Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Myths of Strikeouts

If you’ve ever wielded a bat in an attempt to hit a ball in any sort of competitive setting, be it backyard wiffle ball game, Little League, co-ed softball on the Fourth of July—or beyond—you may well have first hand familiarity with the experience of “striking out.” Of course, given how baseball terminology has entered so completely into US English, you may have “struck out” in any of a number of ways one time or the other, since the term is used to describe any signal failure.

Now the inability to “make contact” between bat & ball is indeed a frustrating situation—I know from whence I speak, because I’ve had my share of experience with this, especially in my few seasons playing in the “beer league” of the blog’s title. A groundball to the shortstop, a flyball to the centerfielder, even a weak pop fly to the second baseman—they are all (more or less—which we’ll come to shortly) just as much an out, but they are usually experienced as less shameful than the strikeout, or, in baseball scoring parlance, the “K.” But the sabermetricians, in their assault on baseball conventional wisdom, have called this into question: so that time you struck out in the big high school game wasn’t, by their lights, anywhere near as bad a thing as you may have believed at the time. Witness the following from Baseball Prospectus 2012:

“To be sure, strikeouts aren’t the disgrace they’re made out to be in Little League—in fact, they’re highly correlated with patience & power….”

It would be wonderful if nothing associated with Little League would be a “disgrace” for the kids who play it—but putting that larger question aside for another time, there’s some validity to ascribing singular negative value to strikeouts in Little League, beer leagues, junior varsity teams & the company picnic. The reason for this is simply: the defensive players in those settings don’t make a lot of the possible plays, even routine ones. If the batter manages to put the ball in play, the chances that he or she will be rewarded by getting on base & moving along whatever runners may be already on base, is significant. The higher the skill level of the players in the field, the more apt they are to make a high percentage of routine plays, & as the skill level increases, even a good percentage of difficult plays.

It’s also true that strikeouts correlate to power hitting. Indeed, if you look at the list of major league ballplayers who’ve struck out most in their careers, you find a lot of famous names. Even within the top 10, there are three hall of fame players: Reggie Jackson, who’s number 1; Willie Stargell at number 7, & Mike Schmidt at number 10; if you expand to the top 25, you find these additional Hall of Fame players: Tony Perez, Lou Brock, Mickey Mantle (who was number 1 for some time), & Harmon Killebrew. All of these men could hit for power, & in most cases, prodigiously so. The fact that Reggie Jackson struck out almost 2,600 times in a 21 year big league career doesn’t diminish the fact that he was one of the great all-time home run hitters & a valuable run producer for his teams.

The story is a bit different when you look at players who are at the top of the list for most strikeouts in a single season. Here we find that the top names are all active players—but none on that list is likely to get any kind of serious Hall of Fame attention. The names are Mark Reynolds (in first, second, fourth & ninth place!), Drew Stubbs, Ryan Howard, Jack Cust & Adam Dunn

All these players have value as hitters. They can all hit for power, & routinely hit 30-40 home runs per season. They are also what the sabermetricians like to call “Three True Outcomes” players. As defined by Baseball Reference: “They are called this because the three supposedly are the only events that do not involve the defensive team (other than the pitcher and catcher).”  Baseball Prospectus coined the term to describe slugger Rob Deer (of San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, & Milwaukee Brewers fame
—et al.)  Deer fit the definition to a T.The move in sabermetrics to divorce hitting & pitching statistics from fielding events is one I find curious—& one I’ll write about in the future. That aside, we can agree that a certain kind of power hitter strikes out a lot, tends to hit for a low batting average, yet also finds himself on base an relatively high percent of the time in light of the low average because he walks a lot. This is because the hitter, in addition to power, has “patience”—he’s able to identify pitches that aren’t in the strike zone & let them go by. He strikes out not because he has trouble identifying pitches, but because he’s utilizing a power swing—as the old baseball adage goes: “swing hard in case you hit something.” 

So how “disgraceful” are strikeouts? The new stats folks often condemn “old school” Major League field managers for a sort of Little League attitude about the strikeout. & I’ve read a fair number of commenters on baseball blogs who assert, “it’s just another out—no different.” True or not true?

There are good outs & bad outs of course: good outs tend to advance runners, bad outs keep runners from advancing, or at the worst, erase runners that were already on base. By that assessment, the double play is the “worst out,” because not only the batter, but also a baserunner is out (the triple play’s such a fluky anomaly that it needn’t be considered); in comparison, a strikeout only yields a single out.  Still, some of that depends on context: if a double play occurs with the bases loaded & no one out, there’s a good chance the runner on third will score (depending on how the defense is positioned, etc.) In fact, just this Monday, my favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, won a game by plating the deciding run in just this way.

So tho it yields but a single out, the strikeout does nothing to advance runners—except in the fluky case of the strikeout passed ball/wild pitch combination in which, with first base open, the batter can try to reach first before being thrown out when the catcher can’t catch the third strike. Our Mission beer league baseball team actually won a game where such strikeouts were a major “weapon” in our arsenal, & I myself reached base at least once that game via this route—but in general these are very unusual plays. Still, other outs don’t advance the runner either: infield pop flies, line drive outs caught on the fly, shallow fly balls to the outfield, & some ground balls, depending on where the runners are situated & how the defense is positioned. It certainly can’t be argued that a strikeout is any less productive than those outs—tho again, to be devil’s advocate, the chance of a defensive miscue on a ball put in play, even at the highest skill levels of the game, is still something of a factor, however small.

So “strikeout”—singular failure, run of the mill failure, or key to evaluating under-rated power hitters? Perhaps all of the above? One thing to always keep in mind when talking about or contemplating baseball: context is all, & there are many ways of contextualizing those Ks—keep your eye on the ball!

All pics link to their source
Top pic is from Wiki Commons, showing Adam Dunn striking out. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The user name doesn't have a working link.
Second pic: Reggie Jackson
Third pic: Mark Reynolds
Fourth pic: Rob Deer Topps baseball card
Fifth pic: Mickey Mantle

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