Earlier this week, Jayson Stark compiled a list of comparables to get a sense of how often Houston was striking out. Among them: they were on pace to collectively strikeout out 1,900 times, they struck out almost as many times in their first seven games of 2013 as Tony Gwynn did in one five-year stretch of his career, through their first seven games they were collectively striking out at a higher rate than Mark Reynolds did last year (they have since come down a bit), and so on.
To summarize: a whole lot of strikeouts.
Obviously, you don’t come to this blog just to read a bunch of regurgitated facts that aren’t even true anymore. Lost in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding the Astros being bad this year is an interesting question: What about strikeouts? Wasn’t one of the many lessons of the first wave of sabermetrics that strikeouts were not significantly worse than other outs?
Well, yes. Sort of. The Astros are a good reason to dig a little deeper into strikeouts, but they’re also deserving of a bit more than that. I find it funny that there’s so much “boy, those Astros sure are bad” talk. Is anyone really surprised? We all knew they were going to be terrible, right? Almost on purpose. Houston is starting from scratch. They’re trading anything that resembles a commodity (e.g., Jed Lowrie) for whatever bit of future potential they might be able to get.
In the meantime, they have to put something resembling a Major League team on the field. Given the situation, their stopgaps are not going to include many players without obvious flaws. In the Astros’ case, many of their players have issues with contact. In some cases, like that of Rick Ankiel, I don’t really see the point, given age and recent performances.
However, some of the other high-strikeout players make sense. Justin Maxwell was basically a free acquisition, a center fielder that for whatever reason never got a shot with the Yankees or Nationals, most likely because of his obvious issues making contact. When he finally got a shot with Houston in 2012, he hit 18 home runs in just 352 plate appearances. Not of ton of upside given his age, but he is a nice, cheap, and useful stopgap. Chris Carter, who came over in the Lawrie trade, has trouble with strikeouts, too, and isn’t much of a defender. However, he’s young, and he has serious power potential.
Without going on and on, the Astros are slated for a lot of strikeouts. Houston is going to be very hard to watch this year, no matter how much social media cache the members of their front office carry. It all makes sense as part of the plan, and it is not surprising. Doing it while striking out a bunch and maybe even setting records for it will not be fun for Astros fans, but really, what difference does it make? It might even be seen as something to watch with interest, although again, probably not so much for Houston fans.
The traditional view is that strikeouts are bad for the offense. Well, duh. They are outs, and outs are bad. Moreover, nothing else can happen when a hitter strikes out. And it looks terrible. At least get wood on the ball, kid! This seems intuitively true, and, as we will see, there is something to it.
However, as more empirical research was done and the value of outs was thought through more carefully, strikeouts were put into new perspective. Yes, they were outs. A ball not put into play is not going to lead to anything, really. But just considered as outs, it turns out at that a strikeout isn’t that much different than other outs. According to the various models and empirical studies done with linear weights, a single out made via strikeout costs on average only two or three hundredths of a run more than the average non-strikeout out.
In other words, stating that a player like Adam Dunn strikes out too much misses the point. Over the course of a season, 70 strikeouts turned into regular outs is still less than a two run difference according to our best run estimators. When it comes to the issue of value, strikeouts compared to other outs are no big deal, and this is something that’s often lost in the minds of modern baseball fans.
However, that doesn’t mean we should simply stop worrying about a hitter’s strikeout rate. Now, on the issue of relatively straight forward value, it may not make much of a difference. Two players with a .280/.350/.470 line probably offer the same approximate offensive value, even if one has more strikeouts than the other. The bigger issue for teams looking for the better player, is which player is likely to have a better performance going forward, which player is likely to have the better true talent.
Now, again, we have seen high-strikeout hitters who have been able to perform well for extended periods of time. Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard in their primes are good recent examples. Bobby Bonds struck out a lot for his era, and he had a borderline Hall of Fame career. Even Mickey Mantle had much higher strikeout rates than was usual for his time. I don’t think most would complain about any of the offensive value provided by these players (well, people have, but remember we’re supposed to be beyond that now).
These players share more than a couple of traits. For one thing, they were all good-to-great power hitters. Moreover, they all had good walk rates (which are probably connected in a circular fashion with their power hitting, but that is another discussion). It worked for them, but, at the risk of silly understatement, not many players can do it the same way, whether they’re Mickey Mantle or Bobby Bonds, or even Ryan Howard or Adam Dunn.
Strikeouts do not represent a higher cost than other outs, even if they do not lend themselves to being productive outs through sacrifice. But when we compare strikeouts with simply putting the ball in play, there is a big difference. And the productive outs are really a small part of it, and almost a red herring compared to the reminder I am trying to issue. When a ball is put into play, it can be a hit, of course. It might also be an error. A player can have lots of home run power, but it will not do him much good if he cannot make contact.
This is not a call for “aggressiveness,” or anything resembling advice for how hitters should approach an at bat. Obviously, it isn’t to denigrate walks — a walk is obviously better than any out, and just trying to “put the ball in play” at the cost of on-base percentage is clearly silly.
My point is that some of us have taken the true point that strikeouts are not significantly worse than other outs in terms of value and pushed it into the idea that strikeouts do not matter for hitters. They do, but not in terms of straight up relative value of outs, but rather, in the possibilities for hitters to be productive.
Prospects that have trouble making contact are pretty risky, since their other skills will be less effective in the majors than in the minors. Those are specific cases, but in terms of projected offensive value going forward, if a player has trouble putting the ball into play, it significantly decreases what else he might be able to do.
For one thing, strikeout rate has one of the highest year-to-year correlations among all the hitting metrics. Moreover, the more a hitter fails to put the ball into play, the more pressure is put on his other skills to generate value: walking, hitting for power, and the ever-elusive batting average on balls in play. If those skills are not better than average, then a high strikeout rate it going to be a problem.
Take Justin Maxwell, a player whose raw numbers from 2012 – 18 home runs and a .232 ISO in about 350 plate appearances – look promising. Over a full season, that’s about 35 home runs. However, check out his wOBA: .330 (107 wRC+). What? A guy on a 30-40 home run “pace” was just slightly above-average as a hitter? How did that happen? It is not like Maxwell never walked. He had about a nine percent walk rate that was just above average. It is not like he had an especially low batting average on balls in play – a .292 BABIP is slightly below average, but not terribly unlucky.
The problem was that Maxwell just didn’t put that many balls in play to begin with: his strikeout rate was over 32 percent in 2012. Sure, when he did connect, it went a long way, but despite being fairly patient, he ended up with just a .304 on-base percentage – not because he couldn’t walk, but because he couldn’t make contact.
Maxwell is a good player, and the Astros did a good job in finding him. Given that we started by talking about the Astros as a way of re-thinking strikeouts yet again, he does serve to make the point. Strikeouts are not all that different than other outs. In that way, they are not problematic. That is not what makes it difficult for high-strikeout hitters to generate offensive value. What makes it difficult is that the less a player puts a ball in play, the more he has to do with it when it is in play – whether through power or increased average on balls in play – to make up for it.
And it is the rare player who can pull this off.