Is there anything worse in baseball than a bases-loaded walk? You’re just giving the team a free run. Even if you throw the meatiest meatball, there’s a chance the batter might either miss it entirely, or only strike a glancing blow. So far in 2019, the wOBA on a middle-middle fastball is .405. It’s only .449 when the pitcher is behind in the count on that same pitch. On a 3-0 count, it only goes up to .627. A walk is a “free” .700ish wOBA, and when it comes with the bases loaded, there’s no excuse about “not giving in.”
Yet, bases loaded walks do happen. In fact, in 2019, they’re happening a lot.
The overall increase isn’t too telling, in part because there are always starters that have awful control/command and walk in runs here and there. But, the difference is stark when looking at key situations — we’re talking a one-third to two-thirds increase in the rate of walks given up when you throw out either starting pitchers or low-leverage situations. (By the way, this isn’t an “April” thing — I checked, and the incidence of bases-loaded walks tends to be fairly random and perhaps only a little biased towards happening early in the year, so while the 2019 rates may regress to the mean, there’s no reason to expect them to regress entirely to historical averages solely because “it’s April.” They’ll be regressing because they’re so far out of the norm, and the expected regression due to the calendar month is pretty low and doesn’t explain the difference between 2019 and prior years.)
It’s not like teams are somehow embracing the strategic free pass with the bases loaded, either, which in and of itself is an insane idea. The league leader in intentional walks with the bases loaded is Hanley Ramirez, who was released by one of the worst offensive teams so far. 57 different players have drawn a bases-loaded BB so far this season; 39 have done so in high leverage including Jake Noll (who is listed as a PH/PR on his Fangraphs page and I seriously have no idea who he is), Pittsburgh starting pitcher Trevor Williams (yes, this really happened), Daniel Palka (who has a -24 wRC+ this year), and yes, even the shambling husk still known as Albert Pujols.
It may actually hearten you to know that the Braves are not the worst so far this year in terms of bases-loaded free passes. Only four teams have managed to avoid one so far; the Athletics have issued six already. The Braves are tied for third with four. On a rate basis, those same Reds that the Braves gifted the margin of victory last night are fairly insane in that they’ve literally walked 20 percent of the batters they’ve faced with the bases loaded; the Braves are just eighth in the majors in this regard with a 11.1 percent rate. One place where the Braves have been the worst is frequency, as the Braves have walked in a run in four different games, which is tied with the Blue Jays for the most so far. But hey, at least they didn’t walk in the walkoff run in the bottom of the ninth, like Blake Treinen did on April 7. That was actually the second run walked in by the Athletics in that game. Treinen, by the way, is still having an elite relief season, so this isn’t even a case of incipient reliever collapse — it’s just evidence that any reliever is prone to disappoint you at any time, even if it’s only temporary.
It’s hard to talk about bases-loaded walks for the Braves without directly mentioning Jesse Biddle, who has issued two of the team’s four, both in a six-day span. Going back to 2002, there have been only eight Atlanta Braves player-seasons with more than two bases-loaded walks issued. (Mike Hampton did so four times in 2004.) It’s not even May yet, and Jesse Biddle already has two. Both Sam Freeman and Sean Newcomb actually issued three last year, so it hasn’t exactly been a rarity, but Biddle is way ahead of the pace needed to set a modern, highly dubious record for the Braves. He’s also on pace to clear the record for any team since 2002 (seven bases-loaded walks, by Darren Oliver in 2003 and Barry Zito in 2007), but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, or anywhere close.
One final note: if you’re furiously rending garments about the inadequacy of this bullpen’s performance in key spots so far this year, offer a prayer or sacrifice a woodland creature to the deity of your choice that at least the Braves aren’t the Cubs. The Northsiders’ relief corps has faced 25 batters in high leverage and issued a .710 wOBA-against to them, meaning they’d basically have been better off just walking all of them in aggregate. And it’s not like they haven’t been walking them — they’ve walked 28 percent of those batters, allowed homers to another 12 percent, and have put up an unthinkable 18.72 FIP / 9.87 xFIP therein. The Braves are second-worst in all of these categories, but their implosions look like a dimly-twinkling star compared to the self-immolating supernovas that the Cubs have been party to over the last month. Good times (?).