On June 14, 1982, the San Diego Padres signed Mitch Williams. Most people know the “Wild Thing” for the home run he allowed in the 1993 World Series. This week Richard looks back at Williams’ other defining characteristic, the one that earned him his nickname.
Like most fans, I will tolerate, if not enjoy, a pitcher on my team being knocked all around the ballpark. Sometimes all you can do is grit your teeth, watch the barrage, and hope a batter hits a screamer right at someone.
Walks, on the other hand, just drive me up the wall. I’ve had a lot of chances to be driven up the wall this year, as the Yankees have walked more men than all but one American League team, to the tune of four per nine innings. Incredibly, three of the starters the Yankees began the year with are averaging more than four and a half walks per nine.
The only pinpoint control on the Yankees has been demonstrated by Mariano Rivera. Although struggling in other elements—including with the home run—Rivera demonstrates exquisite control. As of this writing, he has just two non-intentional walks this season, or 0.7 per nine innings.
Not every team is blessed with such control from its closer, as anyone who watched Mitch Williams attempt to record a save can tell you. It is no coincidence that Williams shared his nickname with Ricky Vaughn, the Charlie Sheen character in Major League. Like Vaughn, Williams got the ball to the plate in a hurry, but he also didn’t have any idea of where it would be when it got there.
(With the Phillies, Williams would also share Vaughn’s number 99, though he claimed it was coincidence.)
His first season in professional baseball, at age 17, Williams struck out more than 10 per nine innings, which is good. But he walked more than 11 per nine innings, which is bad. Very bad. Williams continued to move up in the minor leagues and continued to walk batters at almost unheard-of rates. During a 33-inning stint in Double-A in 1985, Williams walked 48.
Despite his control problems, Williams was promoted to Texas for the 1986 season. Pitching exclusively in relief—he had been a starter in the minors—Williams led the league in games and won eight. He also posted a better-than-average 3.58 ERA, despite walking more than seven men per nine innings.
Williams was even better (85 games, 3.23 ERA) in 1987, but walked nearly 100 men, making up for it by striking out almost 11 per nine. He struggled in ’88 and was sent to the Cubs, where he posted a 2.76 ERA and the best walk rate of his career, under six for the first time ever. He also made his only All-Star team.
Inevitably for someone who allowed as many free base runners as Williams, his performance varied wildly, with his ERA zooming to nearly four in 1990, then back to a career best 2.34 in 1991 and back to 3.78 in ’92.
Williams set a career high with 43 saves in 1993 for the NL Champion Phillies, but it is of course the one he did not record in Game Six of the World Series that is his ultimate legacy. While it was a the home run that ended the game, in classic Williams style he allowed the tying run to reach base leading off the inning with a walk.
After a couple more years of ineffective pitching, Williams retired after the 1997 season. With that retirement came two highly unusual distinctions. For one, Williams retired having allowed seven hits per nine innings, or 537 for his whole career. That’s a pretty good number; for comparison’s sake, Greg Maddux finished his career at eight and a half hits per nine.
Unfortunately for the Wild Thing, he also walked 544, making him the only player with a substantial number of innings to allow more walks than hits. Not surprisingly, this makes him—among players with at least 650 innings—the all-time leader in walks per nine innings, and the only player with more than seven per nine. It is not until one sets the inning minimum down to 200 innings that players begin passing Williams.
(The leader there is Dick Weik, who walked an astounding 237 in 213 innings. I have no idea why teams kept trotting him out there, unless it was a perverse curiosity.)
Of course, career walk rate is just one way to measure wildness; there is also the single season variety. When it comes to that, no one can top Tommy Byrne. An All-Star in 1950, even in his best season Byrne was plagued by dramatically poor command. In 1949, Byrne managed the neat trick of both striking out and walking the most hitters per nine innings.
His 1949 season is notable; Byrne walked almost eight and a quarter men per nine innings, still the highest BB/9 rate ever recorded by an ERA-title qualifier. For good measure, in 1950 Byrne set the third highest total for that statistic.
Byrne was something of a character—he once came back from a Japanese trip announcing his intention to throw the “Kimono Ball”—and his high strikeout totals apparently allowed him to thrive despite poor control. Byrne spent all or part of 11 years with the Yankees, going a combined 72-40 in pinstripes and playing in four World Series, winning two.
The single-season walks per nine inning list is actually a curious one, players like Byrne mixed with Hall of Fame talents. Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Lefty Grove, Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller all appear in the top 25. I’m not sure what that proves, except maybe that great pitchers can be aggravating to watch too sometimes.
It is true that all but a handful of pitchers sport better control than that of Mitch Williams. The active leader, minimum 500 innings, in walks per nine is Daniel Cabrera. But he is a control artist next to guys like Tommy Byrne.
We may never see a pitcher like Williams again—baseball never had before—and while that is perhaps no better a legacy than surrendering Joe Carter’s home run, it is worth remembering.