Brad Penny looked very good in his start yesterday for the first four innings. Then it just got away from him.
Penny, acquired as a free agent this winter, has a long successful track record as a starter, albeit in the National League. His lone stint in the Junior Circuit, prior to this year, was a 24-start run with the Boston RedSox in 2009. It was so bad in Boston that Penny was released mid-season before re-finding himself with success for the Giants down the stretch that season and then with the Cardinals last year.
Penny began the season with a bad start against the Yankees (4.1 IP 7 H 8 ER 4 BB 3 K) and while things improved a bit in his second start at Baltimore (5.1 IP 6 H 4 ER 3 BB 3 K), it wasn’t all that much better. In his third start of the year, Penny looked much more comfortable as a pitcher. He commanded his pitches better, both in terms of walks issued and within the strike zone. He turned in a quality start for the first time this year and lasted into the seventh inning. In that game, he worked 6.2 innings against Texas and held them to seven hits and three runs, issuing only one walk.
But yesterday in Oakland, the walks became an issue again.
Penny got himself in trouble by allowing a lead-off walk to Daric Barton in the first, Barton came around to score to give the A’s a lead. The next inning, Penny surrendered a double to Landon Powell, but two batters later, Powell was still at second and now with two outs. Just when it looked like Penny might wriggle free, he hit David DeJesus with a pitch, then walked Barton to load the bases. Unable to settle down, Penny lost Conor Jackson to another walk and forced in a run. When he finally re-found the zone, Josh Willingham pounced on his offering and singled home two more runs. Those four runs would prove to be far too deep a hole for the Tigers to climb out of.
“I was falling behind a little bit,” Penny said after his start. “That’s what killed me, because I felt my stuff was better than it has been up to this point. The walks killed me. I had two outs in both innings. That’s what hurts.”
For his part, Jim Leyland says he’s not concerned about the slow start to the season for his big right hander. “Penny was OK. He had control problems in the one inning, but I don’t worry about him at all.” But the control problem have plagued Penny’s early struggles this year. I think there’s reason for concern.
Apart from his rookie season, Penny has never averaged more than four walks per nine innings and only twice has seen a walks per nine average of 3.5 or worse. So far this year, Penny is averaging 5.1 walks per nine innings. Penny is leading the AL in walks issued, which is shocking based upon his sub-3.00 walks per nine rate in his career. His strikeout numbers are slightly down, but certainly within range of where he has been over the past couple of years, and his hits allowed have remained steady as well. The difference really is the walks.
While he still throws hard enough, Penny isn’t a strikeout machine on the mound, and hasn’t been in quite a while. He replies on control and movement to obtain outs and has been successful in that formula for years. But the formula is changing and Penny is signed only for this season. It’s not unreasonable to wonder at this point if we couldn’t see another mid-season release in his future.
The Tigers have a crop of young hurlers that are knocking on the major league door. Left hander Andy Oliver has been outstanding in two starts at Triple-A Toledo so far, striking out 14 in 12 innings of work, issuing only three walks in the process. Jacob Turner, while still a teenager, has been almost equally impressive at Double-A Erie so far. Turner has worked 13 innings for the SeaWolves, allowing two walks and fanning 13.
Oliver would be the first starter in line for a recall should it be needed and if everyone stays healthy in the Tigers rotation, that could be a while. Penny will get some rope with which to work, but if the walks don’t improve he won’t make it through a full season with the Tigers. Oliver is waiting in the wings and the deeper we get into the season, the more likely it becomes that turner will see some big league action as well.