24 April 2009

Giants Free Passes Just Around the Corner

MLB.com's Chris Haft writes that the San Francisco Giants are issuing fewer walks this year, and their pitchers are therefore having more success at preventing runs.

Besides yielding five runs while finishing 4-1 with three shutout victories
on their recently completed homestand, the Giants issued just 10 walks. This
went a long way toward limiting their season total through 14 games to 53.

That ranked only 10th in the National League entering Thursday, but it's a considerable improvement over last year, when San Francisco's 652 walks were third-most in the league. If pitching and defense were the chapter headings to the Giants' outline of success as the season began, reducing walks was a critical subcategory. Too many free passes would devalue the talent of their pitching staff.

"The more it's talked about, it actually makes it all worse," pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "But you know what? You have to face it. It's not going away."

The subject of walks may linger, but the walks themselves have been dwindling. In the past four games, Giants pitchers have walked one batter in three games and two batters in the other. Opponents worked for the few runs they mustered.

Is this really such a big deal?

The Giants did walk 652 batters last year, which was second most in the NL, not third, and their rate per nine innings of 4.067 just slightly edged out the Pirates at 4.06 per nine innings for worst in the NL. In the majors, only Baltimore walked more batters per game than the Giants in 2008.

This year, as Haft says, the walks are down.

To three-point-nine.

Right now they're 7th instead of 16th in the NL in walk rate, but the rate itself is not much better than it was last year, and frankly, it's still pretty early in the season. Matt Cain (career walk rate of 3.8/9IP) and Jonathan Sanchez (4.6) and Barry Zito (4.4 walks/9IP since joining the Giants) and Tim Lincecum (3.6) are still on the team, and are not likely to suddenly stop walking batters.

The one bright spot is that this year Randy Johnson takes the starts that last year were given to Kevin Correia and Brad Hennesey and Matt Palmer, who all walked quite a few batters last season. Johnson, though not the dominant ace he once was, only walked 44 in 184 innings last year, and can probably teach yougsters like Lincecum, Sanchez and Cain a thing or two about throwing strikes.

More likely, though, everyone will continue to pitch largely as they have always done, with perhaps a few slight improvements due to age and experience. Other personnel changes that may help, according to Haft:
The Giants don't want an excess of walks from their relievers, either. That's largely why they signed free agents Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry, who maintained excellent control in 2008, and gave chances to non-roster right-handers Brandon
Medders and Justin Miller. Medders issued five unintentional walks in 15 exhibition innings; Miller was even more precise, walking one in 12 1/3 spring innings.

Those four relievers have combined to walk 3.9 batters per nine innings, same as the team average, and as I mentioned, only marginally better than last year's staff.

And as for saving runs? Well, certainly they did OK in the last few games, though it should be noted that these were against the Diamondbacks, who finished 10th in the NL in Runs Scored last season, and the Padres, who finished dead last. Most likely the Giants' pitchers experienced a brief respite from their usual complacency about free passes when faced with a couple of teams that both struggle to score runs anyway.

Just like all the hype about the homer binge at Yankee Stadium last week, it's still pretty early in the season, and any assessment about the nature of either a team or a building is generally pretty premature.

Articles like this get written all the time, especially early in the season. Six years go I wrote something calling Peter Gammons out when he wrote about how the 2003 Baltimore Orioles hitters were suddenly walking a lot more often than their 2002 selves had, describing a change in philosophy that supposedly the whole team had bought into. The 2002 O's had walked only 452 times, second worst in the AL that year, and their team OBP of .309 was also second worst.
Well, in the end the 2003 Orioles actually walked less, only 431 times, and while they did improve two spote in the OBP ranking, it was because they got more hits, raising the team batting average from a dismal .246 up to a semi-respectable .268. But in the meantime, it looked like a good story to Gammons.

Baseball writers are always looking for a reason for a change or improvement, and are quick to lend credence to changes in approach and philosophy for any perceived improvement, especially if they happen to be the beat writer for a particular team. But more often than not, these things are just flukes, and they are frequently magnified by the fact that so few games have been played, so the numbers can be more easily skewed.

And just like that, they can be skewed back. Over the next month, the Giants will be playing the DOdgers six times, the Mets three, the Rockies five times, and the Cubs twice, in addition to the Nationals and the Diamondbacks. Let's see if the walk rate improves any fiurther.

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