Watching the Tribe so far this season, I find myself constantly muttering about walks. Sure, the team draws its fair share, but it seems like every time an Indians hurler toes the rubber, they are giving up free passes. The numbers back this up: Through 7 games, the Indians have walked 4.35 batters per nine innings, just a hair behind Toronto for worst in the league (4.37). Only three other teams are above 4.
This is not a new problem. In 2013, only the Astros walked more batters per 9 IP (3.85) than the Indians (3.46). And in case you missed it, the Astros were terrible. In fact, here are the win totals for the five worst teams in terms of BB/9: 51, 92, 66, 78, 76. One of these things is not like the others...
That could be read two ways - one is that the Indians won with poor control in 2013, so why not again in 2014? The other is that the Indians were lucky last year and we probably can't count on the same this year. So let's look at some past seasons.
Over the past five years (2009-2013), the correlation between wins and BB/9 has been -.43, This tells us that an increase in BB/9 leads to a decrease in wins. The fact that the correlation is only -.43 (as opposed, say to -.9) tells us that walking a lot of batters isn't a death knell for a team, but it is a problem. The 20 teams with the most wins over those five seasons averaged 96.7 wins and 2.97 BB/9. The 20 teams with the fewest wins averaged 61.9 wins and 3.40 BB/9. Taken another way, the 20 teams that walked the most per 9 IP averaged 74.2 wins; the stingiest staffs averaged 88.9 wins.
Of course, just because the Indians walked a lot of batters last season, and just because they walked a bunch of guys in the first week, we shouldn't just assume they will walk a bunch all year. Looking at the same five years of data, though, the correlation between a team's BB/9 one year and the next is .66. The correlation between BB/9 in April and BB/9 over the full season is .61.
Again, this does not mean that teams cannot improve year over year, or that a bad April ensures a bad year (at least in terms of walks), but it does suggest that if a team walked a bunch of guys in 2013 and they walk a bunch of guys in April 2014, they'll probably walk a bunch of guys the rest of 2014.
We aren't at the end of April yet (far from it), but this is a trend that is concerning and worth tracking. It is probably also a topic that needs further investigation - the Indians have been very good at striking batters out, and this likely mitigates the danger of a high BB/9.
The reality though, is teams that walk a lot of guys one year often walk a lot the next. And teams that walk a lot early in the year often walk a lot the rest of the year. The Indians fall into both of those camps, and teams that walk a lot of guys rarely win.