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May 9, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Striking out (part one)

In Friday’s game, the stories were about strikeouts. Tyler Clippard nabbed the headlines, by striking out all six Marlins that he faced in the seventh and eighth innings, keeping the Nats alive in a tied ballgame and allowing them to win it in the tenth. Starter Jordan Zimmermann made some history himself in the second inning when he became the 42nd pitcher in MLB history to fan the side in nine straight pitches. On the other side, Ricky Nolasco struck out 11 Nationals, as the Nats struck out 17 times altogether in the 10-inning game.   Altogether, 30 strikeouts were recorded by the two teams, representing half of the game’s 60 outs.

Elsewhere that same evening, Cliff Lee struck out 16 in a losing effort, as the Phillies fell to the Braves 5–0.

On Sunday, Washington’s lineup again swung their bats in futility, as Anibal Sanchez struck out 11, and the Nats whiffed 13 times. In this morning’s Nationals Journal, Adam Kilgore wrote about the Nats’ proclivity to strike out and their lack of home runs.

Among major league teams, only the Pirates (25.3%) have a worse strikeout rate than the Nationals (24.6%). The Nationals pitchers, on the other hand, have the lowest strikeout rate in the NL and rank 27th of the 30 major league teams. The strikeout problems of the Nats batters are certainly hurt by the other pitching they face in the division, with the Phillies pitchers ranking 1st in the majors in strikeouts, the Braves 6th, the Marlins 11th, and the Mets 17th.

I’d like to take a closer look at strikeouts to see if striking out is associated with some of the Nationals’ offensive woes. That’ll be part two (and maybe three or four) of this series. In this one, however, I thought I’d just take a look at what the distribution of batter strikeouts looks like and where the Nats players fit in that distribution.

The last three decades have seen a substantial increase in strikeouts. For example, in 2010, 20.7% of major league at bats resulted in a strikeout. In 1980, by comparison, the ratio was 14.0%—in other words, the strikeout rate has increased 48%.

The standards for strikeouts have also shifted. I remember that 100 strikeouts used to be considered excessive. In 1980, only 11 players struck out 100 times. In 2010, by contrast, 88 batters matched or exceeded that mark, including roughly half of the players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

Let’s take a look at the distribution of strikeout rates (that is, strikeouts per at bat) among major league regular hitters. When trying to measure true talent, it’s better to look at data from more than one season, so I selected all batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances between 2008 and May 7, 2011.  Most of these players were regulars for at least two seasons during that period. 260 players met this criterion.

I sorted the sample by strikeout rates and divided it into deciles (tenths). The highest strikeout rate was Mark Reynolds (39.0%) and the lowest was Juan Pierre (7.2%). For each decile, I’ll report the range, the average slash statistics (batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage), and wRC+ (weighted runs created, adjusted for park and environment, which is available from fangraphs as an alternative to OPS+). I’ll also list the best hitter in the decile, the worst hitter, and the Nats or former Nats in the decile.

1st Decile:

7.2% to 11.54%, .280/.331/.398/94

Joe Mauer, Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora

2nd Decile:

11.54% to 14.0%, .283/.344/.423/104

Albert Pujols, Jack Wilson, Cristian Guzman, Jerry Hairston Jr.

3rd Decile:

14.0% to 15.8%, .280/.341/.414/101

Chipper Jones, Willy Taveras, Adam Kennedy

4th Decile:

15.8% to 17.1%, .278/.348/.436/108

Justin Morneau, Andy LaRoche

5th Decile:

17.1% to 18.35%, .278/.346/.435/108

Matt Holliday, Gerald Laird, Nyjer Morgan, Lastings Milledge, Felipe Lopez

6th Decile:

18.35% to 20.0%, .270/.340/.448/108

Mark Teixeira, Bobby Crosby, Ryan Zimmerman, Iván Rodríguez, Wilson Ramos

7th Decile:

20.0% to 21.8%, .273/.351/.457/114

Joey Votto, Ronny Cedeno, Ian Desmond, Willie Harris

8th Decile:

21.8% to  24.22%, .268/.351/.460/115

Kevin Youkilis, Carlos Gomez

9th Decile:

24.22% to 27.2%, .263/.343/.456/112

Jayson Werth, Austin Kearns, Adam LaRoche, Rick Ankiel, Michael Morse, Laynce Nix, Josh Willingham

10th Decile:

27.2% to 39.0%, .246/.342/.458/110

Jim Thome, Jason Varitek, Danny Espinosa,  Matt Stairs, Adam Dunn

We see that except for Cora and Hairston, the current Nats are above the median in strikeout rate, with a heavy concentration in the 9th decile. We also see that while batting averages tend to drop off as strikeout rates get higher (it’s really tough to bat .290 if you’re whiffing in 20% of your at bats), overall hitting as measured by wRC+ is actually higher for batters who strike out a lot. They tend to make up in power and walks what they lose in batting average. In part two, I’ll look at these tradeoffs more closely.

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