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Passing fancy

Walks are baseball's answer to the NFL's turnover

Posted: Tuesday January 25, 2005 3:02PM; Updated: Tuesday January 25, 2005 4:03PM
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Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson struck out 290 batters and issued only 44 walks last season.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots made it to the Super Bowl without committing a turnover in their respective conference championship games. The importance of giveaways and takeovers seems heightened in the NFL playoffs. After all, it figures you have a better chance to survive a giveaway against a poor team than against a playoff-caliber one. And knowing how poor the St. Louis Rams were all season in giveaway/takeaway ratio, they should never have been considered a serious Super Bowl team.

I've begun to think in recent years that the giveaway/takeaway equivalent in baseball is walks. Get more of them than you give away and chances are good you'll have a winning team, even a playoff team. For instance, of the 11 clubs last year that posted a walk differential better than plus-30, 10 of them had winning records. Six of those made the playoffs. The lone losing team to go better than plus-30? Hold on to your stein: It was Milwaukee, a great credit to the job pitching coach Mike Maddux is doing there. Only St. Louis and San Diego walked fewer batters than the Brewers last year in the NL.

Only one team managed to make the playoffs by giving away more walks than it took: the free-swinging Angels, who went one-and-done in October. And the world champion Red Sox, a team Bill Belichick could love, ran through October with a plus-16 advantage in walks, 72-56.

Walk This Way
Best, worst in walk differential, 2004
Rk. Team Plus/Minus Rec.
1. Yankees +225 101-61
2. Red Sox +212 98-64
3. Giants +157 91-71
4. Padres +144 87-75
5. Phillies +143 86-76
Rk. Team Plus/Minus Record
1. Diamondbacks -227 51-111
2. Pirates -161 72-89
3. Orioles -159 78-84
4. Rockies -129 68-94
5. Devil Rays -111 70-91

Here's a look at the best and worst teams last year in walk differential during the regular season:

The Yankees and Red Sox each finished 1-2 in 2003 as well, though the gap closed considerably between the two teams. New York was plus-177 better than Boston in 2003 but only plus-13 over the Sox last year.

What happened? Curt Schilling happened. The Sox ace was the single biggest difference between the two clubs from 2003 to 2004. But there is more. The Yankees gambled and lost last year on their revamped pitching staff, a failure that prompted them to remake it again this offseason, even at the cost of sitting out of the bidding on the best free agent available, Carlos Beltran.

The Yankees began 2004 with five of the 14 best control pitchers in baseball (as measured by walks per nine innings): Jon Lieber, Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez, Paul Quantrill and Kevin Brown. But Lieber, Mussina and Brown all had health issues and none gave the Yankees 180 innings. Vazquez bombed in the second half and appeared to be a shell of himself. The eternal project that is Jose Contreras flunked his last trial as the fifth starter and was shipped to the White Sox after 18 starts.

Year Team BB SO SO/BB
2003 Yankees 375 1,119 2.98
2004 Yankees 445 1,058 2.38

The bottom line on the 2004 Yankees staff: it walked more batters and struck out fewer than the 2003 staff:

Immediately after the World Series, the Yankees held an organizational meeting in which they decided they needed to inject more power and youth (read: durability) into their staff. Their first move was to decline the $8 million option on Lieber. Some Yankees fans howled because Lieber showed grit in his three playoff starts. But the Yankees had grown weary of holding their breath whenever Lieber pitched against the hard-hitting teams in the AL East, especially Boston and Baltimore, without bringing strikeout stuff to the mound. They liked Lieber enough, but they liked power arms better.

Pitchers BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
Johnson/Pavano/Wright 2.24 8.09 3.60
Lieber/Vazquez/Contreras 2.30 6.39 2.78

How did the Yankees do in meeting their goal? Say hello to Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright and Randy Johnson, the definition of power pitching and the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings. Here is a 2004 comparison between the three new starters and the ones they are replacing, Lieber, Vazquez and Contreras.

I'd call that a major upgrade. The Yankees added power to the staff without giving up control. (Pavano, Wright and Johnson all put up their numbers in the NL, where strikeouts are about four percent more common, which still gives them a significant advantage over Lieber, Vazquez and Contreras).