Walks Not Always Crucial

This article was written by Evelyn Begley

This article was published in 1975 Baseball Research Journal

Nolan Ryan led the majors in giving up bases on balls in 1974 for the third consecutive year. His total was a near record, 202, and one might think that with the other young throwers on the Angels’ staff, there might be a new team record for issuing passes. But no, Andy Hassler gave up 79 walks, Frank Tanana 77, Dick Lange 47, and Bill Singer 43. The team total was 649, nowhere near a new record, and less than the Padres (715) and Phils (682) in 1974.

The major league team record for giving up walks was set by the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics, one of Connie Mack’s worst teams. Led by Weldon Wyckoff with 165 and Rube Bressler with 118, the staff, such as it was, gave up 827 free passes. Mack tried more than 25 different throwers that year, but it seems that none of them could get the ball over the plate. One recruit, Bruno Haas, gave up a record 16 walks in his first game.

The 1915 A’s finished deep in the cellar, but this should not be taken as a direct effect of all the bases on balls. A contrasting situation occurred in 1949 when Yankee hurlers gave up 812 bases on balls; yet that aggregation won the pennant that season, and the World Series. The bases on balls brigade was led by Tommy Byrne with 179, Vic Raschi with 138, and Allie Reynolds 123. No team ever had three hurlers with such high totals. Even the great Joe Page walked 75 batters in 135 innings, the most in a season for a relief hurler.

Baseball fans are probably aware of the legendary control problems of Wild Bill Hallahan, Rex Barney, Bob Turley, Sam McDowell, and even Nolan Ryan, but when it comes down to walks per inning, there was no one as generous as Tommy Byrne. In a couple of seasons he gave up more walks than hits. In 1951, for example, when St. Louis Brown hurlers gave up 801 bases on balls, Byrne walked 150 in 144 innings (more than 9 per 9-inning game), while giving up only 120 hits. Over his career, he issued 1037 walks in 1362 innings, the highest rate for any 10-year hurler.

The pitching staff with the best control was the quintet that pitched the Red Sox to the 1904 pennant. Yes, the BoSox used only five pitchers all season, quite a contrast to the crowd that assembled for the 1915 A’s. With Cy Young leading the way with only 29 walks, and Jesse Tannehill following with only 33, the club gave up only 233 in 157 games. Tannehill apparently had picked up some control pointers with the Pirates, for they had given up only 250 walks in 142 games in 1902. Substitute hurler Honus Wagner contributed to that total with two walks himself; however, the real leaders were Tannehill with 25, Deacon Phillippe with 26, and Sam Leever with 31. This was the lowest level of walks issued by any team trio of regular hurlers, and contrasts sharply with the Yankee trio of Byrne, Raschi, and Reynolds in 1949. The contrast is put into sharper focus by the realization that while Byrne issued bases on balls at the most frequent rate — nearly 7 per 9-inning game for his career — Deacon Phillippe of the Pirates was statistically the best control pitcher. He issued only 363 passes in 2607 career innings, or about 1.25 per 9-inning game.

The Pirates of 1902 and the Red Sox of 1904 were pennant winners. A team of more recent vintage, the Reds of 1933, with Red Lucas leading the way with only 18 bases on balls, gave up only 257 free passes. This was the best record in the last 70 years, but they finished last in the National League.

The lesson that can be learned from this brief analysis is that bases on balls are bad, but they can be cancelled out to a large degree if the same pitcher doesn’t give up many hits. This is particularly true if the man is a good strike-out pitcher. Prime examples are Bob Feller, Sam “Toothpick” Jones, Bob Turley, Sam McDowell, and again Nolan Ryan. It is remarkable that Ryan could walk 202 batters in 1974 and still have a 2.89 ERA. The key is that he gave up only 221 hits in 333 innings – and those 367 strike-outs didn’t hurt him either.