Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Strikeouts Revisited

Everyone seems to be saying that this is the year of the pitcher. It is true that the major hitting stats like homers per game, league batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage are all down. Strikeouts are the highest in history. Many point to steroids or the lack of them as one of the answers. Maybe. Many are saying that it's because young pitchers are given less time in the minors and are coming to the big leagues faster and thus putting better arms up in the league. Maybe. But young arms also throw more walks and have less experience under pressure. Here is one more theory and it revisits a complaint this Fan has had about modern baseball. Perhaps the blind eye to allowing high strikeout rates is catching up to baseball.

Of course, Mark Reynolds is the lightning rod of the argument. Last year, Reynolds had a 123 OPS+, so it was deemed acceptable that he had 223 strikeouts, the most in history. His line for the year was: .260/.349/.543. The arguments state that if he cut down on his aggressiveness, his slugging would go down and thus his value. Frankly, the Fan finds that argument to be full of beans. And this isn't the first time the Fan has made this argument. Very few of Reynolds homers have come with two strikes or with him behind in the count, so how do you hurt his slugging percentage if he shortens up on two strike counts? But if you can cut 100 of his strikeouts and put the ball in play, with a .300 BABIP probability, you add thirty hits to his tally. Even if those are all singles, his average would jump to .311 and his on base percentage jumps to .399.

The argument has been presented many times that an out is an out. But put the ball in play and errors happen, hits happen and that's the side of the equation that seems to be missing. What we seem to be seeing this year is that the league is striking out more thus making the batters around the league less effective.

As a microcosm of what the Fan is talking about, let's just look at the top 25 strikeout guys in the league last year and this year. Last year, the top 25 strikeout guys struck out 24% of the time. But they had a .480 slugging percentage (collectively) and a .356 OBP. Thus, their collective OPS was .836. With those kinds of numbers, it sure seems worth it to let those 25 guys swing from their heels every time up. But that mentality has caught up to us. This year, those 25 guys have struck out 25% of the time (closer to 26% actually) and their collective OPS is down to .796. The top 25 strikeout guys have lost 14 points on their OBP and more importantly, 26 points on the slugging percentage. Consider if you will that these 25 guys have struck out 1933 times so far in 2010. If you could cut that down by a third, that would (with BABIP in play) add 191 hits. That's a lot of hits being thrown to the third baseman after the third strike.

Baseball mind trusts have been willing to swallow strikeouts because of the mistaken belief that an out is an out is an out. And since many of the high strikeout guys also get on base regularly and hit a lot of homers. the strikeouts are overlooked. But this year, those guys are getting on base less and hitting homers less. How many less? Last year, those top 25 strikeout guys hit a homer 4.3% of the time. This year, those top 25 strikeout guys have hit homers 3.8% of the time. The weight of those strikeouts are getting heavy.

Many of us have played organized ball of some sort, whether it be little league or pony league or something. All of us heard after we got two strikes on us to "choke up a little." Yeah, the strikeout is an out just like any other out. But when you put the ball in play, things can happen. Hits will fall in 30% of the time. Errors will occur. But hardly anybody ever talks about that side of the equation. It's time they did.

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