Revisiting a Thought from 2011
Given the stagnant nature of 2018’s offseason, column ideas have ventured into the abyss of niche topics. Each filling a space in time which transaction analysis, in prior years, would occupy. With Andrew McCutchen’s ship sailing for San Francisco, baseball writers will have a topic for a few days. Whether this leads to more transactions in a domino-like manner is something I have mulled over. My hypothesis settling on a string of moves failing to occur anytime soon.
The venerable Travis Sawchik gave us one reason why – Scott Boras – and for the purposes of this column, that link is all you need.
I choose to venture back in time; seven years ago to be precise.
Digging through the baseball blogosphere, it’s no surprise I venture into rabbit holes on occasion. Rarely do those rabbit holes lead to a time seven years ago, but sometimes I like to take my mind off rebuilds and juiced balls in remembrance of what this great game has evolved from.
Lots of Whiffs, but where are the Ks? was a short column published on Fangraphs back on January 4, 2011. It breaks down into a few points which I choose to summarize below. (Hopefully my interpretation suffices).
- Swing-and-miss factor is not only factor of a batter’s strikeout rate.
- A crop exists of players exists with “low” strikeout rates despite “high” swinging strike rates (against intuition).
- The majority of the time, these players are known as free swingers.
- The “freer” you are early in counts, the less likely you’ll fall into a detrimental count.
- Thus, a strange benefit to having this early, free-swinging approach is a lower strikeout rate.
*Hat tip to Eno Sarris*
For the most part, this navigation of thought can apply to any year in baseball. Relative to the mean, there will always exist players who produce, throwing caution to the wind in favor of aggressiveness. Although the offensive baseline for relevance appreciates as one walks less, these players can still find a role. Sarris’ words transcend time – or at least apply to the years between 2011 and 2018.
But as we all know, the game has changed drastically in those seven years. This applies most appropriately to one of the final paragraphs in Sarris’ column, where he considers players over a three-year sample with the following criteria.
- Chase rate > 34%
- Walk rate < 8%
- Swinging strike rate > 10%
Of all players eligible in this arbitrary bucket (I’m guessing 2008 to 2010), according to Sarris’ column, the highest strikeout rate was around 20%, by Orioles outfielder, Adam Jones. This emphasizes Sarris’ point. A player falling into those specific parameters is a free swinger, yet if the highest strikeout rate hovers barely over league average in 2010, the rest of the crop must fulfill the speculation as well.
I preformed Sarris’ technique on all players with 1,000 or more plate appearances from the 2008 to 2010 season, receiving slightly different results. Most notably, Miguel Olivo’s 28 percent strikeout rate. But that’s besides the point, my parameters were likely different from Sarris’, and that’s acceptable given how two minds can interpret a thought differently.
My value-add to Sarris’ column is applying the same criteria to a sample of players with 1,000 or more plate appearances from the 2015 to 2017 seasons. Restructuring the criteria slightly – walk rate now lower than 9%; swinging strike rate now above 11% – to better reflect the league average than 2010’s criteria would have, we can compare miniature eras.
If you’ve kept up with baseball’s macro trends in the past few years, you won’t be surprised by the results.
For one, the sheer number of players fitting the free-swinger criteria in 2008-2010 compared to 2015-2017 has more than doubled(10 players versus 23).
How players from 2008-2010 and 2015-2017 have changed is another consideration. The average strikeout rate among the 10 players from 2008-2010 was only 16 percent.
The average strikeout rate among the 23 between 2015-2017? 23 percent. This increase in this “free-swinger average strikeout rate” is nearly double the increase in the league strikeout rate between 2010 and 2017.
Are our assumptions and methods perfect? Absolutely not. For one, there are issues in setting arbitrary points to bucket players into, even if they sit around league-average numbers. And as Sarris mentions in his column, it’s often tough for a player to survive at the major league level with this profile, diminishing how representative our sample can be of this wider breed of hitter.
But I’m still intrigued. Particularly by the productivity surrounding this profile of hitter.
From 2008-2010, the weighted average wRC+ of these 10 free-swingers was 93.
From 2015-2017, the weighted average wRC+ of these 23 free-swingers was 101.
In eight years, if you once again reserve criticism for my sample size and arbitrary buckets, it seems as though these hitters are striking out more than their previous iteration and producing more value.
To some extent, this is a hitter profile in the spirit of the infamous “three true outcomes” (TTO) approach. These bats chase pitches, don’t walk, and still end up around league average in production.
If you subscribe to the juiced ball inflating offensive statistics, this approach intuitively makes sense. Ditch walks, let it fly early, and you’ll maximize the ball’s effect on your performance. But I’ll once again stress the small sample we’re working with, which is enforced by how rarely we see players go away from a league average approach that includes walks and discipline.
This free-swinger approach seems ingrained in some players; ones who are distinct enough to embrace it’s perplexing, volatile, and increasingly(?) productive methods.
As if all rationale wasn’t already lost, I’ll leave you with one more point between our 10 players from 2008-2010 and 23 players from 2015-2017.
Not only were these free-swingers in 2015-2017 more productive, they also diminished in their ability to make contact outside of the zone (66% from 2008-2010; 61% from 2015-2017). The players of the more recent generation were less effective at merely putting bat on ball, more strikeout prone, yet all the while, more productive.
It’s another feature of the recent baseball evolution we’ve seen. Once again, America’s pastime proves its uniqueness.
Here is the sample of players from 2015-2017 (sorted by highest K %).
And here is the sample of players from 2008-2010 (sorted by highest K%).
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons thanks to Keith Allison.
Statistics all from Fangraphs.com.