Walks Won’t Haunt

Carlos Silva walked Gary Matthews Jr. on four pitches Monday. Something like that isn’t typically a noteworthy occurrence, but it was the first free pass Silva issued since August 8 and just his ninth walk in 187.1 innings this season. It also tied a season-high for walks in a game at one.

Silva spent the first two years of his career as a middle reliever for the Phillies, tossing 171.1 innings with a 3.83 ERA in 130 appearances, while posting a sub par strikeout-to-walk ratio of 89-to-59. Philadelphia then shipped him and utility infielder Nick Punto to Minnesota for Eric Milton two offseasons ago in a deal that appeared to be a small-market team dumping salary while acquiring potentially useful spare parts.

To their credit, the Twins saw something more in Silva and immediately put him into their starting rotation. He responded by going 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA in his first year as a starter, improving his control so much under pitching coach Rick Anderson that he handed out just 35 walks in 203 innings. Silva isn’t the first reliever to find success as a starter and he isn’t the first pitcher to improve his control with a new team. However, what makes his situation unique is that what he’s done this season makes last year’s otherwise outstanding control look like something out of Rick Vaughn‘s career.

YEAR        IP     BB     BB/9     SO/BB     P/PA     P/IP
2004     203.0     35     1.55      2.17     3.33     14.3
2005     187.1      9     0.43      7.89     3.07     12.1

Silva led the American League in fewest pitches per plate appearance (3.33) and fewest pitches per inning (14.3) last season, and walked just 1.55 batters per nine innings. This year he has become a strike-throwing machine, cutting his walks by an astonishing 72% and slashing his pitches thrown by 8% per plate appearance and 15% per inning. In other words, the most efficient pitcher in baseball got a whole lot more efficient.

In fact, what Silva is doing now is probably near the limit as far as efficiency goes. Unless you’re just lobbing the ball over the plate it’s going to be tough to walk fewer than nine hitters over the course of 187.1 innings in the major leagues, especially when that comes along with a very solid 3.27 ERA. And even that number is inflated by Silva’s two intentional walks, which make up 22% of his season total. Plus, considering no starting pitcher is particularly close to Silva in pitches per plate appearance or pitches per inning this season, he’s probably pushing the limits there as well.

                    BB/9                         P/PA                         P/IP
CARLOS SILVA        0.43     CARLOS SILVA        3.07     CARLOS SILVA        12.1
David Wells         0.81     Greg Maddux         3.32     Roy Halladay        13.5
Brad Radke          1.02     Jason Johnson       3.33     Greg Maddux         13.8
Roy Halladay        1.15     Jon Lieber          3.39     Chris Carpenter     13.8
Paul Byrd           1.20     Josh Towers         3.40     Pedro Martinez      13.9

Silva is far from a strikeout pitcher, with just 71 strikeouts in 187.1 innings this year and an average of 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of his four-year career. Among the 99 major-league pitchers who have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this year, his strikeout rate of 3.4 per nine innings ranks 97th. Despite that, his control is so incredible that he still manages to lead all of baseball with a 7.9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He has walked zero batters in 17 of his 26 starts this season, nearly twice as often as he’s handed out a walk in a start. With a month left in the season he has already gone four consecutive starts without issuing a walk two different times, and has gone back-to-back starts without walking anyone three other times. In addition to walking no more than one batter in any of his starts, Silva hasn’t walked more than two batters in any month this season. He had two walks in May, June, and July, and walked one batter in April, August, and (so far at least) September.

Silva has thrown a first-pitch strike to 71% of the batters he has faced this year and has filled the count at 3-2 just 4% of the time. A right-handed pitcher, Silva has given out exactly one walk to a right-handed batter all season — an intentional pass to Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe back on July 23. Ignoring that, he has faced 338 right-handed batters this season without walking one. Of the nine spots in a lineup, Silva has handed out zero walks to four of them (2, 5, 6, and 9).

His control actually gets better as he goes deeper in games, with just one walk after the sixth inning all year. And while Silva has handed out nine walks on pitches 1-75, he has yet to walk a single batter this year after reaching pitch 76 in a game. Of course, when you’re throwing 12 pitches per inning you don’t rack up many big pitch counts. In fact, Silva has gone over 100 pitches in a game just two times this season and tossed a 74-pitch complete game against the Brewers on May 20 that was the fewest pitches in a complete game since Red Barrett used just 58 against the Boston Braves in 1944.

So where does Silva’s control rank in terms of baseball history? I’m glad you asked. Here is how his current walk rate of 0.43 batters per nine innings would stack up all time among pitchers with at least 150 innings in a season:

PITCHER                  YEAR     BB/9
George Zettlein          1876     0.23   
Cherokee Fisher          1876     0.24   
George Bradley           1880     0.28   
Tommy Bond               1876     0.29   
Tommy Bond               1879     0.39   
Bobby Mathews            1876     0.42   
CARLOS SILVA             2005     0.43
Al Spalding              1876     0.44   
Pud Galvin               1879     0.47   
George Bradley           1879     0.48

He would rank seventh all time, but you’ll notice that all of the other seasons in the top 10 are from before 1900. If you look only at seasons since 1900, Silva would sit comfortably atop of the following list:

PITCHER                  YEAR     BB/9
CARLOS SILVA             2005     0.43
Babe Adams               1920     0.62   
Christy Mathewson        1913     0.62   
Bret Saberhagen          1994     0.66   
Christy Mathewson        1914     0.66   
Cy Young                 1904     0.69   
Red Lucas                1933     0.74   
Bob Tewksbury            1992     0.77   
Greg Maddux              1997     0.77   
Cy Young                 1906     0.78

In a ranking that essentially measures accuracy, Silva has been so accurate that he actually has a little room to spare. He could get wild down the stretch, doing something crazy like walking five batters in his final 30 innings (a rate that would actually rank among the top 10 in baseball), and still beat out Babe Adams for the best walk rate since 1900.

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