It's no secret that the Red Sox like walks. Since the beginning of the Epstein era, the front office has prized hitters that can draw them and get on base. The Sox have been 1st in OBP four of the last six seasons (starting in '03), and 2nd in the remaining two seasons.
Sometimes an interest goes too far, however, crossing into the realm of fixation, even addiction. This year, the Moneyball-induced obsession with walks has afflicted the pitching staff, who seem to be giving up the base-on balls at a prodigious pace.
The Red Sox, before last night's game, had allowed 368 walks in 892.2 innings. This places them 4th in walks, trailing Detroit (3rd), Texas (2nd), and Baltimore (1st). For comparison, last year the Sox walked 482 in 1438.2 innings; the team's BB/9 has risen from 3.01 to 3.71 since 2007.
Unlike most issues with the Sox, the walk epidemic cannot be blamed on the pen. Rather, it originates with the starting rotation. Daisuke Matsuzaka leads the team with 57 walks in only 88.1 innings; this is good for 4th most in the league (5 behind leader Daniel Cabrera). Wakefield and Lester are also walk prone, with 47 and 44 respectively, although their high innings totals offset this (around 130 IP each). Buchholz and Masterson are even worse, with 55 BBs total in 106 innings between them.
In the pen, Aardsma and Hansen are walking more than 6 batters every 9 innings. Of the entire pitching staff, only Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon are truly good at suppressing walks. Beckett's walked only 25 in 120 IP, while Pap has allowed only 7 walks in 42.1 IP.
So what is the importance of a walk? Surprisingly little, it seems. Looking at the admittedly small sample of this year's AL teams, there isn't as strong a correlation between allowing walks and giving up runs as one might expect.
The Sox are 6th in ERA (3.82) despite all these walks, perhaps because their pitchers lead the league in strike outs. Meanwhile, Oakland, which is the AL-best in ERA (3.43), is only 9th in walks allowed (335). And the team with the fewest walks allowed, Minnesota (236) has a 4.28 team ERA, 'good' for 9th in the league. So fewer walks doesn't necessarily equal better pitching, and vice versa.
There is, however, a correlation between high walk totals and bad pitching staffs. The teams ahead of Boston in walks - Baltimore, Detroit, and Texas - are at the bottom of the league in ERA (11th, 12th, and 14th). These teams have bad pitching in general, however - they give up lots of home runs (except Detroit) and don't strike many batters out. The Sox, meanwhile don't give up the long-ball (4th lowest in HR) and lead the league in Ks.
Surprisingly enough, Boston's walk problem may not really matter at all. Or it may be a sign of bad things to come, if more hits start dropping in after Dice-K loads the bases. What do you think?