Just throw a strike, for the love of all that is good and holy. Surely you’ve thought this after you team’s pitcher walks the third guy in an inning. Just throwing strikes seems like the easiest way in the world to win. If only these bums would challenge hitters in the zone they might be able to limit the damage, pitch deeper into games, and eat more innings. But dumping walks by increasing control is one of those “good work if you can get it” type of situations. For every Brad Radke there are three Daniel Cabreras waiting in the wings.
But the lucky few who cast their lot not with the iron of swinging strikes but with the finesse of control find themselves with a new outlook on their careers. Because strikeout rates generally trend down over the course of a pitcher’s career, after a certain point, walks may be the only place for marked improvement. Those lucky few who pull off this tricky task may find new life in an old fastball. Here are three pitchers who have managed to do just that.
As a 25-year-old in Triple-A last year, Tomlin appeared to loosen his grip on his signature control. After multiple minor-league seasons with walk rates below two per nine innings, Tomlin’s mark shot up to 2.8. When he was promoted to the majors, it remained high at 2.3. Or, at least, it was a high for a guy who was barely striking out five batters per nine innings. Tomlin was never rated as a top prospect by any major publication, and he seemed just as unpromising last year as he had at any point in his career so far. He does not throw hard—his fastball tops out in the high-80s.
None of these peripherals have changed in 2011 except for the walks. In his first two starts of the year, Tomlin walked three batters per game. Since then, however, he hasn’t walked more than one batter in any of his 16 subsequent starts. (In fewer starts last year, Tomlin walked two or more batters seven times.) While his father may have trained him to practice pinpoint control, it wasn’t until this year that the training finally paid off.
The results? Tomlin has the second lowest walk rate in baseball—behind only Roy Halladay—and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the Indians. He has 14 quality starts in 18 tries. That’s not half bad for a 19th-rounder from Tyler, Texas.
Unlike Tomlin, Brandon McCarthy was once a well-regarded prospect who sported a plus pitch, even if it was his breaking ball. His seasons have been plagued in roughly equal measure by injury and ineffectiveness. He missed all of the 2010 season due to shoulder injury and has only just returned from another stint on the DL—one that forced him to miss all of June. He is striking out fewer batters than his career average and he has allowed more than a hit per inning.
Despite this, no disaster has yet befallen McCarthy. In fact, he may be enjoying the best season of his career thanks to his newfound control. In none of his 11 starts has he walked more than two batters. While he throws a fair number of pitches (more than 100 on five separate occasions), he does not waste pitches or give up free bases. In his previous two seasons, McCarthy had averaged more than a walk every three innings (3.3 BB/9). This year, his mark is just 1.4, and the result is the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. There is even evidence that his fastball is averaging an extra tick this season over where it was in 2009.
McCarthy sports a 3.66 ERA, and if he qualified for the ERA title, he would have the fourth-best walk rate in baseball, just behind Dan Haren.
Like Tomlin, Karstens was drafted in the 19th round and was never considered a top prospect. Pitchers whose fastballs top out in the high 80s rarely are. Throughout his minor league career—spent mostly in the Yankees organization—Karstens exhibited good, but not otherworldly, control (2.2 BB/9). When he was sent to Pittsburgh in the Damaso Marte/Xavier Nady deal, he was finally given a chance to play regularly. In his first three seasons with the Pirates, however, he walked 2.7 batters per nine innings and sported a middling 1.73 K/BB ratio. His ERA hovered near 5.00.
In 2011, Karstens pitched his first three games out of the bullpen and appeared to be his old self: he recorded five strikeouts and four walks in five-and-two-thirds innings. As a starter, though, he’s been a revelation. In 91 innings, he has issued only 11 unintentional walks. In only two of those starts did he issue more than one unintentional walk. There’s no evidence he’s throwing any harder (his fastball still sits in the upper 80s) or has better stuff. His strikeout rate is nearly identical to what it was a year ago.
Yet Karstens has been the Pirates best starter this year. His K/BB is second only to closer Joel Hanrahan among Pirates pitchers, and his walk rate is best on the team. His only weakness has been his ability to keep the ball in the park: his 1.6 HR/9 rate is slightly above his career mark. In all other respects, Karstens has been the ace for a team that has at least a pretender’s shot at contention at the All-Star Break for the first time in nearly two decades.
Question of the Day
It isn’t easy for pitchers to cut their walk rates and find success, as these three have done. There’s no shortcut to issuing fewer bases on balls. For some, the improvement comes in the repertoire; for others, it comes in attitude; and for still others, it comes in mechanics. But this type of success can be fickle. Last year’s no-walk relief-pitching hero, Wilton Lopez, for example, has seen his walk rate quadruplethis season. The question is whether Tomlin, McCarthy, and Karstens can maintain the stingy ways that got them here in the first place.
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