Saturday, September 14, 2013

When striking out might not be a good thing

Strikeout rates have steadily risen in Major League Baseball, which just about everybody knows. And there has been much written about whether the increase is bad or not. But when you consider that the MLB strikeout rate is now at 7.51 per nine innings and compare that to 6.52 per nine just seven years ago, you have a significant culture change. I have had people tell me that an out is an out and it does not matter if it is a strikeout or a ground out. And while I have never quite bought that idea, articles like this one do not give me solid footing. But there really is one game situation where a strikeout might not be a good thing.

It is here that I need to remind you that I do not have the chops to be a numbers analyst. I see things and try to make sense of them. But I lack the depth of some of these great analytic writers to make much sense of what I am seeing. At best, all I can do is present a question that an analyst can run with. 

Such a question is found in strikeout rates in one particular situation--runners on third with less than two outs. If you have a runner on third with no outs or one out, it seems to me that contact will make a big difference whether that runner will score or not. And I wanted to see if teams that struggle to score also have trouble striking out when such a situation exists. From the data I collected, it seems to be a factor.

The Major League average for striking out with a runner on third with less than two outs is 17.64%. This is less than the overall league strikeout rate of  19.75%. While this could mean many things such as struggling pitchers, etc., it could also mean that as a whole, baseball tries to cut down on strikeouts in such situations and on average does so.

While all strikeout rates have risen, strikeouts in this situation are no different. For example, in 1980, the MLB average strikeout rate in such situations was only 11.94%. Such numbers do fluctuate as ten years earlier in 1970, the rate was around 14%. But it is safe to say that 17.64% is a significant increase.

My overall thought was that teams that were the worst in this category would correlate somewhat with the team's overall scoring average per game. For the most part, this seemed to be the case. Of the top ten lowest teams in runs per game average, only two of them (Giants, Brewers) beat the league average for strikeout rates in this particular situation.

The Giants here do pose a problem. The Giants are the fourth lowest in the league in runs scored per game. But only five teams strikeout less than the Giants' 14.86% in situations where a man is on third with less than two outs. But again, they are one exception to my "theory". The other, the Brewers, are just a little under the league average and are 21st in runs per game.

Two teams also blow up my theory a little bit on the flip side. Of the top nine teams in terms of runs per game, two of them strikeout more than the league average. The top scoring team in baseball is one of them. The Red Sox strikeout 19.19% in such situations. Cleveland is the other team and they are just above the league average.

The Red Sox lead the majors in on-base percentage and slugging. So it makes sense that they can afford to strikeout more often in such situations because they throw more spaghetti at the wall.

The Mariners and Astros are by far the worst teams at striking out with a man on third and less than two outs. Their rates are 26.02% and 26.55% respectively which is just amazing to me. In many of these cases, any kind of contact has a chance of bringing the run home and these two teams could not make contact more than 25% of the time. Wow.

The best two teams in such situations are the Oakland A's and Arizona Diamondbacks at 10.69% and 12.41 respectively.

But there is another factor here and that is whether a team strikes out at a lower rate or a higher rate with runners on third with less than two outs than the teams' overall strikeout rate. I have already shown the league average in such situations being 2.11 percentage points lower than the overall strikeout rate. While there are a lot of factors that go into such a number, there has to be at least some league-wide mindset that getting contact and putting the ball in play gives a team a better chance to succeed in those situations.

First on the bad side. There are eight teams that have a higher strikeout rate in such situations than their overall rate. Two, the Rockies and Rangers are just slightly higher. The five others are the White Sox, Phillies, Mariners, Twins and Nationals.

The Mariners rate a special place here. That team's difference in strikeout rates from this situation to overall is so much worse that it requires special consideration. The Mariners' overall strikeout rate is 21.53%, but it jumps, as we have seen, to 26.02% with runners on third with less than two outs. That is a higher rate by 4.49 percentage points!

That might go a long way in understanding why despite an improvement in offensive statistics this season, they have scored the 25th highest runs out of 30 teams despite being 20th in team OPS.

On the flip side, thirteen teams have a better spread than the league average (2.11 percentage points) between overall strikeout rates and strikeout rates with runners on third with less than two outs. The best at it are the A's (8.27 percentage points!), Mets (6.28 percentage points), Reds (6.11 percentage points) and Diamondbacks (5.73 percentage points).

Again, this might explain why the Mets are 27th in wOBA in baseball but are 19th in runs per game.

The amazing A's and their low strikeout rate in these situations, especially compared to their overall strikeout rate, might take some of the wonder out of how they are playing so well. You look at that lineup and scratch your head. But perhaps this one situational statistic might explain some of their success.

For these teams, concentrating on contact in these situations has to be stressed as part of their overall strategy. Does the A's performance in this situation have anything to do with that team having the highest WPA in the Majors? Perhaps.

I do not know if I have proven anything here. The numbers are interesting, but again, I am not an analyst. If this were a courtroom, I have left reasonable doubt and perhaps another "lawyer" can take a better look at it. But I have convinced at least myself that there is some factor in teams that cannot score often enough that has to do with how often they strike out and how often they strikeout with a runner on third with less than two out.

Here is my data in case you are interested:

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