The Detroit Tigers have a walk problem. Specifically, they cannot stop giving them away. The team has an MLB-high ERA and FIP, and a walk rate that ranks up at the top as well. Just how bad is it? The Tigers’ 10.9 percent walk rate currently leads the majors and is almost a full percentage point higher than the worst team total last season. The staff’s 4.4 walks per nine innings leads the majors as well; no team reached 4.0 walks per nine in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, this walk issue stems from an inability to hit the strike zone. The Tigers currently rank dead last in strike percentage, missing the zone 38.8 percent of the time. In order to understand why the numbers are so high, we have to take a look at each starter individually, and also see what’s different this year from last, that might lead to such a dramatic uptick in walk percentage.
Taking a step back
There is an argument to be made that the Tigers pitchers are simply off to a slow start with their control. While their numbers from last April were not quite as bad as they currently stand, there is precedent for a rocky start. In April 2016, the Tigers walked 3.4 batters per nine innings, corresponding to 8.9 percent walk rate. Both of these stats ranked 19th overall.
However, the Tigers turned this bad start around, at least in the control department. They ended the year as a top-10 pitching staff in minimizing walks, reducing their numbers to 2.91 walks per nine innings and a 7.6 percent walk rate. Neither of these figures are even close to their 2017 counterparts, and it seems like none of the progress the Tigers made throughout last season carried into this year.
The Tigers have started off this season with a few more strikeouts than the same time last April, striking out 7.5 batters per inning innings. However, this ranks just 22nd in the majors and still falls behind the 2016 total. Additionally, the Tigers still rank last in K-BB percentage, so this small blip to start the year does not overcome the growing walk issue.
Almost everyone is at fault
While the Tigers bullpen has walked an astonishing 5.6 batters per nine innings, they are not the sole culprit to blame. The rotation also ranks in the bottom 10 in both walks per nine and walk rate, and their K-BB percentage is in the bottom five, just like that of the bullpen. No other club has both their starters and relievers rank this poorly in control.
Changes from 2016 to 2017
Almost everyone in the Tigers rotation has seen an increase in walks this season except for Michael Fulmer, who sits at just 2.2 walks per nine innings. Jordan Zimmermann is not walking too many batters either, but his numbers are higher than his stingy walk statistics last season. Meanwhile, Matthew Boyd has struggled greatly, featuring a walk rate of over 13 percent. Daniel Norris is barely striking out more batters than he walks, and he is nearing 4.8 walks per nine innings in 2017.
Changes from 2016 to 2017
Kyle Ryan has led the charge in the bullpen, walking almost a batter per inning. Shane Greene is not too far behind him with 5.7 walks per nine, and Anibal Sanchez has plenty of issues that go with his control battle. However, Francisco Rodriguez and Blaine Hardy are actually on the positive side of the ledger, and both pitchers are under 2.5 walks per nine innings. Justin Wilson has given up more walks this season than he did last year, but he also has beefed up his strikeouts, leading way to a sizable jump in K-BB percentage.
Reel it in
Essentially, the whole Tigers staff is having problems with walks, which goes on top of bottom-two rankings in ERA, FIP, WHIP, and batting average against. Walks are only one component to pitching, but to see the whole team struggle so greatly in this area is alarming.
The Tigers must make improvements as the season goes on as they did in 2016, or they may find themselves in a very unfavorable situation. The offense has plenty of power, but the Tigers will only be able to go so far if their pitching continues to have issues finding the strike zone.