomadic path from 1979 to 2003, he would have drawn 1,084 unintentional walks. Henderson nearly doubled that total.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Henderson compiled the highest batting eye rate (EY) in the Modern Era, covering the span from 1961 to the present. His career EY of .160 means that he drew walks in 16% of all plate appearances that didn’t involve a pitcher issuing an intentional base on balls.

Runner-up Joe Morgan coaxed more walks than strikeouts in every season but the first two of his 22-year career. He drew at least 100 walks eight different times, en route to an EY just one percentage point behind Henderson’s, .159.

Only three other hitters who went to the plate at least 8,000 times in the Modern Era were able to post batting eye rates better than .150 for their careers: Bonds, Jim Thome, and Frank Thomas. Look below to see breakdowns for them and the rest of the top 10, featuring each batter’s EY, numbers of total and intentional walks, plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, career span, and the big-league clubs he played for.

Statistics are limited to the period from 1961 onward, which eliminates the first seven years of Harmon Killebrew’s 22-season career. The other members of the top 10 were unaffected by the cutoff.

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1. Rickey Henderson

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .160

  • Walks: 2,190 total (61 intentional)

  • Other stats: 13,346 PA, .279 BA, .401 OBP

  • Span: 1979-2003

  • Clubs: Athletics, Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Mariners, Red Sox, Dodgers

2. Joe Morgan

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .159

  • Walks: 1,865 total (76 intentional)

  • Other stats: 11,329 PA, .271 BA, .392 OBP

  • Span: 1963-1984

  • Clubs: Astros, Reds, Giants, Phillies, Athletics

3. Barry Bonds

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .157

  • Walks: 2,558 total (688 intentional)

  • Other stats: 12,606 PA, .298 BA, .444 OBP

  • Span: 1986-2007

  • Clubs: Pirates, Giants

4. Jim Thome

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .155

  • Walks: 1,747 total (173 intentional)

  • Other stats: 10,313 PA, .276 BA, .402 OBP

  • Span: 1991-2012

  • Clubs: Indians, Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins, Orioles

5. Frank Thomas

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .151

  • Walks: 1,667 total (168 intentional)

  • Other stats: 10,075 PA, .301 BA, .419 OBP

  • Span: 1990-2008

  • Clubs: White Sox, Blue Jays, Athletics

6. Harmon Killebrew

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .148

  • Walks: 1,375 total (156 intentional)

  • Other stats: 8,387 PA, .257 BA, .380 OBP

  • Span: 1961-1975

  • Clubs: Twins, Royals

7. Adam Dunn

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .146

  • Walks: 1,317 total (122 intentional)

  • Other stats: 8,328 PA, .237 BA, .364 OBP

  • Span: 2001-2014

  • Clubs: Reds, Diamondbacks, Nationals, White Sox, Athletics

8. (tie) Jason Giambi

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .144

  • Walks: 1,366 total (97 intentional)

  • Other stats: 8,908 PA, .277 BA, .399 OBP

  • Span: 1995-2014

  • Clubs: Athletics, Yankees, Rockies, Indians

8. (tie) Joey Votto

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .144

  • Walks: 1,294 total (147 intentional)

  • Other stats: 8,128 PA, .302 BA, .416 OBP

  • Span: 2007-2021

  • Club: Reds

8. (tie) Jim Wynn

  • Batting eye rate (EY): .144

  • Walks: 1,224 total (84 intentional)

  • Other stats: 8,011 PA, .250 BA, .366 OBP

  • Span: 1963-1977

  • Clubs: Astros, Dodgers, Braves, Yankees, Brewers

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