Baseball observers, particularly fantasy baseball managers, use a ton of statistics to try and predict the future and evaluate the past. Things like OPS can adequately rate a hitter’s offensive production. WAR and wRC can quantify a player’s value.
We’ve arrived at an era in baseball where simple math and statistics are cast aside because they are too rudimentary and do not account for every possible variable. Pitchers with a high ERA can excuse it by blaming the park, or the lack of favorable match ups. Hitters with a low average can blame great infields or defensive shifts.
Still, there are a few baseball outcomes that a player can’t explain away. The strikeout, for hitters, is one of them.
A strikeout means a couple things for hitters…all of them reflect negatively.
- The pitcher was, simply, better at pitching than the hitter was at hitting.
- The hitter’s reaction was too slow.
- The hitter’s plate vision was lacking.
So, let’s assume one thing: if strikeouts can be (almost) completely blamed on a player’s ability to hit, then a player with a high propensity of striking out is a worse hitter than a player with a lower propensity of striking out.
Let’s look at the top-five qualified hitters of 2016 in terms of H/PA:
(H/PA, K/PA) [H/PA points against median, K/PA points against median]
- Daniel Murphy (.316, .098) [+7.2, -8.9]
- DJ LeMahieu (.302, .126) [+5.8, -6.1]
- Jose Altuve (.301, .098) [+5.7, -9.0]
- Mookie Betts (.293, .110) [+4.9, -7.8]
- Jean Segura (.293, 0.146) [+4.9, -4.2]
- Charlie Blackmon (.292, .159) [+4.8, -2.8]
- Dustin Pedroia (.288, .105) [+4.4, -8.3]
- Starling Marte (.287, .197) [+4.3, +0.9]
- Jose Ramirez (.285, .100) [+4.1, -8.7]
- Wilson Ramos (.283, .151) [+3.9, -0.4]
As we can see, almost every player in the top ten in H/PA has a K/PA well below the league median. The notable exception is Starling Marte. Let’s take a look at the whole sample:
The relationship is evident: lower K/PA equals higher H/PA.
But what about Marte? Arguably, the best offensive weapon the Pirates had in 2016, Marte was an elite hitting outfielder in the league. How can Marte get away with such great hitting results with a bad K/PA mark?
Marte ranked 8th in hits per plate appearance and 82nd in K/PA. He is the only player in the top-ten (and one of only 4 in the top twenty-five) of H/PA to be above the median in K/PA.
The others to join him as above-median K/PA and great H/PA guys are: Corey Seager (.281 H/PA, .194 K/PA), Carlos Gonzalez (.275, .204) and J.D. Martinez (.273, .248).
So, how do these guys have so much success at the plate and fail to limit strikeouts?
The answer: they swing away.
Starling Marte swings at 54.1% of pitches. That’s 7.3 points above the median for qualified batters in 2016. Seager swats at a 52.9% clip, Gonzalez at 51.6%, and Martinez at 52.5. Those numbers are 6.1, 4.8, and 5.7 points above the median, respectively.
So, does swinging away equal success at the plate? The short answer is no.
The correlation between the two outcomes may be noticeable, but the values don’t fit well; this relationship makes sense. A player who swings a lot will obviously have more opportunities to hit balls than a players who swings less. Still, that player also has more opportunities to strikeout or put balls in play for outs.
These indicators are a good observation of the dichotomy between “Moneyball” value and “God-Given Talent” value. A Moneyball-type executive or scout would see Marte as a liability; he’s undisciplined at the plate and his ability to get on base takes a hit when you see his walk rate 3.8 points below league median. An old-school scout would love Marte’s penchant for swinging with success.
So, our conclusion becomes this: players who cannot limit their strikeouts should swing at more pitches.