Jan
12

Don’t disparage the strikeout

By

Don’t you hate it when a player strikes out? Not only did he make an out, the worst single outcome of an at-bat, but he couldn’t even manage to make contact. It makes him seem so futile. Many fans loathe high strikeout players for this very reason. They see the swing and miss, and they think futility. The typical fan reaction to a strikeout, however, is disproportional to the actual detriment it causes the team.

In this morning’s post about the skills each Yankee possesses, I linked to a Lookout Landing post that discusses how a player provides value to his team. Again, the whole post merits a read, but there’s one point that stuck out to me in particular, and I didn’t want to lump it in with the skills post. You might recognize the first part of this paragraph, so I’ll emphasize the last two sentences.

Some of these paths will be more appealing than others. Fans generally like power, contact, and discipline. Fans generally don’t like free swingers or strikeouts. If Player A achieves value X with home runs, walks, and groundouts, while Player B achieves value X with doubles, defense, and strikeouts, Player A will generally be better-received, even though the two made equivalent contributions to the team. Fans want value, but they also want style. They want their players to both be good and look good. In other words, fans care about both qualities of imperfections: appearance and magnitude.

The desire for a stylish appearance, I think, leads fans to unfairly criticize high strikeout players. There have been studies showing that strikeouts aren’t worse than other types of outs. But studies, especially studies involving math, rarely succeed in convincing people that a long-held belief is wrong. Neither will a strong argument that doesn’t user numbers, but that won’t stop me from trying.

Whether a player grounds out, flies out, or strikes out, that still counts as one of the team’s 27 outs. No matter how it happens, if the first batter of the game makes an out his team has only 26 left. The team also has two outs remaining before it has to erase all progress and start over. Outs, then, are a precious, scarce resource. Using one, whether the ball is put in play or not, represents an unfavorable outcome.

All outs are bad. Strikeouts are one subcategory of outs. Since each type of out equally subtracts from the team’s remaining total, then why should we disparage strikeouts while not caring so much about fly outs or ground outs? Again, I pin it on the emotional reaction taking precedence in our minds, but I’ve heard some empirical arguments against the strikeout.

Most commonly, people note that a strikeout cannot advance a baserunner. With a runner on third and less than two outs, a strikeout does not score the runner. With a runner on second and less than two outs, a strikeout does not place the runner on third base. Yet there’s another side to this argument. With a runner on first and less than two outs, a strikeout does not cause a double play. We could perform a study to show whether these aspects even out for high- and low-contact players, sure. But didn’t I mention earlier that studies of this nature won’t convince the masses? So, instead, let’s take a glance at some relevant players.

Nick Swisher is a low-contact, high-strikeout player. Robinson Cano is a high-contact, low-strikeout player. I can’t find a readily-available split for bases occupied plus outs situation, but Baseball Reference at least has the most important situation, a runner on third and less than two outs. In those situations Cano came to the plate 32 times and went 5 for 27 with a walk, 6 strikeouts, and 4 sacrifice flies. Swisher, the guy you can’t trust in that situation because he strikes out too much, came to the plate 39 times and went 8 for 25 with 8 walks, just 3 strikeouts, and 6 sac flies.

Since Cano hit very poorly with runners in scoring position, perhaps we can look to another example of a contact hitter in that situation. Melky Cabrera had the lowest strikeout percentage among Yankees last season. In situations with a runner on third and less than two outs he excelled, coming to the plate 40 times and going 13 for 28 with 6 walks, 4 strikeouts, and 4 sac flies. That’s very good, obviously, but in terms of the ever-important task of getting the runner home, Swisher was better, if only slightly. He also struck out less. In fact, over the 179 times in his career he’s faced a runner on third with less than two outs situation, Swisher has struck out just 28 times, or 15.6 percent of plate appearances. His career strikeout rate sits at just above 21 percent.

What about the flipside? Again, without a Retrosheet database it’s difficult to determine exactly how many double play situations each player faced. But, since this is an example and not a study we’ll just use the rough indicator of men on base. Swisher came to the plate 269 times with men on and grounded into 13 double plays, or in just around 5 percent of situations. Melky had 247 plate appearances with men on and grounded into 15 double plays, or in 6 percent of opportunities. Cano, as you can imagine, was worse, coming to the plate 313 times with men on and grounding into 22 double plays, 7 percent of the time.

Again, this is not an exhaustive study, but rather a glance at a situation using players from the 2009 Yankees. But there are already studies, linked above, that prove that point with far more exhaustive methods. My point in this is to show that even though Nick Swisher is a high strikeout player, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a shoe-in to strikeout in a situation where a run can score without a hit. It’s also to illustrate that even if Swisher, or a similar player, misses some of those opportunities, he adds value in a different way. Avoiding double plays means more chances for the team to score runs.

Appearance does matter, but only to our emotions. Baseball takes us on a journey that includes terrifying lows, dizzying highs, and creamy middles.1 That’s a large part of how we enjoy the game. We — at least I — don’t watch 162 games because it’s fun to watch players rack up numbers. The emotional ride of each game, of each season, of the game in perpetuity, draws us in and makes us fans for life. Following the numbers only enhances that joy. I scream as loud as the next guy when Swisher strikes out in a big spot, but I don’t let that affect how I evaluate him as a player. He and players like him bring plenty to the table.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens


1Footnoting is also cool because I can source my Simpsons references. (Up)

Categories : Analysis

78 Comments»

  1. KeithK says:

    Stat heads argue that just about the best thing a pitcher can do is get a strikeout. We fixtae on stats like K/9. Well, baseball is a zero sum game game between the offense and the defense. If something is great for the pitcher it necessarily must be bad for the hitter. A study that claims that strikeouts don’t matter has to be looking at the data wrong.

    I can believe that increased power correlates with high strikeouts and that the value of that power may out weight the negative of the K’s. But that’s very different from saying that strikeouts don’t matter for a hitter.

    • SM says:

      Strikeouts are the best thing for a pitcher because they guarantee an OUT. So the other side of the zero game is OUT not strikeout for the batter.
      For you to prove your point you need to explain why Strikeout is worse than other types of outs as jp does above.

      • andrew says:

        Strikeouts are worse than other types of outs because they guarantee outs. If you are a contact hitter, you can put the ball in play and anything can happen. If you are a free-swinger, and swing and miss often, you have no chance of putting the ball in play.

        • SM says:

          There are reasons that strikeouts are worse than other types out outs, but that has to do with specific game states, like when under 2 outs man on 3rd.

          What you seem to be talking about seems to be value of not making an Out or OBP.
          so if your free swinger and puts the ball in play a ton and even can do this repeatedly, say consistent 400 babip, but you still have a lower OBP than mister high walk high strike out man, what good is it?

        • jim p says:

          How often do batters reach first base, or better, on an error when they strikeout? What percentage of errors are made on batted balls (as opposed to, say, throwing out a runner)?

          You have to factor that in too.

    • RollingWave says:

      That is because, studies have also notice that pitchers generally can not consistently get people out when they let them put it in play. more or less, pretty much everyone from Gregg Maddux to Kei Igawa still let around 30%ish of the guys who put it in play reach safely. however, similar studies conclude that the correlation between whiffing and actually NOT making outs isn’t nearly as consistent for hitters.

      Now, strike out matters, making outs in general matters. but the problem is that the conventional way of looking at things tend to overstate just how important it is, to the point where some actually prefer say.. a .300/.320/.500 guy over a .250/.400/.500 guy

      Strike outs matter, everything being equal you’d prefer a guy to be able to make contact then whiff a lot, but the fact is that plenty of people look at the whiff before they look at the overall production is wrong. hence you have the Nick Swisher issue, where some will insist that he suck despite the fact that he make outs at a WELL below league average rate and his overall slugging line is also above average.

      The funny thing is that these same people’s head will explode when you tell them that Nick Swisher whiffs at a similar pace to Reggie Jackson. in fact, one could very well argue that so far in his career Swisher is basically Reggie Jackson with about 90% of the power. (of course, this is compared to Jackson’s entire career. so Reggie is obviously a lot better. but still makes a reasonable case on Swisher’s value)

  2. JGS says:

    Look, just get rid of the sugar, ok?

  3. the artist formerly known as (sic) says:

    I think one of the most interesting parts of this writeup is the Harvard Sports article, which Joe links. The author presents the idea that strikeouts are positively correlated with offensive production in AAA and MLB, that strikeouts don’t correlate at all w/ offensive production in mid-level MILB ball, and are negatively correlated with offensive production in short-season and rookie ball. The idea is that hitters that are too vulnerable to the strikeout, and who are unable to create positive offensive production otherwise, will get weeded out.

    The rest move on to become Nick Swishers.

    • Steve H says:

      There’s only one Nick Swisher.

    • Ed says:

      That makes sense to me.

      If you think about it, guys strike out a lot for two reasons. Either they just aren’t very good at making contact, or because they’re selective and work the count deep.

      The first group of guys will get weeded out as you work your way up the levels. The second group is more likely to rise through the levels.

      I think a lot of people are biased against strikeouts because they only played in Little League, or maybe a little in High School. At those levels, there’s a lot of people who strike out a lot because they just aren’t very good. It’s not until the higher levels where Swisher like stat lines start to show up.

  4. larryf says:

    It all gets back to the greatness that is Brett Gardner-that sure was a long post Joe just to make that simple point….

  5. the artist formerly known as (sic) says:

    “The typical fan reaction to a strikeout, however, is disproportional to the actual detriment it causes the team.”

    The typical fan reaction to a strikeout is situational, but you’re demonstrating that the long-term effect of a high-strikeout player isn’t necessarily negative. In other words, you’re criticizing the negative reaction of a fan to someone like Swisher K’ing with a man on 2nd and nobody out by demonstrating that Swisher’s high K rate, over the course of the season, isn’t necessarily negative.

    But fans aren’t pissed off by the season-long high K rate, per se. They’re pissed off because Swisher didn’t move the runner over in that particular circumstance. They may realize that Dunn and Swisher and Cust can have positive value, season-long, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying when the high K rate happens to bite the team in the ass on a given afternoon.

  6. Drew says:

    An unproductive out is an unproductive out. Whether you line one to the 2nd baseman, pop out or strike out, you don’t help the team by advancing the runner. Anyone that gets more upset by a K than a popout or any other unproductive out is delusional.

    P&C report in 37 days. Thank Mo.

    • andrew says:

      But if you told me somebody struck out in 30% of their at bats, or had line drive outs in 30% of their at bats, you’d have to assume the 2nd guy would be more likely to see a correction in his statistics

      • RollingWave says:

        yes, but the fact is that no one would hit 30% line drive and consistently make those outs year in and year out. where as some will consistently whiff a lot but still keep doing their damage.

  7. B-rad says:

    If you put the ball in play there is always a chance of a throwing error…or a booted ball…maybe the fielder drops the ball ( http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com.....8;c_id=nyy )..maybe he loses it in the lights. Etc Etc.

    Its not just about looking good…its not just about emotions…its about letting the game play itself out.

    • But situations where an error leads to a man reaching base aren’t common. And, again, another byproduct of putting the ball in play is a possible double play, a hugely, hugely negative outcome.

  8. X says:

    jesus RAB is becoming a college textbook with all this in depth analysis into boring shit. Talk about the Yankees not 101 statistical reasons why a strikeout is bad. i cant even read this crap.

  9. Januz says:

    I am a person who cannot stand the strikeout. Here is one of the most under-appreciated stats in sports history: 361 career home runs vs 369 career strikeouts. The player is Joe DiMaggio. This particular ratio (Almost 1-1 playing in Death Valley), shows the greatness of DiMaggio, who was about as flawless as they come. Think about the ways you can make an out: A hard hit line drive, a great play where you are robbed, advancing a runner to third, by hitting the ball to the right side, or a long fly ball that is a Home Run in most parks (Such as Fenway). All of which look the same in the box score, but are quite different in the grand scheme of things. Here is another interesting comparison: Mike Cameron (The darling of RAB), has 89 more strikeouts the past 3 seasons than DiMaggio had his entire career.

    • Here is one of the most under-appreciated stats in sports history: 361 career home runs vs 369 career strikeouts. The player is Joe DiMaggio.

      I’d argue that thet stat you stated is probably one of the most OVER-appreciated stats in sports history.

      Is it a cool stat? Sure. Is it an overcited stat that we make too much of? Yeah, it probably is. Rogers Hornsby had twice as many strikeouts than home runs.

      Rogers Hornsby is a better player than Joe Dimaggio.

      • larryf says:

        Poor Joe D…..Unlucky in love/dissed on RAB

        • jsbrendog says:

          i blame marilyn monroe and the war

        • Januz says:

          TSJC makes it a habit to disagree with me on 99.9% of all issues. The only thing we agree on, is we are both Yankee fans. The fact he would go after the “Jolter” is just another example of this.

          • jsbrendog says:

            no one makes it a habit to disagree with anyone just cause.

          • No, he doesn’t.

            TSJC makes it a habit to comment on lots of things, from every and all commenters, particularly things he thinks are incorrectly reasoned.

            Januz, you often say things TSJC thinks are incorrectly reasoned.

            I’m not “going after the Jolter”. I’m going after the statement YOU made about the Jolter. And not because you said it, just because it was said.

            • jsbrendog says:

              but it’s totally your fault that emac2, bo/sal/lanny/grant, januz (who i thought used to be janusz or januzs but i could be wrong) and alexgonzalez continually say such things, obviously.

              it is also your fault that mryankee has a man crush on justin verlander

      • vin says:

        Perhaps if Joe D swung a little harder he would’ve been a:
        .310/.390/.600 – 35-40 hr hitter instead of the
        .325/.398/.579 – 25-30 hr hitter he actually was.

        (just randomly projecting #s there)

        • Heh.

          Instead of choking up and fouling stuff off until the pitcher gave him something he could weakly slap for a single, he should have uncorked the beast and cleared the fences, eh?

          That’s a damn good question. What if Joe would have had, say, 300 more strikeouts, but that came with like 150 more XBH because he was gripping it and ripping it? Wouldn’t he be way more productive? Wouldn’t he be a top-5 all time hitter, instead of just a top-20?

          Hmmmmmmmmm…

          • jsbrendog says:

            so what you’re saying is he’s got some eckstein in ‘im?

          • RollingWave says:

            ehhh, I’d generally think that at the highest level, you work with whatever you have, your not going to turn Ryan Howard into a contact hitter, at the same time your also not going to turn a Joe DiMaggio into Reggie Jackson. (and Reggie Jackson’s value isn’t really higher than Joe D either)

      • Januz says:

        There is no debate about how good Hornsby was (.358 CAREER BA etc). But Hornsby’s job and position were quite different from DiMaggio’s. If you want to see the value of production vs strikeouts, lets use Willie Mays. Mays had 660 HR’s to 1,526 Strikeouts (Less than a 3-1 Ratio), and had 1,903 RBI’s (Almost 400 more RBI’s to Strikeouts). In addition, the Polo Grounds and Candlestick were also not exactly bandboxes.

        • If you want to see the value of production vs strikeouts, lets use Willie Mays.

          Willie Mays, OPS+: 155
          Joe DiMaggio, OPS+: 155

          All those extra strikeouts from the Say Hey Kid, and yet, he put up an identical production line to DiMaggio.

          • Januz says:

            I am the first person to praise Mays for his productivity, and I am of the opinion that he is the greatest player EVER at his position (And that includes DiMaggio, Griffey JR, Speaker and everyone else). The point is, Mays managed to put the ball in play, and did his job (Knocking in runs) far more than he struck out. This concept does not apply to the Mike Cameron’s and the Nick Swisher’s of the world.

            • SM says:

              Yes, Mike Cameron and Nick Swisher show up everyday and play football or something because they are definitely not doing there job. No idea how anyone thinks they are playing baseball, or even HOF level baseball (do people think that?).

        • Steve H says:

          So what are you saying about Mays vs. Dimaggio? Mays struck out more? Does that make him an inferior player in any way?

      • RollingWave says:

        Willies Mays also had more than twice as many Ks as HRs, clearly DiMaggio > Mays

  10. vin says:

    My favorite part of the Harvard Sports link was the discussion in the comments:

    http://harvardsportsanalysis.w.....omment-193

    David Pinto and Guy basically saying that high K players don’t make it to the big leagues not because of their K totals, but because they don’t possess the other skills to be a positive offensive contributor.

  11. David Roher says:

    Thanks for the link, Joe. Big RAB fan. Here’s a more Yankee-oriented post, if y’all are interested:

    http://harvardsportsanalysis.w.....nd-parity/

    • jsbrendog says:

      It’s also possible that the data shows that big spenders are crucial – if there were no teams with large payrolls, then all bad contracts would be a death sentence, since no team would have a buffer to absorb them through trades.

      i like that. i never thought of it that way.

  12. Mike Axisa says:

    The one thing that I notice is that some seem to think others are okay with strikeouts. That’s not the case though. You’d always prefer the high contact guy, however in some cases trading high strikeouts for another skill makes sense.

    You live with Swisher’s strikeouts because he gets on base at an extraordinary rate and hits for very good power. You live with Adam Dunn’s K’s because he hits the ball into the next state.

    It’s a trade off.

    • jsbrendog says:

      swisher also has avg to above avg defense, is a switch htiter, and can play multiple positions, including cf in a pinch which is very good.

      a ballplayer is the sum of their parts. take someone who is exactly identical to swisher but can only play 1b and is below avg defensively and the value diminishes greatly

    • That.

      We’re not saying that Nick Swisher is a perfect player because he strikes out a lot and thus, doesn’t ground into many double plays.

      We’re saying the fact that he strikes out a lot does not make him a BAD player for that fact alone.

      The fact that he strikes out more than most players should be weighed against the counterbalancing evidence that he makes non-strikeout outs far LESS than other players, resulting in a total ability to make fewer outs and get on base safely at a higher rate than the average player.

    • Salty Buggah says:

      This is the most important point. I really hope some of irrational posters read this (though I doubt it’ll matter anyway because they’re, you know, irrational)

  13. noseeum says:

    I completely disagree with the entire premise of this post. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect/desire a certain style of play in a game you love. Brazilian soccer is the most glaring example of this, where the fans of course expect victory, but they expect beautiful soccer more than anything else.

    Just because one outcome is just as good/bad as another in terms of its impact on wins and losses doesn’t end the argument. Baseball is more entertaining with excellent defenders making beautiful plays, dominating pitchers, and a variety of offensive players, including speedy types and power types.

    I’d hate to have the Yankees be nothing but a bunch of 3 true outcome types where it’s either a homer, a walk or a strikeout, regardless of whether they are winning a lot.

    Style matters.

    • The premise of the post is not “Style does not matter”.

      The premise of the post is “If you overemphasize style and make it matter more than it should, you’ll ignore several groups of players who are exceedingly effective and productive players, probably to the detriment of your team.”

      I’d hate to have the Yankees be nothing but a bunch of 3 true outcome types where it’s either a homer, a walk or a strikeout, regardless of whether they are winning a lot.

      I’m not sure if that’s true. I bet you WOULD like that team if they won a lot.

      • jsbrendog says:

        give me adam dunns at all 3 OF positions and pitchers with the worst windups ever and ugliest motions if the team wins 100+ games and goes to the world series consistently

        • JAG says:

          Can I make a caveat? Give me Adam Dunns at all 3 OF positions who can actually field those positions adequately. Actually putting Adam Dunn in CF would be a recipe for disaster.

          -JM

    • That’s fine. You can love your style. I’ll take my wins.

    • Salty Buggah says:

      Never heard that before. Usually (sometimes dumb) people want “winners” and not some supposedly cancerous boring yet super productive player.

      You want that great player and not a “winner.” I guess that’s actually a good thing, just not the way you said it.

    • Januz says:

      Style points works well in ONE sport the average American cares about…… College Football, where a USC is expected to bury the likes of Washington State by 40 points, and if they don’t they lose ground in the polls. It does not apply to MLB, where you could be the 1998 Yankees and still lose a ton of games. As for soccer from Brazil, there are more Rutgers football fans in NJ and NY then people who care about that sport in the tri-state area.

    • RollingWave says:

      really, so you would rather have a 100 loss team rather than a 100 win team of Adam Dunns?

      • RollingWave says:

        i will also point out that Brazillian football is that because they are insanely dominant, not because of their “style” if they start losing badly at the world cup you think they still be popular because they did it while looking good?

  14. mike c says:

    strikeouts & budget cutting– this season needs to start soon!

  15. Tony says:

    I dont agree that an out via strikeout is the same as a flyout. (unless you are a slow player & there are men on base) When you strikeout you have no chance at getting to 1st unless the catcher loses the ball & you make it to 1st. However if you put the ball in play – I feel that you have a greater chance that something good may happen. Whether that is an error or anything else. I just feel that a player that puts the ball in play & does not strikeout will have a greater chance to positvely affect the team

    However if there are men on base & you hit into a double play then my idea go out the window :)

  16. Brian says:

    love the simpsons reference

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