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Nothing Spooky About Brewers' Walk Rates

EDITOR'S NOTE: Frequent readers of the Frosty Mug are likely familiar with the work of Nathan Petrashek, whose writing at Cream City Cables has been linked several times lately. Today we welcome Nathan to the staff here at BCB, where he'll be producing original content a few times monthly. - KL

The Twins’ Target Field is a great new ballpark with an old tradition: when a Twins batter is walked, a ghostly image appears on the video board above the caption, "Walks Will Haunt!" On May 21, 2010, I was subjected to this cruel ritual a total of eight times, three of them in the first inning thanks to Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan. Two of those three runners would score as the Twins led by 7 after a half inning of play. My Twins-loving boss cackled with glee at the carnage in front of us.

In 2009 and 2010, the Brewers ranked 28th and 29th, respectively, in walks per nine innings (BB/9). The league average in 2009 was 3.46, a mark starters Yovani Gallardo (4.56), Manny Parra (4.95), and Jeff Suppan (4.12) completely busted on. Surprisingly, the starters that hurt themselves least were Braden Looper (2.96) and the aforementioned Dave Bush (2.91), though they tended to give up home runs in droves so it’s a good thing they avoided putting more players on base. The league average dropped to 3.28 in 2010, which didn’t help the Brewers any; the only starter to come in lower that year was Chris Narveson (3.17). However, even he was mediocre when compared to other starters, who averaged only 3.06 walks per nine in that year. Though obviously walk rates don’t tell all, they paint a fairly unflattering picture of the Brewers’ starting pitching in 2009 and 2010, one that is backed up by other statistics.

Surprisingly, it was the bullpen that kept the team from becoming an unmitigated disaster in those years. The Brewers pen as a whole beat the league average for relievers in 2009 (3.96) and 2010 (3.73). Led by Trevor Hoffman, Todd Coffey, Mark DiFelice, and Carlos Villanueva in 2009, and Kameron Loe, Chris Capuano, and Mike McClendon in 2010, the bullpen managed a reasonable 3.71 BB/9 during that span.

In 2011, the whole picture changed. After lingering at the bottom of the league in walk rates for the past two years, the Brewers jumped up to 4th, again led by an effective bullpen. Brewers pen arms didn’t just beat the league average for relievers in 2011; they blew it out of the water. After struggling to keep men off base in 2010, John Axford finally got command of the strike zone in 2011, leading to a substantial drop in the number of free passes he issued per nine. Along with Axford, Tim Dillard, LaTroy Hawkins, and Loe led the team to one of the best BB/9 rates among league bullpens, coming in second at 2.78.

The starters were impressive, though the continually plummeting starter average (2.85 in 2011) meant that the rotation displayed only league-average command. Still, no rotation member but Chris Narveson posted a BB/9 greater than 3.00. Gallardo continued his impressive evolution, dropping his walk rate from 4.56 in 2009 to 2.56 in 2011. Zack Greinke has never hurt himself with excessive walks, and he repeated that success with the Brewers. After slipping back to the wild ways of his earlier days in 2010, Randy Wolf got his walks back under control last year. Shaun Marcum obviously lives on his command, and though he got busted up a bit at the end of the season, he still managed to beat the average starter’s BB/9 by almost .30 points.

If you hate watching pitchers give up free passes as much as I do, this is truly a historic time for the Brewers. All told, Brewers pitchers issued only 440 walks in 2011, the team’s lowest total since 1992, not including the strike-shortened 1994 season. With all five Brewers’ starting pitchers and many of the most effective bullpen armsAxford and Loe, particularlyreturning, the Brewers are in a very good position to again be one of the best teams at limiting walks in 2012.