This decade, most years the Orioles have been among the leaders in MLB in issuing the base on balls almost every year, it seems. They've also been below .500 for that whole span. I thought there was certainly a correlation there. That the free passes were a major contributor to high ERAs and thus losses. All of this seemed a natural thing to assume. It seemed like a walk was scoring and breaking the team's back every night...but th evidence of this year seems to point in the opposite direction. This year, the Orioles are issuing many fewer walks, and are in fact among the better staffs in that category. Yet they remain in last place, and in May are already quite a few games below .500. Do walks really not matter as much as I'd thought, or is there some other variable that I've yet to discover offsetting the improvement in walks? O's fans, let's investigate.
For one thing, the staff has allowed the second-most home runs in baseball (most in the AL)...but they were doing so last year while also issuing all those walks, so this wouldn't seem to be the variable we're looking for. They're also leading baseball in BAA, which may be the factor; after all, if the baserunners are getting on they're getting on, regardless of the method. Still, the Orioles were 28th of 30 teams in THAT category in 2008, and walks are down more than this BAA is up. It seems there isn't a simple answer. What is producing this maddening result? How can more control be leading to a higher team ERA? Breaking down each pitcher may be the only way to reach the truth of the matter.
Jeremy Guthrie: Guthrie has issued 16 walks in his 46.2 IP, good for about a 3 BB/9. Not great, to be sure...still, it's much better than the average Baltimore pitcher from last year, who issued 4.35 per 9. So why has Guthrie's ERA ballooned to 5.21? Well, Guthrie is among the league leaders in XBH allowed, and has allowed 98 total bases, second only to Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins. That certainly solves the mystery in his case. The ace of a pitching staff should not be sniffing the top of those categories.
Koji Uehara: He's walked but 7 batters all year, good for a 1.48/9 IP mark. Not too shabby. Only one guy with at least 40 innings (Kevin Slowey) has managed better. And yet, Koji is saddled with a 4.01 ERA and 2-3 record. So what's this guy doing wrong? Well, I know from watching that it seems every time he comes out of the game the 'pen lets his runners score. His run support isn't great, especially from a lineup averaging pretty good numbers. He has a pretty smart WHIP of 1.13. Uehara is the victim of a few homers (6), a bad bullpen, and unfortunate run support. Part 2 of mystery solved.
Mark Hendrickson: Here is the easiest of the starters to figure out. For one thing, He's walking 4.13 per 9, not all that far below the team average last year. For another, he's given up 42 hits and 7 HR in just 28.1 innings...bringing his WHIP to a staggering 1.94. Simply put, he isn't throwing like a major league starter. This is one fifth of the rotation that is no mystery at all.
Adam Eaton: Eaton actually has a similar problem to that of Hendrickson; up over 4 BB/9, and a higher ERA but lower WHIP. So actually, make that 2/5 of the rotation that aren't mysteries. It begins to come clearer what's going on.
Brad Bergesen: Bergesen is issuing a little more than two and a half free passes per nine. Pretty good. So what's HIS problem? Well, for one thing, he ranks 156th among pitchers with at least 20 innings in BAA, at .348. .348!! That's horrendous. He has an excuse because he's learning, and I'll take a rookie giving up hits and not walking people over the alternative, but one need look no further than that number to solve Beresen's part of the mystery.
Alfredo Simon: Simon only put together 2 starts before his injury, but he only lasted 6.1 innings total and walked 2 (works out to about 3 per game). He isn't really worth mentioning, but is here in the interest of completeness. His OPS against was 1.242...
After a look at the starters, a picture begins to emerge. 3 of the 5 starters are much better than the Orioles' staff was last year in this important category, but the other two are only marginally better. Still, it is worth noting that all 6 men who have started games for the Birds this season have walked fewer per nine than the O's did collectively last season. So one would expect improvement in the ERA, but instead we're seeing inflation (overall ERA from 5.13 to 5.44; starters' ERA from 5.51 to 5.62). When examined closer, though, Guthrie's extra-base hits, Uehara's hard luck, and Bergesen's hits begin to make sense of the mess.
Still, the starters so far are responsible for only 54% of the walks over 60% of the innings...which means both that the bullpen has been doing worse in this area and that the 'pen has been a significant contributor to the team's ERA and losses. Taking a look at the bullpen numbers, the ERA is up almost a run over last year, and they are walking about 3.8 per 9 in '09. That's fully 1 less walk per game than the number that unit posted in 2008. Is the problem here similar to that in the rotation?
Well, collectively the league is hitting .298 off of Baltimore relievers. That number is up 30 points...but is that alone enough to account for 1 fewer walk per game? Well, working out the math says that the increased batting average accounts for 11 extra baserunners over the 123.2 innings worked by the 'pen this year. Over the same span, the decrease in walks has prevented about 14 baserunners...and so the high BAA isn't the whole story. It seems that in this case, the number worth looking at is the OPS against...which in 2009 is a whopping .860, good for last in baseball. That number is up a whopping 97 points from last years', more than enough to account for it.
What has all this investigation told us? Well, perhaps the obvious. All things being equal, fewer walks means fewer runs means more wins. It also tells me, though, that I was wrong in assuming that simply coaxing more strikes out of the staff as a whole can cause a ripple effect. I had always thought "if they'd just stop walking people, the rest will average out." So far, that simply hasn't happened. The single largest factor, as evidenced by Guthrie and the bullpen, working against that lower walk total is the staggering number of extra-base hits allowed by the Orioles (151 through 35 games). As Jim Palmer would likely say "well, there's throwing strikes, and then there's throwing quality strikes." Despite the ERA evidence from the first month and a half, I think the move to the first half of that statement is one step forward. Now if they can get personnel who can execute the second part, the Birds will be in business.