Thursday, October 04, 2012

Slugging ugly

The 2012 regular season is in the books. And it has been an amazing season. We had someone hit for the Triple Crown. We had a rookie who hit 30 homers and steal more than 40 bases. We've seen more than a half a dozen no-hitters including some perfect games. Stars like Braun and Cano had massive seasons with high batting averages. Three starting catchers batted over .310. Yes, there were superstar performances all over the place. But there were also some oddities. This particular post focuses on one of them: Slugging ugly.

There were three players this season that hit over 30 homers and batted under .240. Does that seem not so odd to you? Perhaps that is telling about this age of baseball that few would think that fact is very odd. But consider that of all the seasons had by all the players through the years, such a combination has only happened 39 times. And only two times in baseball history has it happened with three players in the same season. Those occurred in the 1985 (three) and 1986 (four) seasons when Kingman, Canseco and Deer roamed the earth.

Of the 39 times such a combination has happened, fourteen have come in the last ten seasons, or thirty-six percent of the entire total. So you could say this is a product of our times. 30 of the 39 occurrences have happened since 1985. The first time that it ever happened was in 1966 when Rocky Colavito did it. So what we have is a fairly modern phenomenon.

Oh! You are probably wondering who the three players were that did it this year: Curtis Granderson, Adam Dunn and Ike Davis. More about their seasons in a bit. Before we talk more about those three, a little more context needs to be painted.

The common denominator of all these seasons has been strikeouts. The average batted ball finds a hole somewhere and lands safely for a base hit somewhere about 30 percent of the time. We call that BABIP or batting average for balls in play. The less balls you put in play, the lower your batting average is going to be. If you strikeout a lot, you are not putting the ball in play. Those are outs that add nothing to the player or their team. These 39 seasons averaged 143 strikeouts per player. Eight of the 39 seasons were players who led their league in strikeouts that season.

Another commonality these seasons share is walks. The average season of those 39 totals 69 walks. So these players basically had three major outcomes to their seasons. They either struck out (a lot!), walked or homered.

Despite the high walks and the more than 30 homers in these seasons, the average slugging percentage of these 39 seasons was only .470. You would expect someone who hit 30 homers to slug, 500 right? It only happened in six of these seasons.

Okay, back to our trio this season. Between them, Granderson, Davis and Dunn totals a whopping 558 strikeouts. Davis had 141 while Granderson struck out 195 times and Adam Dunn finished with 222, one shy of the major league record.

Again, if we apply our BABIP logic to their strikeouts, if Davis would have put a ball in play instead of those 141 strikeouts, he would have had 42 more hits. Granderson would have had 58 more hits and Dunn would have hit 67 more hits just putting the ball in play. That certainly would have helped their batting averages. Instead, Granderson hit .232, Davis .227 and Adam Dunn hit all of .204.

There are questions that come out of such results. First, where is the dividing line as to the value of these players? With so much emphases on on-base percentage now, batting average is a bit passe. such thinking keeps guys like Pena and Uggla employed. But are such players really that valuable offensively?

For a plate appearance, there seems to be only one event that contributes less to a team's success than a strikeout and that his hitting into a double-play. So the win probability added on a strikeout is in the negative side of the equation. And yet, there always seems to be a place in baseball for lefty relievers and guys who can crush the ball and walk a lot whether or not they can hit otherwise.

And it is hard to fathom a season like Adam Dunn's from a pitcher's point of view. Why would you ever walk the guy? Adam Dunn walked 105 times! The guy is large. Very large. As such, he has one of the largest strike zones in baseball. Yes, he is selective at the plate and that is to his credit. But why would you walk him?

If you turn those 105 plate appearances into 105 at bats instead, Dunn is only going to have a two in ten chance of getting a hit and of those two hits, there is less than a one in ten chance of him hitting a homer. There is a three and a half out of ten possibility he is going to strike out and an eight of ten chance he is going to make an out. If you were a pitcher, wouldn't you like those odds? So the walks are something that is hard to understand.

Three players batted under .240 and hit more than thirty homers this season. Again, let it sink in that this has only happened 39 total times in baseball history. Leave it to others to figure out the value added by such seasons. There is not enough smarts in this chair to figure something like that out. But the feat is still astounding. More astounding still? Two of those players did it with more than 40 homers. THAT has only been done five times in MLB history and two of them came this season. And one player, Adam Dunn, has three of those five seasons.

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