On the maddening issue of bullpen walks

As the Los Angeles Dodgers' search for clues and fixes for why a team with the highest payroll in baseball and, now, a clean bill of health looks so adrift, they have seized on one issue that bugs them like no other.

Why are their relievers walking so many batters? The trend to add base runners and fuel big innings has hammered relentlessly at one raw nerve for three men in particular: manager Don Mattingly, general manager Ned Colletti and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.

“There’s no way to defense a walk,” Colletti said. “Guy puts it in play, you’ve got a chance to catch it. You can’t defense a walk and we’ve walked far too many guys.”

Dodgers relievers have been consistently generous with ball four. They have walked 83 batters in the Dodgers’ 45 games. The next-closest team in the National League, the New York Mets -- who the Dodgers happen to play in their next three games -- has walked 67.

Walks seem to be the primary reason the most expensive bullpen in Dodgers history has a 4.38 ERA, 25th in the majors.

On an individual level, the numbers are even more unkempt. Brian Wilson walked four batters in 18 games last season. He has walked 13 batters in 17 games this season. Closer Kenley Jansen is on pace to walk more than twice as many batters as he did last season. Chris Perez is averaging 4.6 walks per nine innings. He averaged 3.5 last year.

Chris Withrow has generally worked around his wildness, but he’s been the biggest offender of all: 18 walks in 19 appearances.

Opponents are only hitting .247 against Dodgers relievers, but their on-base percentage is .349.

Honeycutt brought it up in a recent pitchers meeting and one would hope the pitchers listened. Honeycutt was one of the more effective relievers of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He averaged 2.9 walks per nine innings, a better rate than for any reliever the Dodgers have aside from Brandon League.

“Probably my biggest pet peeve is walks,” Honeycutt said.

Some walks are better than others. A "good" walk in Honeycutt's mind comes when a pitcher purposely nibbles at the edges of the strike zone against a dangerous hitter to get to a hitter who offers a more favorable matchup and, perhaps, to set up a force out at second base. One of the worst kinds of walks is the one that leads off the inning. It seems like the Dodgers are seeing that kind nearly every night from at least one of their relievers, often several.

“The percentage of walks has been addressed,” Honeycutt said. “It’s been addressed in terms of focus, preparation and concentration. It’s too high for this group.”

One of the reasons it has been so galling is that it has been so unexpected. Teams with young, hard-throwing relievers often have to accept their share of command issues, but the Dodgers stocked their bullpen with experienced relievers on guaranteed contracts in part so they could avoid worrying about erratic results. With the exception of Jansen and Withrow, none of the Dodgers relievers is younger than 28 and none throws harder than 95 mph.

Colletti said he still holds out hope that this group can get its command together collectively, but he also issued a bit of a warning. Just because pitchers are on guaranteed contracts doesn’t mean he won’t look to make changes if the struggles continue. The Dodgers have some options in the minor leagues, including Yimi Garcia (1.74 ERA, 0.96 WHIP), who is pitching well, and Paco Rodriguez and Jose Dominguez, who have pitched in the major leagues.

Colletti said he also would consider trading for a reliever before -- or after -- July 31, even if it meant swallowing the remaining salary of one of his current pitchers. Aside from Withrow and Jansen, none of the Dodgers relievers can be demoted to the minor leagues due to their contracts, leading to some calcification of the roster.

“Everything is worth a discussion if we think we can make our club better,” Colletti said.

It’s simplistic to blame the relievers alone for this mess. The Dodgers believe their fielding issues -- they have the fifth-worst fielding percentage in the majors -- have caused their pitchers to throw 15 to 20 extra pitches a game. That has led to an untenable workload for the relievers. The Dodgers have needed 154 innings from their relievers, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for most in the majors.

In some cases, no doubt, relievers have had to work with sore arms or other aches and pains that can contribute to command issues.

“The only way it gets under control is to get our starters back in the mix,” Honeycutt said.

The return of Clayton Kershaw two weeks ago and the return of Hyun-Jin Ryu Wednesday should, the Dodgers hope, help the cause. Last year, Dodgers starters threw 979 innings, a tad low given that they led the majors in ERA, but still good for eighth in baseball.

It figures to be a collective fix, but it certainly has been a collective mess.