Paulo Orlando has nearly two seasons of Major League baseball under his belt, and while there may still be some small sample size issues, we have a decent idea of what he is as a ballplayer. Paulo Orlando is a high-batting average hitter with below-average, but not completely absent power, with good speed, questionable defense at times, and he never ever ever draws a walk. Over the 2015-2016 seasons, there have been 272 hitters that have at least 500 plate appearances. Paulo Orlando draws walks at a rate of 2.2%, 272nd on that list of hitters (three of the bottom four are Royals, with Omar Infante and Salvador Perez joining Paulo, and Alcides Escobar is not much better at 14th-worst).
Paulo’s walk rate in the minor leagues was not much better at 5%, so even though he is still a bit new to the game of baseball, he is not likely to improve much into his 30s, when reflexes begin to slow. Paulo Orlando is what he is, and this year, he has been quite successful at it. The question is, can his success be sustainable at all?
Having a low walk rate without much power demands that Orlando have a high batting average and play great defense to of much value. For instance, even though Alex Gordon is having a disastrous season, he is still drawing a fair amount of walks, and in terms of not making outs, has had a better season than Salvador Perez or Whit Merrifield, and is only a few points behind Kendrys Morales in on-base percentage. Paulo cannot depend on walks to sustain his on-base percentage, he needs to hit for average. Batting average tends to fluctuate quite a bit on a year-to-year basis.
Let’s take a look at some other walk-averse players. Since 1995, here are the players with the lowest walk rate over their first two seasons (not counting September callups as a season), who hit at least .280 over that time.
There are a few success stories. Royals catcher Salvador Perez has been valuable mostly by being an outstanding defender at a premium position, and slamming 15-20 home runs per year. Howie Kendrick has been a solid second baseman for over a decade with an All-Star nod to his resume. His walk rate never really improved - it is at just 5% for his career, and he has never really even been a high-contact guy, with a whiff rate of 17%. But he has hit for average - .291 for his career, and done so consistently - his .275 average this year is a career low. At his peak he was a 3-5 WAR player who hit for average, had some pop and speed, and played at a premium position.
Former Royals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek was also a solid infielder for over a decade, making one All-Star team. He never improved his walk rate much either - retiring with a rate of 4.7%. However he did make contact at a higher rate than Kendricks - 12%, and after his rookie year, hit .275 or better every season. His value did tend to fluctuate a bit depending on his average, at least until his later years when his defense at second base improved significantly.
Shea Hillenbrand was a two-time All-Star at third base, and had solid power while continuing to hit for a high average despite not drawing walks. He had a good five-year run, although poor defense kept him from being a very valuable player, and his career fell off a cliff shortly thereafter.
Royals fans unfortunately remember Yuniesky Betancourt, as well as Mike Aviles. Both lasted in the league a bit due to above-average power for a middle infielder, but their poor plate discipline (and poor defense) kept them from being very valuable players. Aaron Miles was a replacement level utility infielder for a few years. Jordan Pacheco hit .309 with no walks or power as a rookie with the Rockies, then never hit much at all after that. Wilton Guerrero, younger brother of Vladimir, spent a few seasons as a utility infielder before washing out.
If this track record is any indication, we should not expect Orlando to suddenly be able to draw walks. To be a player of value, it seems Orlando can succeed without drawing walks, but he'll need to continue to hit for average. Perhaps more importantly, he'll have to prove his value with his legs, playing above-average defense and being a plus baserunner. His defense thus far has been a mixed bag, with Orlando able to use his speed to make elite plays, but his inexperience is evident with gaffes once in awhile. The jury is still out on Orlando, but his successful 2016 season will buy him more opportunities, and it should give him the inside track for a starting outfield job in 2017. Whether he can continue to be a valuable starter remains to be seen.