CHICAGO -- Walks are kind of like missed free throws in basketball. You might have team with an upper-tier percentage but since it’s such a fundamental aspect of the game, the misses tend to occupy a prominent place in your short-term memory.
On the whole, the Chicago Cubs haven’t been a wild pitching staff this season. But during July, a month in which they’ve gone 8-13 with the 27th-ranked staff ERA in the majors, the Cubs have gotten a little loose with the free passes.
It’s hard to be rough on the pitching staff based on Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox. Mostly the pitchers threw well while literally getting zero run support. Yet the walks issue played a big part of the game: Starter Kyle Hendricks, normally a hurler with well-above-average control, walked White Sox leadoff hitter Adam Eaton to start the game.
“Walking the leadoff man,” Hendricks said. “You can’t do that.”
Eaton eventually came around to score the game’s first run. After Hendricks departed with two outs and a man on in the sixth, reliever Travis Wood walked three straight hitters to force in the last run of the game. Eaton accounted for the second run with a solo homer in the fifth.
“I thought Kyle was outstanding,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Leadoff walk scores. Home run scores. Travis was a little uncharacteristically wild. But we pitched really well, too.”
During their July swoon, the Cubs’ rate of walks per nine innings (3.58) ranks 25th in baseball. The relievers have been worse, but that’s a season-long trend. The bullpen ranks 25th this season in walk rate, and dead last in the month of July.
“I’ve not seen that (before),” Maddon said, when asked about Wood’s outing. “It was awkward to watch him go through that moment. He’s a guy who really nails down inherited runners as good as anybody. It’s just one of those moments. I don’t think it’s a trend.”
Walk rate was an issue that starter Jon Lester addressed after his last start in Milwaukee, one in which he walked five batters in four innings and allowed two more runners to reach on errant third strikes.
“I feel like we’re walking too many guys right now,” Lester said. “And the finger is pointed solely at me. Five walks today, that can’t happen. It’s just too many free passes. You’ve got to make teams beat you by swinging the bat.”
While the relievers in particular have been issuing too many free passes this season, that part of the equation might solve itself through roster attrition. The makeup of the bullpen has changed drastically over the last week, with Mike Montgomery, Aroldis Chapman and Joe Nathan all being added in key roles. Perhaps a simple change in personnel will fix what ails the staff.
Right now you probably chalk the walks outbreak up to simple variation, as we put the microscope on a particular stretch during which the Cubs haven’t played well on the whole. Maddon certainly doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.
“I think it happens over the course of the season,” Maddon said. “Throughout the industry a lot of guys go through these particular moments. I know other teams, really good teams, have difficult moments of late. It’s not easy to nail it down the entire season.
“Overall, we’re not the kind of team that normally walks people, though. [Lester] is right. But I think overall we are trending in the right direction starting pitcher-wise.”
So for now, just consider the walks an area to watch with wary interest, and not a reason to run screaming down Clark Street in a panic.